Undergraduate education in communication sciences and disorders (CSD) provides a solid foundation and pathway for students interested in pursuing careers in audiology, speech-language pathology, and speech, language, and hearing sciences. The value of a bachelor’s degree in the CSD discipline for these career paths is widely acknowledged. In this article, we focus on changing the perception of the CSD undergraduate degree from one that provides a narrow path to traditional career options to one that also offers a broad-based education supporting many positive alternatives.
Appreciating the Value of a Pre-Professional Degree
Many prospective students come through our offices aspiring to help individuals with communication disorders by pursuing clinical careers—the traditional professional trajectory of the CSD discipline. Often, students (together with their parents) who are considering an undergraduate major in CSD focus exclusively on how to get into graduate school. This narrow pursuit overshadows the value of the undergraduate degree itself. This perspective is problematic because, inevitably, many students will have to pursue other postbaccalaureate options and many terrific options exist. We believe that an early and positive emphasis on the scope, depth, and breadth of knowledge offered by the undergraduate CSD degree itself will better prepare students for a wide range of later graduate education or career options, yield greater satisfaction among CSD majors, decrease student anxiety, and increase pride in the undergraduate degree.
What’s Next? Looking Beyond the Pre-Professional Degree
ASHA’s Academic Affairs Board (AAB) recently produced a report [PDF] on the value of the undergraduate degree along with recommendations for a broader role for CSD undergraduate education. All AAB members agreed that the degree is much more than merely pre-professional preparation for graduate school. In this broader context, the degree prepares students for a diverse range of potential career paths.
The AAB report advocates a model of CSD undergraduate education that contains the following three domains:
- Domain 1: General Knowledge, Skills, Aptitudes, and Experiences
- Domain 2: Social, Behavioral, Biological, and Physical Science Foundations
- Domain 3: CSD Content Knowledge, Skills, Aptitudes, and Experiences
Most CSD students start their undergraduate journey focused on the degree as a means to a specific end. When plans change, the time spent studying CSD is often perceived as “wasted.” The domain model clearly shows that much of students’ undergraduate education is spent in Domains 1 and 2. Moreover, content knowledge in the CSD discipline is broad based, systems oriented, and deals with fundamental aspects of human communication. The AAB model frames the CSD undergraduate major as a valuable educational option in and of itself, embodying the best ideals of the liberal arts and sciences.
For programs housed in colleges of arts and sciences—as many are—this is a logical fit; for other programs housed in colleges of allied health or education, there may be less acceptance of a degree that is not “used” specifically in a future career. Yet, the mission of all bachelor’s degree programs is to prepare students with core competencies for long-term success, including critical thinking, problem-solving skills, informed decision making, and proficiency in oral and written communication. These core competences establish common ground for university-wide discussions of the benefits of the CSD degree. In the content-specific areas of the CSD major, students learn about the complex and interrelated auditory, speech, and language systems. Curricular units providing information about speech, language, and hearing—as well as possible treatments—ground students’ thinking about health and wellness, evidence-based practice, health care and educational supports across the lifespan. Coursework and experiential learning activities focused on clinical thinking provide exposure to clinical processes and cases, which involve systems-based application to real-world human problems. The knowledge and skills gained in a CSD program are both broad and deep.
With advising models focused on self-determination and active planning for multiple possible future careers, CSD programs have the potential to change the narrative around our undergraduate degree, promoting the message that graduate school in CSD is one good choice among many. With this positive approach, advisors can help direct students’ energies to active engagement with career discovery and planning, regardless of the direction that their paths may take.
Students who go on to complete higher education (MS, AuD, or PhD degrees) in the professions may further the scientific foundations of the CSD discipline and/or or directly touch the lives of those affected by communication disorders. Students who go on to work in disciplines outside CSD will bring to those disciplines a broad knowledge base in the communication sciences—this knowledge base will be valuable in ways less obvious but nonetheless real. In our advising materials at Bowling Green State University, we developed a list of options and ideas for graduates. In our regular interactions with CSD majors at Bowling Green, we take care to explicitly express pride in all of our students—we want them to know that they successfully finished a degree in a difficult field and that they should be proud of their accomplishments, wherever their future paths may lead: occupational therapy, physician’s assistant, health care administration, gerontology, teaching, higher educational administration, law school, criminal justice, vocational rehabilitation, and many others.
We have each recently worked with students who had personal and academic struggles during their undergraduate careers that precluded graduate school in CSD. Hewitt’s advisee was a first-generation college student and had not found the transition to college a smooth one. Hewitt encouraged her to consider a range of options and to focus on her strengths: a quick, logical mind; oral communication skills; and a strong grasp of human interaction patterns. The student applied to programs in human resource management, was admitted to a graduate program, and earned a 4.0 GPA this past fall. Simpson’s advisee was similarly situated and was emotionally devastated by her perceived failures. With counseling, she came to recognize that her degree provided her with a solid foundational education, and she went on to a successful position in vocational rehabilitation after graduation. We are confident that many such stories can be told, as our experiences can hardly be unique. These two examples show students succeeding despite perceived failures, but we want to emphasize that the CSD undergraduate degree can support multiple pathways for all students—from those who may have had some academic struggles to those who are among the highest achievers.
In this article, we emphasized the potential for changing the perception of the undergraduate CSD degree from one that paves a narrow path to a short list of options to one that offers a broad-based education supporting many positive alternatives. We hope that by embracing this message, all students—both those pursuing traditional CSD careers and those who pursue other career paths—will reflect back with pride and satisfaction on their undergraduate degrees and the doors that the CSD degree opened for them.