When many people think of research, they think of an extraordinarily long, time-consuming, and drawn-out process that requires extensive education and training but produces very specific and limited results to a question that they’ve asked. Although this is a very loose, yet accurate, description of research, my education and training at various institutions have allowed me to draw an interesting conclusion:
Embarking on the path to becoming a speech-language pathologist with an advanced degree means, in part, becoming an ardent and proactive researcher.
For many, specifically those interested in becoming clinicians, this may come as something of a shock—allow me to explain . . .
My Path to Speech-Language Pathology
My interest in pursuing speech-language pathology began about 15 years ago when my mother (Yolanda Holt, PhD, CCC-SLP) had just begun her PhD program at The Ohio State University (OSU). I’d never known what a speech-language pathologist (SLP) was; I didn’t even know what kind of research they did. However, while visiting OSU one day, I had the opportunity to participate in a study that they were running, and I had the best time! Getting to talk with the faculty and being able to look at what they were doing—even though I had no idea what they were actually doing—made me feel like something here, in this program or in this field, was right for me.
After moving to North Carolina, and once my mom finished her PhD, I began to wonder what path I might want to pursue in my college career. A few years later, as I was about to graduate high school, I had absolutely zero idea what I wanted to study. I had many interests: I didn’t know if I wanted to study music, international business, pre-law, or physics, but I knew two things:
- I refused to take another chemistry class.
- I only wanted to take statistics courses. In retrospect, this was a sure sign that research might be the path for me!
I got accepted into North Carolina A&T as a mathematics major, but as I was looking through the course curriculum guide, I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it. So, I began searching for what I really wanted to study. By chance alone, I discovered that the university had a speech-language pathology program—one with a strong research component—and my journey began.
I received my bachelor’s degree in Speech with a concentration in Speech-Language Pathology in 2020—including two internships in Arkansas and California; and four conference presentations with organizations such as the National Black Association of Speech-Language and Hearing (NBASLH), the American Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), ASHA, and the LSA (Linguistic Society of America) . . . all during a global pandemic. These events subsequentially led me to my current path, pursuing both the MA-SLP and PhD in Speech and Hearing Science at my mother’s alma mater, The Ohio State University.
As you may be considering which path to take in audiology or speech-language pathology, I’d like to share some tips I’ve learned along the way . . .
Tip #1: It’s OK to Not Know the Exact Career You Want
For many, including myself, the high school years went by in a flash! Life seemed like a well-oiled machine and flowed smoothly. Until then, I had consistent friends, classmates, teachers, and extracurricular activities. And then, just like that, I was just supposed to know exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life!
As a sophomore at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), I had the opportunity to work at an internship sponsored by the Center for Diversity Affairs. It was designed for undergraduate students from “historically underrepresented backgrounds” to come to a medical research campus and conduct research with a faculty mentor with the understanding that the intern was interested in pursuing a PhD. The internship had the highest number of African American PhDs I’d ever seen outside my historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) campus.
One of my mentors during the internship was Antiño R. Allen, PhD. When deciding which career path to take after my bachelor’s degree, we had a conversation about the different paths that I could take to a PhD. I chose to attend a combined MA-SLP/PhD program because of this conversation.
Originally, I was under the impression that the only option for a CSD student to get their PhD was a “traditional” route: BA/BS to MA/MS/MEd to PhD. But after speaking with Dr. Allen, he suggested that I go directly for my PhD and that there may be programs where I could do this straight from a bachelor’s-level education.
And that’s exactly what I did. I began my investigation into dual-degree granting programs, PhD programs from a bachelor’s, and the requirements necessary to get accepted. I hadn’t always known exactly what I wanted out of a career, but my experiences led me down a path to where I am today.
Tip #2: Apply for At Least One Internship
Even though you may not wish to pursue a career in research or academia, I highly encourage you to participate in a formal research internship program outside of your university. These programs are designed to challenge your thinking about the CSD discipline in ways you may have never thought about before.
Research internships allow you to really dig deep and discover what about speech-language pathology really interests you—and how important we really are in the aspects of assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of communication disorders. These programs may also afford you opportunities to travel to conferences and to network with people who may be interested in you as a student, clinical practitioner, or professional.
In my case, internships helped me realize how I could get into a PhD program with just a bachelor’s degree. Not only did I realize it—I did it! Ultimately, I chose a MA-SLP/PhD program because of what I learned during my internship opportunity at UAMS.
Tip #3: Always Research Your Program(s) of Interest
Although not always obvious, some graduate programs will allow students (with just a bachelor’s degree) who have comparable experiences (e.g., internships, independent research ventures) and a proven and dedicated commitment to furthering their education to enter their PhD program. When thinking about applying to a PhD program straight from your undergraduate program, it’s imperative that you think carefully about what you really want to do with your education and who can give you the best research training for questions you are interested in pursuing.
If you apply to a PhD program without first speaking to any faculty member whose research you are following, you’re not only wasting your time and the Admissions Committees’ time, but you’re also leaving a very negative first impression with the researchers you say you respect.
It’s also important to discuss your desire to pursue simultaneous clinical certification with your prospective advisor(s), as some PhD programs have limited or no formal course curriculum guide.
Forge Your Path
The journey to discovering my career path required me to take a look into myself and question if a PhD program was something I really wanted to do . . . as well as if it would give me personal fulfillment and professional development. It’s important to ask yourself what you really want out of your career and your life before pursuing your dreams, whether in audiology, speech-language pathology, linguistics, pharmaceutical sciences, or another discipline.
Even after I chose the speech-language pathology major, the CSD discipline is enormous and ever-expanding with lots of directions to go in. My story is only one example of the intersection between circumstances and chance. You get to decide what you want to do with your degree(s) and choose your own path in this profession—our career possibilities are plentiful. I hope my story and these tips help make your grad school process a little easier and show that it’s absolutely okay not to know what you want to do in life. Forge your own path—only you can truly know what you want.