Guide to College Majors in Communication Disorders

I wish people who have trouble communicating would just shut up.
--Tom Lehrer

What Is Communication Disorders Studies?

A degree in communication disorders can lead to a satisfying and rewarding career in health care, medicine, research, or education. Communication science and disorder degree programs prepare students to diagnose and treat a variety of hearing and speech disorders in children, the elderly, or patients who have suffered speech or hearing trauma. Students can anticipate careers as:

  • Speech pathologists
  • Audiologists
  • Special education teachers
  • Private school administrators
  • Counselors
  • Consultants
  • Speech and hearing therapists

Communication disorder degree programs focus on the basics of understanding speech, language, and hearing processes, as well as preparing the student to diagnose specific communication disorders. Students can move on to a graduate program to become a speech pathologist or audiologist, or they can use their communication disorder training right out of college to work for a public or private school as a special education teacher or speech therapist.

With nearly 10 percent of the world's population showing signs of communication disorders, the need for people trained in the field is great. It's highly competitive, however, particularly at the graduate level. Therefore, students should have the proper level of ambition and dedication to the work.

Communication disorders come in all forms and affect all age groups. Some infants are born with them, while other disorders are not evident until the child becomes a toddler. These disorders can stem from physical or psychological trauma, birth defects, or chemical imbalances in the brain.

The elderly are also severely affected by communication disorders. Many patients recovering from strokes lose the abilities to understand language or to communicate verbally. These impairments can be purely physical, but many stem from brain damage caused by lack of oxygen to the brain. Many Alzheimer's patients also experience communication disorders.

Accident victims are commonly affected by communication disorders as well. Hearing loss is often evident in workers who are in close proximity to explosions or loud machinery. Trauma can also cause psychological damage that paralyzes one's ability to communicate effectively.

With such a wide range of people afflicted by communication disorders, professionals in this field enjoy a tremendous opportunity to specialize. Some speech pathologists and audiologists focus on diagnosing or treating infants born with communication disorders, while others concentrate on preventing the degradation of elderly patients' abilities to communicate.

Different types of communication disorders include:

  • Articulation disorders
  • Phonological disorders
  • Language disorders
  • Fluency disorders
  • Vocal disorders
  • Aphasia
  • Delayed language
  • Dysarthria
  • Autism-related disorders
  • Aphonia
  • Acquired deafness
  • Acoustic neuroma

Many people who decide to study communication disorders have either been affected by a disorder themselves, or have witnessed the effects of a communication disorder on a loved on. Professionals in this field use their personal experiences to fuel high degrees of dedication to their discipline.

Is a Degree in Communication Disorders Right for You?

It takes a special kind of person to work with patients who suffer from communication disorders. Many of these professionals later go on to become successful speech pathologists or audiologists. During their work with communication disorders, these specialists develop skills that build the foundation for successful medical careers, including:

  • Extreme patience
  • Compassion
  • Integrity
  • Sensitivity to the patient's condition
  • Acceptance of all types of people
  • Motivational skills
  • Quick response time
  • Excellent listening skills
  • Ability to cooperate
  • Interpretation ability
  • Seeing to the patient's families needs
  • The ability to sensitively talk about the patient
  • Excellent vocal and language skills
  • Research abilities
  • Attention to detail

If you are interested in making a difference in the lives of those with communication disorders, you might want to consider a career in speech pathology, audiology, deaf studies, or speech therapy. A degree in communication disorders is the first step toward a satisfying career in any of these fields. With a variety of settings available in which to implement your skills, you will surely find a place where you feel comfortable working.

With the increasing availability of online degree programs in communication disorders, the field is now open to a much wider segment of the population. These online degree programs and e-learning workshops make it possible to get a quality college education from the comfort of one's own home, without having to sacrifice family or career. These online programs should be a serious consideration for students who wish to further their education, but simply do not have the time for a traditional college education.

Preparing to Enter a Communication Disorders College Degree Program

Many students preparing to enter a specialized field such as communication disorders often wonder exactly what they can do to prepare for their undergraduate education. Having some basic skills before you begin your studies can make the application process, as well as the educational process, easier.

Many organizations that work with people affected by communication disorders search for compassionate volunteers to aid them in their work. Volunteering can provide a student with valuable experience while enhancing a college application.

Experience with alternative forms of communication, such as American Sign Language (ASL), can also help a student gain valuable perspective on how to help patients with communication disorders. Even learning a new language such as French, German, or Italian can reacquaint a student with the difficulties of learning or re-learning how to speak.

College admissions officers recommend that incoming students focus their high school studies on anatomy, biology, and psychology. Students who wish to prepare for their undergraduate degree or to reacquaint themselves with the field can take advantage of numerous preliminary certificate courses.

Career Education in Communication Disorders

The study of communication disorders can be an entryway into a career as a speech pathologist or audiologist, or it can simply supplement a related course of study. Many colleges, including accredited online universities, offer communication science and disorders as a major and a minor, with degrees ranging from supplemental certificate programs to the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees.

Choosing a degree program depends entirely on your level of interest in the profession. If you are just thinking about switching careers, a certificate program could test your aptitude. If you are sure you want to work within the field, but are unsure of your future specialty, a Bachelor of Science might be the right choice. If you are sure of your path, you may choose to go straight from college into a master's and possibly a doctorate program. Because audiologists and speech pathologists must have a master's degree to earn certification, the competition for acceptance to graduate programs is very intense.

Certificate Programs

If you haven't decided to commit completely to audiology or speech pathology, you might want to consider enrolling in a part-time certificate course or simply taking a few introductory classes through an online college or university. Typical courses include:

  • Introduction to Audiology
  • Introduction to Speech and Language Disorders
  • Introduction to Speech Science
  • Anatomy and Physiology of the Ear

These kinds of classes can help you decide if a career in speech pathology or audiology is the correct choice for you.

Bachelor of Science Education Degree in Communication Disorders

As the entry-level degree for students wishing to pursue a career in speech pathology, audiology, or communication science, the B.S.Ed degree in communication disorders is geared toward students who already have a good understanding of general science. This training can prepare you for study in a variety of graduate programs, not just communication disorders programs.

Prior to acceptance into a B.S.Ed in communication disorders program, applicants will usually face an initial interview and screening to test their ability to hear, speak, and otherwise communicate effectively. Note that having a hearing or speech impairment or similar communication disorder does not bar specific individuals from study in the profession, but the review committee may require the applicant to adhere to whatever recommendations they make regarding the disorder.

A typical curriculum for this program usually covers the diagnosis, symptoms, treatment, and prevention of communication disorders that affect hearing, speech, and language. There are also usually a small number of general education requirements, like humanities, math, social sciences, and general science courses unrelated to the discipline of communication disorders. Some undergraduate programs do not allow students to apply for the major until their junior year, after they have completed all the necessary general education requirements and maintained an acceptable grade point average.

Students who intend to pursue graduate study in any field related to communication disorders should plan on maintaining a grade point average of at least 3.2 to have a decent chance of being accepted into a graduate program. Additionally, students should take the GREs early on, in order to retake their test if their initial scores come back too low.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Communication Disorders?

Communication disorders professionals are eligible for a wide variety of careers in the treatment, diagnosis, and research fields. These careers can take individuals to research labs, schools, hospitals, rehabilitation clinics, nursing homes, or private practices anywhere in the world.

The career outlook for this occupation is steadily improving as the U.S. population continues to grow and to live longer. In addition, parents and teachers are beginning to recognize that many more of their students than previously thought are affected by communication disorders.

Careers in Speech Pathology and Audiology

Here are some common career choices in the field of communication disorders:

  • Speech-Language Pathologist: These professionals do everything from diagnosing communication disorders to creating effective treatment plans. They also act as advisors for the teachers and families of the patients, to help them adjust to the presence of the communication disorder. These pathologists also engage in research projects to develop new ways of recognizing or treating disorders.
  • Audiologists: An audiologist works with people who have hearing difficulties, often selecting and fitting them with hearing aids. He also tries to find ways to help those with hearing impairments rehabilitate, as well as recommending ways to prevent further hearing loss.
  • Speech-Language Educator: Working as teachers at all levels, speech-language educators seek to promote understanding about communication disorders. They teach how to recognize, diagnose, and treat specific disorders, as well as rehabilitation and research techniques.
  • Clinical Supervisor: These professionals act as the organizers and managers of various types of clinics to keep them running effectively. They are in charge of hiring competent pathologists, as well as making sure each patient is getting the attention she needs.
  • Special Education Instructor: Working at a public or private school, these educators see to the needs of those with communications disorders, helping them learn how to communicate to their other teachers and peers. These instructors are often the only way students with communication disorders can communicate or learn in a traditional school environment.
  • Private Practitioner: Working out of their own offices or homes, these professionals act as therapists, consultants, or clinicians to a small community of individuals. These practitioners often treat the members of their communities throughout their entire lives, from birth until adulthood.
  • Speech Therapist: These therapists aid those with speech disorders in gaining the coordination or strengthening the muscles needed to properly pronounce sounds and words. Speech therapists use a variety of speech exercises to get rid of a stutter or a lisp, for example.
  • Children's Hearing Specialist: The communication disorder equivalent of a pediatrician, these specialists focus on the disorders most commonly found in children. They also provide advice on the prevention of communication disorders.

Certification and Licensure

The benefits of certification in communication disorders are numerous. Certification is the public's guarantee that the individual treating them has been adequately reviewed by a national professional organization: the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

Moreover, most employers will not hire speech pathologists or audiologists who are not certified. This is why most graduate-level programs in the field include certification with the degree. Certification also decreases liability and accountability risks, which makes obtaining state licensure much easier.

To become certified by ASHA, applicants must pass a national exam after completing the criteria for their graduate degree. Moreover, they must have completed at least 350 hours of supervised clinical experience. The ASHA certification exam consists of oral and written sections that cover the principles of research, ethical standards, and current regulations governing the field of audiology. Students must also successfully complete a clinical fellowship under a certified mentor.

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