Meredith P. Harold, PhD, CCC-SLP is a Speech-Language Pathologist and Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders. She instructs future clinicians at Rockhurst University and serves current clinicians through her website, The Informed SLP. Her clinical work and scholarship focus is on pediatric speech-language development and disorders. Dr. Harold was the featured speaker at Southeastern’s 2017 Campbell Conference, a professional conference sponsored by the Communication Sciences and Disorders program. Her lecture entitled, “Play-Based Therapy: Theory and Methods for Speech-Language Pathologists,” was the most well attended Campbell Conference in its history.
While visiting Southeastern, Dr. Harold shared her thoughts on her educational and career decisions.
What or who influenced your decision to pursue a career in speech-language pathology and to do research in this field?
As a college student, I started out as a Spanish and Journalism major. I then quickly became interested in Linguistics (because one of my Spanish instructors was a Linguistics PhD student), then Communication Sciences and Disorders (because my Linguistics professors collaborated with CSD faculty). I would have had no idea that the field of Speech–Language Pathology even existed without the roundabout way I discovered it early on as an undergraduate! And I think that’s very common in our field. As a professor now, I see many students come to CSD from related fields, but rarely do Freshmen enter knowing they want to pursue a career in Speech–Language Pathology.
I became interested in Speech–Language research because I was interested in the work my Linguistics and CSD professors were doing. Once I started working in their labs, I fell in love with the research process, and decided to stay at KU to pursue a PhD. I always loved school, so being there for a decade wasn’t a deterrent to me. Even today, I’d relive that time over and over again if I could. I’m love learning, and had a blast.
How does your clinical experience impact your research and teaching?
So, perhaps the most atypical choice I’ve made in my career was to become a school-based SLP after I finished my PhD. Most folks in our field are SLPs first, then go back for a PhD after their master’s program. I did it backwards. A primary reason I chose to do this was because, after becoming involved in research very early on (I was already working in multiple research labs as a sophomore undergraduate), I immersed myself in that side of our field, and had pretty much abandoned any clinical focus. But by the time I finished my PhD, though, I realized that may have been a mistake for me. I had no idea what clinicians’ jobs were really like, and felt that I couldn’t do the research I wanted to do without understanding SLPs better. So, instead of doing post-doctoral research or applying for a university job, I became an SLP. My intent was to stay for a year or two, but I ended up staying for five years. I surprised myself by how much I liked being an SLP, because I’d always thought be a speech scientist. So I stayed working until an SLP until I felt like I really “got it”, and until I missed academia. That took me about five years—five years until I identified with SLPs as much as I identified with scientists.
This “backwards” career path I took has been incredibly valuable for teaching. I can pull up examples of real clients while I’m instructing topics like Speech Sound Disorders, which helps me think through how to teach, and I think helps my students make nice connections to clinical work as well.
Your website The Informed SLP serves to bring research into clinical practice. Can you share your view of the importance of this in the field of speech-language pathology?
While I was a clinician, I kept reading research articles, but I was so busy with my pediatric caseload that I could only fit it in occasionally. I was probably reading one or two articles per month, on average. And this is someone who spent nearly a decade working in research labs and had published several journal articles of her own! My SLP colleagues were reading far less than this. It was simply difficult to do with a full caseload. I also had two kids (twins) during my time working as a clinician, which made fitting this in even more difficult.
However, SLPs are bound by our Code of Ethics to stay up-to-date on best practice in our field. And the ways you can do this are primarily by reading research or attending conferences (which are expensive and time consuming for a full-time clinician). So, in the interval between working as an SLP and re-entering academia (I’m an assistant professor at Rockhurst University now), I started The Informed SLP to see if I could come up with a solution to this problem. The inaugural activity of the website (and the main purpose, to date) was to create a research newsletter that gave clinicians quick and user-friendly reviews of research articles, so that they wouldn’t have to find great research on their own. A time-saver. So each month, I comb through the top journals in our field to find everything that’s newly published in an area (e.g. topics for Pediatric and School-Based SLPs). Each month I’m looking at around 60–100 articles that seem relevant, looking at their abstract and title alone. However, I only feature articles in the newsletter than SLPs can immediately use, which ends up being around 5–10 articles. This isn’t to say that the articles I discard aren’t good—in fact, sometimes they’re quite fantastic research. But if an SLP can’t immediately take the article’s results and apply it to practice, that article is set aside. I then write up brief reviews of that stack of articles, and that’s what’s included in the monthly newsletter. At first glance, it may seem like the article abstract already serves this purpose, but this is rarely in the case. Abstracts are more often written for scientists, not SLPs, and I’ve found that abstracts don’t always tell SLPs what they need to know. So this part of the process—looking for clinicallyusable research articles—is really the bulk of my time spent on the newsletter. Writing the reviews goes pretty quickly. Getting from that stack of 100 down to 10 is the time-consuming part.
The Informed SLP started as an experiment— I wanted to know if these newsletters might be useful to SLPs, and figured I’d just try it to see how it worked out. In under a year, it’s grown to over 10,000 subscribers, and I continue to get positive feedback about how useful the newsletter is. To me, though, it’s not just about the monthly newsletter. It’s about getting SLPs invested in accessing research, once they see how clinically useful it can be. And it’s about showing scientists options for communicating with SLPs beyond journal articles and conference presentations, and showing them what they need to do to make their work clinically accessible (e.g. reducing the paywall barrier by sharing pdfs when possible, providing detailed treatment methods so that SLPs can replicate the work, etc.). Scientists and clinicians have a lot to learn from each other, and TISLP is just one small step toward figuring out how to break communication barriers.
What would be your advice to a college student who is interested in a career involving a research focus?
That there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do it, but instead there are many paths to becoming a research leader in our field. Sometimes this means a PhD, sometimes not. For those who want to pursue a PhD to work in academia or a private research lab (fewer of these), you’ll need a PhD mentor to help identify options and workable career paths. But you don’t necessarily have to follow a path identical to your PhD mentor, either, so do continue to connect with many PhDs in the field so you know what your options are.
If you want to have a research-focused career but don’t want to pursue a PhD, there are options there, too. You can work for a PhD-level scientist doing clinical research, for example. Big labs need full-time clinicians to collect data in clinical settings, and this can be a great way to get the “best of both worlds”. You can also do research as a clinician not working for a scientist, but with a scientist. ASHA has the CLARC database to help people identify opportunities for these types of collaborations (http://www.asha.org/academic/CLARC/). They also have the new CREd library (http://cred.pubs.asha.org/), which is meant to teach clinicians and early-career scientists how to do clinical practice research. We don’t have nearly enough PhDs in our field to supply us with the research we need to inform practice. There’s been a push recently to get more clinicians involved in research, too, so it’s not just PhDs producing this data.
Or, maybe you don’t want to conduct research, but instead want to be a consumer of it, and even get paid to do so. I recently interviewed a Canadian SLP about jobs like this (http://www.theinformedslp.com/how-to/how-am-i-supposed-to-find-time-to-read-research).
Ultimately, I think the most important thing for our speech–language clients is for SLPs and scientists to identify ways to work together (and make each other’s jobs easier), so that we can push out more quality studies and make the uptake of these new studies easier on clinicians. I don’t know what the best solutions are, but I’m certain that talking about it and trying things out will at least get us all on a good path to true evidence-based practice.