If you have excellent communication and listening skills and enjoy helping others, consider training to become a speech and language therapist

As a speech and language therapist (SLT), you'll treat babies, children and adults who have various levels of speech, language and communication problems, or difficulties in swallowing, drinking or eating.

You could deal with a diverse client group, including people with physical and learning disabilities, hearing loss/deafness, psychiatric disorders or dementia, and could treat a range of conditions, including cleft palate, stammering, language delay and voice disorders.

You'll usually work as part of a multidisciplinary team alongside other health professionals, and will often liaise with family, carers or teachers when developing treatment plans.

Responsibilities

Your tasks will vary depending on your client and the nature of the problem. However, you'll typically need to:

  • identify the speech and communication difficulty or disorder;
  • assess the cause and nature of the problem, for example, congenital problems (such as cleft palate) or acquired disorders after a stroke or injury;
  • devise and deliver a suitable treatment programme, working on a one-to-one basis or in groups, to enable each of your clients to improve as much as possible;
  • review and revise the programme as appropriate;
  • advise carers on implementing a treatment programme and train other professionals in therapy delivery;
  • monitor and evaluate your clients' progress;
  • write confidential client case notes and reports, as well as information for clients, carers and other professionals;
  • manage a caseload while taking into account priority cases, waiting lists, successful outcomes, referral and discharge of service users;
  • work within a team to improve the effectiveness of service delivery.

At a more senior level, you'll need to:

  • conduct personal development reviews with colleagues;
  • support newly qualified SLTs and speech and language therapy assistants;
  • plan and deliver training sessions;
  • undertake clinical audit;
  • participate in research projects.

Salary

  • Jobs in the NHS are usually covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates consisting of nine pay bands. As a newly qualified SLT your starting salary is likely to be £21,909 (Band 5), rising up the pay scale to £28,462.
  • As a specialist SLT you can earn between £25,783 and £34,530 (Band 6).
  • Typical salaries for advanced or highly specialised SLTs range from £30,764 to £40,558 (Band 7).

Salaries from other employers, such as charities and local education authorities, may differ.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

If you're working for the NHS, you will typically work a 37.5 hour week. In other settings you may need to work some evenings or weekends to suit client needs.

There are opportunities for flexible or part-time work and job-sharing is available.

What to expect

  • Jobs are available throughout the UK, although there are more opportunities in urban areas.
  • You can work in a range of settings, for example hospitals, health centres, day-care centres, rehabilitation units, schools or pre-schools, a client's home, prisons or young offenders' institutions. It's possible to work in several different locations during the week.
  • Depending on where you work, you may need to travel between client visits.
  • With experience, you can take on freelance work or become self-employed.
  • Competition for entry-level posts is fierce and it's important to be geographically flexible if possible.

Qualifications

To practise as a speech and language therapist (SLT) you must be registered with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). In order to register you must complete an HCPC-approved undergraduate or postgraduate degree in speech and language therapy.

Undergraduate degree courses typically last three or four years full time and cover both theory and clinical practice. Clinical practice takes place in hospitals, schools, clinics and day centres under the supervision of qualified therapists.

For most undergraduate courses you'll need three A-levels or five Scottish Highers. Some providers will also want specific GCSE and A-levels such as English and biology. Check with course providers for details. Applications for undergraduate degrees are made through UCAS.

If you've got a degree in a relevant subject such as psychology, social sciences, linguistics or a medical science you can take an accelerated two-year postgraduate course in order to qualify. Applications for postgraduate study are made directly to the relevant institution. For a list of undergraduate and postgraduate courses see the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT).

Search for postgraduate courses in speech and language therapy.

Once you've successfully completed an approved undergraduate or postgraduate qualification, you're eligible to register with the HCPC and begin practising.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • excellent communication and listening skills - to relate to people of all ages and backgrounds and to motivate clients and gain trust. Clients may be uncooperative because they're frightened, frustrated or disorientated by their situation;
  • patience - progress may be slow, involving repetitive exercises to aid clients who have problems memorising, processing and retaining information;
  • creativity and problem-solving skills - to design programmes appropriate to different learning styles and communication issues;
  • the ability to work in a team - for interacting with other professionals;
  • organisational skills and flexibility - to deal with a range of clients in varied settings;
  • the ability to be at ease in a clinical environment;
  • qualities such as empathy, assertiveness, tact, a sense of humour and physical and mental stamina.

You'll also need a driving licence, particularly if you're working as a community speech and language therapist, to travel between appointments.

Knowledge of Welsh, Gaelic or community languages may be a requirement or an advantage in some parts of the UK.

Work experience

Competition for places on training programmes is strong and you'll need to show that you have an understanding of the work of a speech and language therapist. Before applying, try and arrange an observation session at your local speech and language therapy service.

Relevant work experience, including voluntary work, is also useful. This can include working with children and adults with a learning disability, the elderly or disabled people, particularly those recovering from a stroke or head injury. Try contacting local nursing homes, schools or stroke groups to ask for work experience.

It's also possible to gain experience by working as an SLT assistant/support worker or bilingual co-worker under the guidance of a qualified SLT.

Employers

The majority of SLTs are employed by NHS trusts and work in hospitals, schools, clinics, health centres and day-care centres. Some mainstream work may be managed by local authorities.

You may also be employed directly by:

  • schools (mainstream and special);
  • voluntary and charitable organisations;
  • GP practices and community clinics;
  • education and social services departments;
  • prisons and young offenders' institutions;
  • residential homes for the elderly or people with learning difficulties;
  • higher education institutions (lecturing and research).

With experience, you can move into self-employment and set up in private practice.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies such as Labmed also handle vacancies.

Professional development

Once qualified, your first year is spent under supervision as a newly qualified practitioner (NQP) in order to become a full member of the RCSLT.

You'll be responsible for your own professional development and must show that you're developing and keeping your professional knowledge up to date in order to remain on the HCPC register.

The RCSLT provides a range of courses and seminars in areas such as:

  • children with severe language difficulties;
  • adult neurology;
  • dysphagia (problems with swallowing);
  • clinical effectiveness.

Other continuing professional development (CPD) activities include observation of other therapists' practice, reflective practice, peer review of performance, case discussion and video analysis. You can also join a clinical specialist interest group and attend or take part in national conferences and clinical meetings. Full details of the range of activities and resources are available to members on the RCSLT website.

There are also opportunities to undertake a higher degree, such as a postgraduate certificate, diploma or Masters, or a PhD by research.

Career prospects

First posts are often within the NHS and involve working from one of several locations, such as health centres, hospital clinics or special schools. In your first year of practice you'll have a general caseload and will normally work with both adults and children.

Many qualified SLTs choose to specialise in a particular client group or disorder, although it's possible to move between client groups.

Senior therapist positions exist in clinical specialisms, management, and research and teaching. A typical career path will often involve increased management responsibilities. This can also include responsibility for students on placement and for junior staff.

Self-employment is another option and support to therapists working in independent practice is provided by the Association of Speech and Language Therapists in Independent Practice (ASLTIP).