Speech pathologist

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Ricci, 27

What does a speech pathologist do?

If you don't know what speech pathologists do, you're not alone. Ricci was vague on the details in high school, but she'd always wanted to do health sciences. Speech pathology (also known as speech therapy) pipped occupational therapy and physiotherapy because of the studies involved. "That's how I made my decision: going through the [careers] book and picking professions that had the subjects I enjoyed."

Speech pathology looks at how people learn language and communication, working on speech, fluency (stuttering) and voice. A four-year degree covers language development, neurosciences, and anatomy and physiology of the head and neck. Fourth year involves clinical placements, working with adults and children. Ricci liked the balance between theory and practice: "The most I learnt was in fourth-year uni when I did my practical placements, but realistically, you needed all the theory behind that."

Where do speech pathologists typically work?

'Speechies' can end up in very varied fields - early intervention, hospitals, rehabilitation, schools, or private practice. Working with adults in hospitals is more medically based, looking at people who have had cancer or strokes, or are in rehab after injuries. With kids, it's more about the mechanics of speaking. You might work with severely disabled kids, say with cerebral palsy, or kids with articulation problems (like being unable to say 's'). Since people have many ways of communicating, you might use electronic communication devices, drawings, keyword signing, or speech with gesture - whatever works best.

Ricci likes working with adults in rehab since they're motivated to get back to their pre-accident state, and they'll tell you if there's anything they don't want to do. "With kids it's more working with parents and trying to motivate the kids to be interested in the therapy." But making it interesting enough to engage them can be rewarding in itself, and "working with kids is always fun," she laughs.

What's a typical working day?

There's no typical day, but there are regular tasks. Firstly, you talk to the client and assess their needs. Then you plan the therapy, sometimes with doctors, nurses, the family, or government services. And you might not be in clinical settings: Ricci just spent nine months in Kununurra, in the Kimberley in Western Australia, where she sometimes worked "with a kid under a tree with some toys."

What are some of the pros and cons of a job in speech pathology?

At Kununurra she was the only speech pathologist servicing that region, so she got to work with indigenous and remote communities doing home visits, outreach, schools and clinics. She says it was great experience: "The best thing about this job is it's so flexible and you can travel with it." Other advantages are the regular hours - usually 9am to 5pm or 8am to 4pm - and "just generally the intrinsic rewards of helping people." The down side can be huge caseloads and the frustration of inadequate funding.

What sort of skills and qualities do you need?

You also need people skills like listening, counselling, negotiating and educating. In the Kimberley, Ricci used Aboriginal health workers to help her learn indigenous beliefs about health care. With diverse communities, it pays to listen. Working with someone with swallowing problems, for example, "if we recommend people be fed with a tube in the stomach, that has huge social and cultural implications because people feel, 'they're not getting better if they're not eating'." She suggests a holistic approach, and flexibility. "Sometimes you have to throw out the window what you think you should be doing and look at what's the most important thing for the client."

What are some tips for breaking into the industry?

Ricci's stories make speech pathology sound like fun, but she recommends doing lots of work experience before committing to it. She feels she's a better clinician for having put herself in situations out of her comfort zone: "It's definitely satisfying. It's a really good profession because there's so much scope."

Find out more about this career path at myfuture.edu.au (new window) (Note: free registration is required to access the myfuture site).