We are essentially specialists in communication, says Oonagh Reilly, Director of the Speech and Language Therapy course at the University of Central England

What's it about?

Speech and language therapists (SLTs) work with people of all ages ­ from babies right through to the elderly ­ to help them communicate. A common misconception is that they are elocutionists, improving normal speech by teaching people to speak properly. This is not the case. However, SLTs do help people to communicate in many different ways ­ by signing and computerised aids as well as by developing social skills, language and speech. They also help people who have swallowing problems.

SLTs work in a variety of settings, including clinics, hospitals, schools, adult education centres, nurseries, playgroups, individual and residential homes.

Don't you need to be very patient?

Not really. If you negotiate short, appropriate goals with your clients, they will be more likely to achieve them faster and you and the client will both be rewarded by their success.

How do I get started?

You can become an SLT only by taking an accredited three- or four-year degree course or a two-year post-graduate course. There are 15 courses in the UK and most are expanding as a result of the NHS plan to increase the number of therapists. NHS bursaries are available to cover fees and maintenance. Once qualified, SLTs tend to find it easy to get a job.

What is covered in the degree?

Speech and language therapy is a very specialised field of study, yet it draws upon a variety of different disciplines including psychology, linguistics, anatomy and physiology, sociology, education and medical sciences.

You need not only to integrate knowledge from different fields of study but also to develop your own communication skills and learn how to evaluate and adapt your own performance. It's a fascinating field of study... and the learning doesn't stop when you get your degree. Your initial training enables you to develop skills for life-long learning, essential if you are to work within the demands of the ever-changing NHS. Many SLTs undertake research in their own particular specialist areas.

Is there a practical side to the training?

All courses involve at least 150 hours of clinical placement, in which the students work under the supervision of qualified colleagues.

You could find yourself working with people who've had a stroke and have difficulty swallowing or can't remember how to put words together to make sentences or even to understand what others are saying. You could also work with people with voice problems (someone has to sort out pop stars' vocal nodules!) or people with throat cancer or progressive neurological diseases.

You could work with people who stammer or have hearing impairments; babies with cleft palate or neurological problems such as cerebral palsy; children who are delayed in their communication development and need help in learning to understand language or putting words together; adults or children involved in road traffic accidents and, yes, people with speech problems.

Working directly with clients is only part of the job. You also need to train others, give talks, work as part of a team and attend case conferences. Naturally, you wouldn't be expected to do that all at once and courses are carefully designed to help you build up your knowledge, skills and experience gradually.

What are the entry requirements?

As far as personal attributes go, most universities are looking for excellent communication skills. That doesn't simply mean being a good talker... SLTs need to be good listeners too. You also need to have good academic and problem-solving ability, together with the skills of self-reflection and evaluation, open-mindedness and motivation. It helps if you can demonstrate a real interest in the subject.

Universities are specific about which subjects should be passed at GCSE/S Grade and GCE A-level/Higher grade but, as entry requirements vary, consult individual prospectuses for detailed information. Competition for places is keen, so you are likely to need three A levels/four Higher grades.

All courses interview candidates and usually ask about clinical observations. So, set up a visit to your local speech and language therapy service before interview. Many services set up open days, in which they give talks and show videos about their work. Likewise, some universities offer open days, giving you the opportunity to talk to staff about the training.

Tell me more!

Contact the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, who will send you more information on receipt of a SAE. The Royal College accredits the degree courses and awards licences to practise. Their website address has links to all the university courses

Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, 2/3 White Hart Yard, London SE1 1NX. Tel: 0207 378 3012/3Web: www.rcslt.org/