You worked tirelessly to navigate the miserably long (and expensive!) application process and were accepted into SLP grad school. As you turn yourself towards the challenge of actually starting graduate school, you might be feeling overwhelmed and under prepared. It might be an early onset of impostor phenomena. If you´re an out-of-fielder, like me, you might be even more nervous. In this post, I’ve got some tips for SLP school success, from someone who has been there and made it through!
To help myself deal with the worries of becoming a graduate student, I sat down with Joel Fairchild. He had just graduated days before from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with his masters in Speech Language Pathology. We talked about his experiences and how they might help incoming SLP grad students.
I did my best to organize this post by topics that you might be worried about while still reflecting the actual flow of our conversation. Most things are Joel´s exact words (with a few switcharoo´s for flow). Don´t forget, these are things based on Joel´s personal experience and yours may be totally different. As in all things, take it with a grain of salt.
A Bit of Background on Why Joel Became an SLP
At the beginning of our conversation, Joel told me that he earned his undergraduate degree in Spanish from Earlham College. After graduation, he want to teach abroad. Over the years, he kept running into people who had received speech therapy or needed it. With each interaction, he learned a little bit more about the field and the wide range of functions filled by an SLP. Overall he says he liked the idea of combining hard science with language, but he wash´t quite ready to move back to the U.S. When ASHA approved telepractice, Joel says he was ready to make the leap knowing he could go back to living abroad after graduation.
Joel completed his prerequisite coursework online through Utah State University´s second degree program (the same one I used!) shortly there after and then applied to grad school. He says he only applied in one cycle (lucky duck!) and accepted an offer from UNC-Chapel Hill.
When I met Joel via TheGradCafe, he had just graduated the day before. Now, he’s accepted a job at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Also, he continues to work as a GA with the UNC Med School and Carolina Institute for Development Disabilities. They’re working on a resource for North Carolina schools on how to create an Assistive Technology team in a school district. SO cool!
On to the interview!
On the “School” Part of Grad School
Me: What was graduate school like for you?
Joel: A year and a half before starting grad school, I starting to study my pre-requisites online. I had to continue to work which meant I was carrying a full load as a student and teaching English about 35 hours a week. In addition to that, I was observing an SLP at least one full day a week at an international school in Mexico City and running my own small business. That was the most hectic my life has ever been; so to be honest, I felt like I had a decent amount of free time during grad school. However, graduate school did require me to be in one place for extended periods of time which I had not been used to.
In my previous life as a freelance teacher, I spent my days commuting across Mexico City several times a day to get to clients’ offices. I was usually never in the same place for more than 3 hours. At graduate school I was often on campus for the entire day with classes lasting 3 hours followed by 30-minute breaks after which we had another class.
Me: What are your top tips for incoming graduate students in speech pathology?
Joel: 1. Start a study group. Reserve a study room in the library weekly (at least) for the semester, and be consistent with your attendance. Your study group will likely change members over time, but by the end of the first semester you should know who you like to work with. This is valuable information because when it comes time to make groups for class, you know who you can work well with!
2. Compile resources in an online format (e.i., google docs, one drive, dropbox) with your classmates (preferably your study group members). The resources you are putting together will be invaluable as you study for the PRAXIS, start your practicums, and start working. Our field is vast and by working together you can clearly cover more ground and you will start to see where your colleagues’ interests are. This is also very helpful so you know who to call when you have a question about TBI etc in the future!
3. Be very vocal about the placements that you want. Whoever is in charge of placements will get to know you through class and your letter of intent, but they´re managing 28 placement sites for 56 students. So I think it is easy for people to fall through the cracks if you´re not vocal about saying, “I want this type of population. I want this type of setting. I want this to happen before I graduate.” Everyone at my program got mostly what they wanted at some point. There might be a moment where you have to suck it up. You might not be very interested in schools, but everyone does a school placement. You´re a professional and you get through it. Definitely be flexible, but be in communication with the clinical placement supervisor and make sure that he or she knows what you want.
Me: I definitely agree with what you´re saying, and that makes so much sense. But, if you’re a student fresh out of undergrad, not familiar with taking that kind of initiative, and you´re already feeling the impostor syndrome, how do you do it?
Joel: So you mean if you say to the professor, ´I´m interested in working with X population ´and the professor says “Well what do you know about that population?” and you´re left hanging because you don´t know a lot yet. I think you have to keep in mind that you´re at school to figure out those interests, and professors know that. They know that you will possibly change. You´re going to find out about new things SLP´s do like AAC or TBI. They know that you´re there to learn and that you don´t know even half of what an SLP does. So, I think you should just always approach it with (if you can) something like, “I read this interesting article, and it got me thinking that I might be interested in working with this type of patient. What would be the best place for me to get that experience?”
Always frame it as an educational experience. They will appreciate that. I don´t know of anyone who was ever quizzed or asked “Why?” I think, at least here, we were encouraged to kind of look outside of our comfort zone. That goes back to what I said earlier, you need to be open to what you´re exposed to because you never know what you will find out about yourself or a population.
Most of the times professors appreciate when you say, “I want to learn more about this. I realize I don´t know everything about this. And that´s why I want this experience.”
On The Challenges of Grad School
Me: So, was grad school hard? You were out of school for several years before going back – how was that transition?
Joel: About half of my cohort was fresh out of undergrad and half were “out of circulation” for a while – mature students. I think the most difficult transition was getting back into that mentality and relating to young, young students who are very very driven and have the undergraduate mentality of “I have to be number one.” I think in grad school its very different; you´re all colleagues and working together. I honestly think the transition was harder for [the younger students].
I think I was most worried about the workload but to be honest, I found it to be very manageable and I worked 8-10 hours a week most semesters. I was able to get most of my readings done in the evenings and my projects done on the weekends. Since classes typically only met once or twice a week, the shortest deadline was probably a week. I think that part of grad school was not that challenging.
Me: Do you think your experience was typical? I mean to say, are you just naturally a good student or would other people in your cohort say similar things?
Joel: I think my program is fairly typical but how I experienced it is very different than most. I lived abroad for over 12 years before going back to school so I think my perspective is very different from someone going straight into graduate school from undergrad. Although I did not have any trouble striking a balance between life and school, I was in the program with 28 students and I know that many of them found it very challenging to balance school and personal life. Also, I do not tend to stress about projects and deadlines but I think many students coming out of undergrad do.
The learning curve was a lot harder for students fresh out of undergrad. They´re not living in student housing anymore, so they´ve got to get their rent paid. They probably have to take care of a car for the first time. I think it was harder for them to get the life / study balance. In general, everyone finished, everyone got there and said, “Oh! We did it!” But I definitely remember around exam time, you could see students who were a lot younger were staying up all night, cramming, and really stressed. And the older students were like, “I started studying two weeks ago… I´ve got my flashcards…”
In the end I´d say, everyone got through. Everyone was a great student. You´ll get through.
Me: What was the best part of your graduate school experience?
Joel: The best part was definitely clinic. Class is great and necessary, but really putting what you´re learning into practice is amazing. And I had some really great supervisors who were very hands-off and let me experiment with a lot of different things. So that was interesting to bring something directly from class that maybe even the clinical supervisor had not heard of or used before. And to use that with a client was really a great experience. And also to know, this will be my work in the future. This will be my job, was really amazing.
Me: That makes sense! I think that is one of the cool things about the field of SLP – the people focus – we´re not learning this stuff just for the sake of learning it. The purpose is to apply it with people and improve the quality of their lives.
Me: Where did you find a lot of that new material that you brought in?
Joel: A lot of it actually came from my previous teaching experience. The ability to take something that a client brings in and turn that into a session I think I got that from teaching. Especially because I was teaching adults. They may say, “I have this email I have to send.” And then I would say, “Okay. Let´s go through the email. I noticed all of your prepositions are wrong. So let´s have a lesson on prepositions. I think that definitely came from teaching – that ability to think on my feet and be flexible with my students. And as far as resources, a lot of it is online. Just looking it up online for specific resources. UNC has a big library of things you can borrow for clinic. Also, a study group to get together with every week: you can share resources, set up a google doc, that also helped.
Me: I´m coming from a classroom teacher background where I work with 20 to 40 students in one room, which I love. I´m a little nervous about working one-on-one in clinic. Did you have similar transition based on your teaching experience?
Joel: My students in Mexico were mostly one-on-one. I would often go to their offices and teach them there. And then go to another office and then travel across town to another office. So, I was very used to working one-on-one. That´s mostly been my experience in clinical placements, except in the schools I had a couple of group placements. They all had very different challenging behaviors, but I also really enjoyed working in a group with kids. My last semester in school I was with a group of adults with aphasia, and it was a very interesting placement because it was an opportunity not usually opened up to students.
I definitely enjoyed it, but it is definitely a different dynamic. And again, it goes back to being on your toes at all times and being flexible. You never know where they [the clients] are going to take the conversation. Or what interests they´re going to have.
Me: What is your biggest tip for students going to clinic for the first time? I imagine it is something people are very nervous going into for the first time.
Joel: I think it is to keep in mind that [clinical supervisors] enjoy having students. They´re not going to be quizzing you. They don´t get anything for being supervisors. It´s not like they receive money or a lower caseload. They don´t receive anything. They do it because they enjoy it. That is true at least for external placements. If the clinic is on campus obviously I´m sure its different and professors are running it. If you´re placed externally, its because they like having students around and teaching. That is part of the profession – paying it forward and looking after the next generation. So I think just keeping that in mind can relieve some of the stress.
Also, just be professional and respectful. I have heard a few classmates talking about situations at their placements and I wonder about how professional they really are and how well they are representing our graduate program. Being professional and respectful, as basic as it seems to say that, it goes a long way.
Something to remember is that these professionals who are welcoming you into their place of employment and introducing you to their clients, they´re doing it again because they love the profession and so clearly they love their clients. So they are in a way, turning their clients over to you. So being nice to clients is important. For most people, these things are common sense.
Another thing I´ve heard from many supervisors is something like, “I´ve been out of school for 10 years. So you have a bunch of fresh knowledge.” So bringing in a research article or talking to them about things from class like, “Oh, the other day we were talking about melodic intonation therapy in class. How often do you find yourself using that?” Just having those conversations takes the supervisor / student relationship to a new level.
This might make you more nervous, but remember that these people will write letters of recommendation for you. Act professionally. Dress professionally.
Clinic is not as scary as it might seem on the first day. If I had a long list of “don´t do this” or “don´t do that,” it would make it worse. It really is the simple things that are going to get you through, and that are going to make your experience an amazing experience. It really is just being open to what the supervisors have to say, and being respectful and professional. That´s really all it is.
Me: How did you discover your interests? People mention often to follow your interests, but I don´t know what mine are. Obviously I´m interested in bilingualism and multiculturalism because I speak Spanish, and I´ve been living in Mexico for so long. But that is by default. How do you find out the rest?
Joel: I definitely think being open to what you´re placements are – not necessarily being set on “I have to have 80% or more Spanish-speaking caseload.” You know the field is so big and varied. You´ll discover new things that you never knew Speech therapists did. I definitely think you´ll enjoy the journey of finding what your niche is going to be.
Looking Back & Looking Forward
Me: Is there anything you would have wished you knew before starting the grad school process?
Joel: I can´t really think of anything other than I wish I had come a month earlier to establish residency. If I had come a month earlier, I would have gotten residency for the entire last year of grad school. And you know that makes a big difference.
Me: I know you´re not practicing yet, but are there any professors that you know you´ll be in touch with?
Joel: I definitely am a lot closer to my clinic supervisors just because of the time spent with them and the nature of what you´re doing. I will be in touch with all of my clinic supervisors – except for may be a couple. It really does feel that I could reach out to any of my professors or any of my supervisors in the future and get answers. I actually know that one of my clinical supervisors regularly sends questions and information to her professors and gets answers back.
Wrapping It Up
Me: Is there anything else you´d like to share with my readers who will probably be in grad school very soon?
Joel: Enjoy it because it goes very quickly. Honestly, a lot of the classmates from my cohort I will be in touch with for the rest of my career. It is the beginning of building that professional network. Just enjoy it. You´re going to get through it. You´re going to be fine.
I hope you found this conversation with Joel helpful. I know I did. Joel´s calm and pragmatic perspective looking back on his grad school experience is the exact one I hope to have going in.
If you´d like to get in touch with Joel, you can email him here:
I hope these tips for SLP school and clinic will help you start grad school off on the right foot!
If you think of more questions or doubts about going into grad school, please let me know in the comments! I would be glad to do some more research to find some answers.
Credits: Man Shouting in Megaphone courtesy of FreePik.com