You’ve got your master’s and the CCC-SLP in the bag, you’ve made some great connections in the community through your internships, and maybe your school is even pitching in to help you reach out to those contacts and place you in the perfect position. One thing’s for sure, the whole thing is thrilling and nerve-wracking at the same time. You’re trying to gauge whether the butterflies in your stomach hatched out of eager anticipation and excitement… or just nerves. But you don’t have time to worry about that now. So, you stifle their fluttering and gear up for the career you’ve worked so hard to achieve. You only fear what you don’t know, so you’ve decided that getting your head wrapped around every bit of information you can about what to expect is your best shot at keeping those butterflies in check.
The good news is we’re here to help.
There’s quite a bit you can glean from a job description, but it’s all stuff you already know: State licensure and certification requirements – check… Job duties related to the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of patients with speech, language, and swallowing disorders – yep, you’ve already got months of first-hand experience doing all this thanks to internships and clinical practice.
But if you’re looking for what the job is really like—the highs and lows, the trials and tribulations—chances are you won’t find it listed as one of the bullet points in your standard job description. If you really want to know what it’s like to work in the trenches as a speech-language pathologist, you need to talk openly and honestly with people that have been in the trenches.
We caught up with two experienced SLPs who earned their stripes in very different settings: one in public schools, and the other in hospitals. They share their thoughts and reflections on the profession and why their career can sometimes run the extremes, from heart warming to heart wrenching.
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1 – Patience is a Virtue, and Also Keeps You Sane: Managing Frustration Is Part of the Job
Of course, the job description is likely to include some combination of diagnosing patients and developing and carrying out individualized treatment plans, and it will give you some sense of the kind of patients you’re going to be working with. Maybe it’s early intervention services working with infants and toddlers, maybe it’s school-aged children with developmental delays, maybe it’s adult patients in inpatient or outpatient settings with brain injuries or physical disabilities. Maybe it’s all of the above.
But what a job description won’t reveal is that there are few cases where progress is fast—or even remotely fast. Speech-language therapy is often a long and arduous process, more a marathon than a sprint.
A lack of gains or, even worse, a backslide, is something you’re going to encounter. And it will be frustrating, for both you and the patient. You may find yourself working with a patient on one goal for days, weeks, even months, only to experience little progress. Or, you could work with a patient who may be putting forth very little effort.
In some instances, it’s a lack of family support that’s the biggest source of frustration.
Briana Ralph, CCC-SLP often performs in-home early intervention services, and says that her biggest source of frustration is not the children, but the parents who don’t support the process or do the day to day reinforcement that is so important for a successful outcome.
“If we come up with something to work on with behavior and their parents don’t do it at home, it’s not going to work, it’s not going to get better. When I go to a house for a follow-up visit and I ask how it’s been going and I ask, ‘Have you tried this?’ and it’s, ‘No we didn’t get to it, or no, I didn’t try this.’ Or I ask, ‘Did you use the picture cards?’ And they say they lost them or whatever, and here we go again.”
But while frustration is natural, dedicated SLPs never let it get in the way of helping their patients. Lindsey Spilecki, a speech-pathologist in the public school system, says that no matter the obstacles or the lack of progress, she just never gives up.
She says she often works closely with parents and teachers to come up with new ways to reach a child who isn’t making progress or responding well to therapy…
“We just sit and think of things that we can come up with that might motivate them at the time if there’s a lack of motivation …. We collaborate, and we never give up. There are endless ways, endless possibilities, so we just have to find the one that works.”
-Lindsey Spilecki, CCC-SLP
2 – The Paperwork Never Ends, So You Should Learn to Love it… Or At Least Stomach It
It’s certainly not the most glamorous part of the job, but it’s nonetheless important. Paperwork can put a serious dent in your day, taking up time that you could be spending working face to face with patients. Whatever it is – Medicaid billing, progress reports, or therapy plans – paperwork is something you’re going to need to get used to doing.
As Lindsey puts it, “There’s a lot of demands on us in terms of paperwork, and nobody will ever tell you how much paperwork you’ll be doing in a lifetime when you’re in school, but you do a lot of paperwork and there never seems to be enough time to, I feel, properly…get everything done.”
But for speech-language pathologists like Lindsey, the aggravation of paperwork overload is worth it for the opportunity to make an impact on the lives of the kids she works with.
3 – Creativity and Flexibility Aren’t Recommended… They’re Required
You have the grad degree in your back pocket, along with the clinical training from your fellowship, so you may think that you’ve got it in the bag when it comes to being prepared. But let’s be honest: there’s nothing like baptism by fire – in this case, your first job – to understand that you’ll need skills that you simply can’t learn from school alone.
Sooner or later you will discover that you need to add creativity and flexibility to your foundation of knowledge.
While you won’t find a job description that says, ‘Must be able to pull a rabbit out of your hat,’ you can be sure you’ll need to make it happen on a regular basis. Did Plan A not work? Then what’s your Plan B, C, or even D? You’ll need to gather every ounce of creativity you’ve got to create a plan, a backup plan, and even another backup plan. You’ll also need the flexibility to switch up your game plan at a moment’s notice until you’ve found a method or approach that your patient responds to.
Briana knows all about being creative and flexible, particularly when she’s providing in-home care to her youngest patients. She says she can only bring so many toys and items with her when she travels, so she must be prepared to use these items for a variety of children, all with different levels of development and with different needs. And if the toddler she’s working with decides he isn’t interested in her game? She knows she better have another one ready to go, or she could lose him and the entire session could be blown.
Plus, you’ve got to keep in mind that what worked for one child may not work for another, and what worked for one child yesterday, may not work for him today. As a speech-language pathologist, you’ll need to make sure your creative juices are flowing each and every day.
Lindsey says creativity is key in this field, particularly for her job because she has a caseload of 55 students, all with different abilities and different needs. “You have to be able to go, ‘Okay this one has this goal and this one has this goal, so let’s see if I can do one thing that can target everybody.’ You find yourself after you’ve done it for so many years, just going, ‘Oh! I can use this for this!’”
4 – It’s Next to Impossible Not to Become Emotionally Vested in Some of Your Clients
Emotions can run high in speech-language pathology – we’re talking for clients, parents, and on occasion, even for you. If you don’t think this profession will impact you, think again. You will find yourself experiencing the lowest of lows and the highest of highs with your patients. You’ll celebrate their successes, comfort them when they struggle, and every once in a while you might even tear up a little yourself when you get back to the car at the end of a particularly frustrating session that left you feeling like your patient has lost faith in the process and in themselves.
If you’re this emotionally vested in your patients and their success, then you’re probably the kind of person that’s really cut out for this work. That’s the very quality that makes for a dedicated practitioner. You want the best for your patients, many of whom you’ll work with for a long period of time. It’s only natural that you’ll ride the highs and lows with them to some extent.
The key is to be stronger than the emotions you’re feeling. That’s the only way to keep yourself and your patients motivated and pressing onward toward the goal. The only answer to frustrating setbacks is to redouble your effort and explore new approaches. When progress plateaus, sometimes you have to dig deep to create the momentum it takes to carry your patients through it and come out on the other side.
When we asked Lindsey what she would say to someone who thinks they may want to go into this profession she said, “You have to honestly, genuinely care about other people. That’s a given.”