Speech Language Pathology

Is a Master’s Degree in Speech and Language Pathology Worth It?

Is a Master’s Degree in Speech and Language Pathology Worth It?
Speech-language pathologists (SLPs, often called speech therapists) must have a master's degree for clinical work. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry November 25, 2019

If you're going to become a speech-language pathologist, you're going to need a master's degree, so why not choose the most focused one? Getting a Master of Science in Speech and Language Pathology can help you find work in schools, private practices, and hospitals.

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A career in speech and language pathology requires a master’s degree. There’s no getting around that. But which degree to pursue? While other masters degrees can technically qualify you for a career as a speech-language pathologist (SLP, more commonly known as a speech therapist), by far, the most common degree in this field is the Master of Science in Speech and Language Pathology.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) currently accredits 262 accredited masters-level programs in speech and language pathology in the United States, conferring approximately 4,000 masters degrees in the field each year. That may not be enough to fill the need in this booming profession (jobs should grow by 27 percent rate between 2018 and 2028, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). If this field intrigues you, you’re in luck. Now is a great time to become an SLP.

In this guide to whether a Master of Science in Speech and Language Pathology is worth it, we’ll answer questions like:

  • Who gets a master’s degree in speech and language pathology?
  • What do students study in a Master of Science in Speech and Language Pathology program?
  • How long does it take to earn a Master of Science in Speech and Language Pathology?
  • What kinds of speech-language pathology careers are there?
  • Is this degree all you need to become a speech-language pathologist?
  • Is a master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology worth it?

Who gets a master’s degree in speech and language pathology?

The Master of Science in Speech and Language Pathology is tailor-made for future SLPs. If you want a career helping people speak clearly, this degree is designed for you. It is not, technically speaking, a mandatory degree for SLPs. It is possible to enter this practice with an MS in Communicative Sciences and Disorders (with a concentration in specialization in speech-language pathology), or with another related degree instead. That said, most practicing SLPs earn the MS in speech and language pathology; it is the most traditional pathway to this career.

That’s not all that you can do with a Master of Science in Speech and Language Pathology, however. There are many specialties in speech-language pathology, and whatever your professional aspirations, you’ll find master’s in speech and language pathology programs that can help you achieve your goals. Areas of specialization this degree qualifies you for include:

  • Child Language and Language Disorders: These SLPs work primarily with people who have language difficulties typically found in children.
  • Phonological Disorders: These SLPs work with patients whose issues with speech and language stem from the brain.
  • Articulation Disorders: These SLPs address speech issues associated with structural issues in the body (motor disorders).
  • Fluency Disorders: These specialists work primarily with adult and pediatric patients who stutter.
  • Swallowing Disorders: These SLPs help people (e.g., preemies who’ve reached toddlerhood without being able to eat by mouth) learn to swallow correctly or regain their ability to swallow after a stroke or brain injury.
  • Voice/Resonance Disorders: These specialists work with patients who, because of injury, disease, or surgical complications, need to relearn how to speak.
  • Aural Rehabilitation: These specialists partner with audiologists to help people who have lost part or all of their hearing learn or relearn speech.
  • Feeding Issues: In the NICU, you’ll find these SLPs helping preemies overcome breastfeeding or bottle feeding issues.
  • Augmentative and Alternative Communication: These SLPs help people find and learn to use adaptive communication methods (often technological).

Becoming a speech-language pathologist is also a way to work with people with disabilities and conditions like:

  • Autism
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Dementia
  • Down syndrome
  • Head and neck cancers
  • Traumatic brain injuries

The Master of Science in Speech and Language Pathology is one of the few non-medical degrees that will qualify you to work with these populations.

Not everyone who pursues this master’s dreams of becoming a speech therapist. Some SLPs go into research in the following areas:

  • Aural rehabilitation methods
  • Autism and language development
  • Bilingualism
  • Developmental disorders
  • Hearing science
  • Language and literacy
  • Language processing
  • Neurogenetics
  • Neurophysiology
  • Speech perception
  • Speech science

You may want to become a speech-language pathologist to work directly with clients. Or, your goal may be to help people indirectly by contributing to the body of knowledge related to this field. Either way, getting a Master of Science in Speech and Language Pathology will qualify you to perform valuable work.

What do students study in a Master of Science in Speech and Language Pathology program?

There are more than 260 master’s degree programs for SLPs accredited by the Council On Academic Accreditation. If you study to become an SLP, you’ll dive deep into topics like:

  • Anatomy and speech
  • Audiology
  • Biology
  • Communication disorders
  • Craniofacial abnormalities
  • Dysphagia
  • Language development
  • Language disorders in children
  • Neurology
  • Phonological disabilities
  • Phonology
  • Principles of intervention
  • Psychology
  • Voice science

You’ll also have the opportunity to complete clinical observation hours, sometimes called an externship. In this setting, you will have your first opportunities to apply your newly acquired expertise in speech and language. You’ll spend 350 to 400 hours in settings like schools, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and other clinical facilities under the supervision of professionals. Throughout your externship, you’ll gain hands-on experience related to diagnosing and treating speech disorders and advocating for individuals and groups with communication issues.

How long does it take to earn a Master of Science in Speech and Language Pathology?

Some people decide whether to pursue a master’s degree based on how long it will take to earn that degree. Aspiring SLPs don’t have that luxury—they literally can’t work without a master’s degree.

That doesn’t mean you won’t have options. Most speech-language pathology master’s degree programs last two to three years, but there are accelerated degree programs (like those at the University of Kansas and University of Rhode Island) that let students earn both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in five years instead of six.

If you were hoping to find a standalone one-year Master of Science in Speech and Language Pathology degree, you’re out of luck: two years for a master’s degree or five for a dual degree is as fast as it gets. The clinical/externship element of this master’s requires at least that amount of time.

On the other hand, if you can’t devote two or more years to full-time study because of work or finances, you can still earn this master’s degree in part-time online and on-campus programs. These can be completed in anywhere from three to seven years.

What kinds of speech-language pathology careers are there?

SLPs work in all kinds of settings, and where they work primarily determines what types of careers they have:

  • A speech-language pathologist employed by a school might work with kids with special needs, children on the autism spectrum, or kids who simply have difficulty communicating clearly or in socially acceptable ways.
  • Speech-language pathologists in hospitals can specialize in working with infants, children, adults, or the elderly. They may also work with patients who have sustained catastrophic injuries or are being treated for cancers of the head or throat.
  • An SLP working in a residential care facility may work with stroke and dementia patients or inpatients who need intense rehabilitation before they can live independently.
  • Some speech therapists work in social services agencies, treating less-fortunate community members or children who have been abused or neglected.
  • There are also speech-language pathologists who work alongside occupational therapists to help patients learn or relearn the skills necessary to thrive in day-to-day life (some of which are related to speech and communication).

Is this degree all you need to become a speech-language pathologist?

No, you won’t be able to start working as a speech therapist immediately upon graduating with your master’s degree. At that point, you’ll only qualify for a temporary license through your state’s board of speech-language pathology and audiology. This license will probably be valid for a year, which is about how long it will take you to complete your post-graduate clinical practicum requirements (typically a period of hands-on training under the guidance and supervision of a licensed speech therapist in one or more clinical settings). How long your clinical fellowship lasts will depend on the state where you’re employed, but most states require fellowships to last at least 36 weeks.

In some cases, meeting your state-mandated clinical requirements will also fulfill the requirements necessary to earn the Certificate of Clinical Competence (CCC-SLP) credential through the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

At some point during your clinical fellowship, you will take the Educational Testing Service‘s (ETS) Praxis II: Subject Assessment in Speech-Language Pathology exam. Passing this exam is necessary to earn state licensure; the passing score varies from state to state. Some states also require license applicants to pass a state jurisprudence examination, submit to a criminal background check, and complete a course on HIV/AIDS.

Once you have your license, you’ll be qualified to work as an independent SLP in settings like:

  • Healthcare facilities
  • Hospitals and doctors’ offices, schools
  • Pediatric practices
  • Home health agencies
  • Residential care facilities

You’ll treat everyone from premature babies to grade school students to people recovering from severe brain injuries.

Many SLPs also pursue specialty-specific certifications offered by organizations like the American Audiology Board of Intraoperative Monitoring, the American Board of Child Language and Language Disorders, the American Board of Fluency and Fluency Disorders, and the American Board of Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders. Every year or two, you’ll also have to complete a number of continuing education hours in order to renew your SLP license.

Is a master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology worth it?

If your goal is to become a speech-language pathologist, then the answer is an unqualified ‘yes.’

It should be noted that becoming an SLP is a great idea. Jobs for speech-language pathologists are expected to grow a lot faster than average for the entire job market, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even now, many SLPs are hired before graduating from master’s programs after turning away multiple job offers. The unemployment rate for speech-language pathologists is a tiny .8 percent. And the average SLP salary is $81,236. That’s not too shabby.

Speech-language pathologist Robert Melchionna told the Speech@Emerson blog that there “has been a steady increase in demand for speech-language professionals and that’s a great thing. Baby boomers are getting older and autism rates are higher, and I think we’re just going to see increased growth overall.”

It’s safe to conclude that this degree is a solid investment. It will give you the skills and knowledge to build a career you love in a growing field. According to one ASHA survey of SLPs and audiologists, 92 percent of respondents “were satisfied or very satisfied with their career choice”—in part because the work is engaging, exciting, and challenging. The barriers for entry to the field may be high, but that’s probably why this is such a competitive degree and why SLPs are in such high demand.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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