Going to School to Be an Audiologist -- Professor Q&A

This interview with Andrea Pittman, Ph.D., an associate professor at Arizona State University, was condensed for clarity. To contribute to ValuePenguin’s coverage on careers, follow us @VP_Careers.

How did you end up in audiology?

I graduated with my Master’s degree, which was the required degree at the time. So I became licensed, and certified, and so forth. I worked for several years as an audiologist, and I actually really enjoyed it, but there came a tipping point when it was clear to me that the information that I was getting, and the data that I was getting, and the research I was reading, was good, but there were some areas that were not very well represented in the research. One of those was hearing aids, and particularly hearing aids in children, and the research that was being done was done by hearing aid manufacturers. They’re okay; the manufactures actually are all quite reputable. The problem is that when you have a hearing aid manufacturer doing their own research, all their hearing aids glow in the dark, right? They’re just fabulous. It was really hard to get good information that was unbiased. I was frustrated by that, and I decided that I wanted to go into a career in research. So I applied to the University of Wisconsin, and was able to get a full scholarship for the four years there. And then after that I studied to become a researcher, and after that I went on to a post-doctoral position that specializes in hearing aids. And then hearing aid research, and hearing loss, and so on. Once you’re in a post-doc position, those are meant to be temporary. So you have to transition at some point to your own lab, which is basically your own real estate, and that mostly happens in a university setting; those labs are found in university settings. So I do research about half the time, and I teach and do other administrative things the other half of the time. I tell my students that I teach to pay rent for my lab, which is really quite true. It was really desire to contribute to the research, not be just a consumer of it.

My route, my road, to this profession is really very common, because I hear it from my students all the time. I didn’t know anything about audiology when I started as an undergraduate, but I did know about speech pathology, because speech therapists are more common; you just see many more of them. It wasn’t until I got into that as an undergraduate and started taking classes that I was required to take a class in audiology; a principles, or introduction to audiology class. I really liked that class. It kind of clicked for me, because audiology is very numeric: it’s graphic, you get people to read graphs and plot data. It’s also very diagnostic. Whereas speech therapy is more therapy-driven; less diagnostics, less graphing, that sort of thing. I teach this class now. I usually find, as soon as we start, that about half of the students, they just divide down the middle, and they either like the tangible nature of audiology, or they like the therapy portion of speech pathology.


What do you teach, and how does it all fit into the bigger picture at ASU's program?

I'm a bit atypical, in that my position is academic, which means that my responsibilities are to conduct research, to teach, and to do -- we call it service, being on committees and so forth. Because I’m academic, and I do research, my students that I’m responsible to are PhD students, doctor of audiology students, undergraduate students.

Our undergraduates are being trained and prepared for graduate-level work. So at the undergraduate level, our job is to prepare them as well as we can, and to help them understand and make good, informed decisions about whether graduate school is a good choice for them. Getting into an audiology program is very competitive. We get over 100 applications a year, but we can only take between 10 and 15 students. It’s a very competitive program.

For the doctor of audiology program, that is intense and includes specialized clinical training. In that area, we train them for very specific clinical things: everything from small children, to older adults and everything in between. All the different prosthetic devices that they will need to be able to fit and manage and program and work with on behalf of their patients, plus all of the diagnostic tests that need to do. So it’s a very heavy clinic.

The Ph.D. students are an entirely different group. We’re training them to train future students. Our emphasis here, and in most universities, is to train PhD students to be a replacement for us. So they’ll be doing research, plus teaching, plus service. Their training is a little bit different; it’s a little bit higher, it just has a different scope.

Is this how it works at university programs across the country?

For public universities, yes, we’re very much in line with other universities. We have all the levels, just like everyone else does.

The only programs that differ from this are private. They specialize in audiology. So they would only do the clinical training because they’re not also training undergraduates and PhD students at the same time. So they just specialize in that one group.

What are the undergrads learning?

At the undergraduate level, they earn one degree that prepares them for graduate school in either speech pathology or audiology. So there’s a mix of courses that they take, and then they can do either one. At the undergraduate level, there are several courses, perhaps six or seven, in speech pathology. There are only three in audiology; and that’s very common across all universities. Speech pathology has quite a lot of the undergraduate level, and then their students go on to get a master’s degree. We have a few at the undergraduate level, and then those students go on to get a doctoral degree in an "AuD" program. One of the driving reasons for that is that undergraduate classes tend to be very large, particularly at large universities like ASU. I can have as many as 100, sometimes 100 plus students in an undergraduate class. To prepare a student, more than we’re able to do right now, would require quite a lot of equipment and a clinical setting that we simply can’t provide to 100 students. Which is why, in our doctoral programs, we can only take between 10 and 15 students, simply because of the cost of the equipment and the supervision that needs to be available to them. We’re also limited by our professional organization, ASHA, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. They accredit us, and we have to show we have a certain number of students per supervisor. So we can’t just train any student on this equipment without a certain student/supervisor ratio.

What do you see in undergraduate students that portends their aptitude for the AuD degree?

The first and foremost thing at the undergraduate level is they simply have to understand the concepts. Acoustics is kind of a mystery. Hearing, the hearing system, it’s very non-linear, so it’s not entirely easy; it’s a complex system. And then the whole testing. We review, in very basic terms, “This is how we test hearing.” If they can get that at the introductory level, and some of the complexities there, then they’re really in a good position to go on to the graduate level, and it’s much more detailed there.

I have had, though, to counsel students away from audiology, because they don’t seem to get it. It’s not one of those things where, “I’ll get into graduate school, and I’ll work a little bit harder, and it’ll click someday.” You don’t want to waste your money that way. Graduate school is far too expensive to try it out and see if it’s going to work or not. You get thorough a couple semesters, and you don’t do well, you still have two semesters worth of tuition to pay. So we try to get them sorted before they get there.

They have to get through those courses, and they have to do well if they’re going to get into graduate school. Because I’m the director, I’m also in charge of the admissions process. It’s pretty clear -- and this is across universities -- that their performance in the GRE is a good predictor of their graduate school success. The better they do on that very basic reading comprehension and math, the better they will do in graduate school, because they have the skills they need to get in. Not just to get in, but to actually succeed.

What do you see in doctoral candidates that separates them from the pack?

The academic drives a lot of it; I would say that’s about 60 percent of success. The other 40 is their ability to communicate with people. We do an interview as part of our admissions process, and the students have to pass the interview. If they can’t talk to me and tell me about themselves, and communicate effectively with me, they’re not going to be able to do it with somebody who has a communication disorder. When you’re an audiologist — or a speech pathologist, really, but when you’re an audiologist — you have to make up for the deficits in communication for your patient. If they can’t communicate effectively with someone who has normal hearing, they’re not going to be able to learn how to do that when they get into the clinic. What we look for in students is they need to be able to communicate effectively. Eye contact. They need to be able to speak clearly. Even if they have an accent, all they have to do is speak clearly. They need to be effective in their word choice. They can’t wander around in the conversation, because that’s just more words that a hearing-impaired person has to try to figure out. And so it’s really a lot about interpersonal skills. They have to have a little bit of empathy — not too much, just a little bit of empathy. They need to feel that this is something they will enjoy doing. Occasionally I’ll have a student who has gone through — it doesn’t happen very often — part of the program, and they will come to me part of the way through AuD, and say, “I was here at this particular clinical facility, and I couldn’t imagine myself working there.” Or, “I was observing this audiologist, and I don’t know if I would like doing that job.” Then this may not be the right place for you! Because they really have to actually want it. The other thing that we look for — and it’s hard to do — is students actually knowing what they’re getting into. So, have they ever observed an audiologist before? Have they actually seen any of that work before? It’s very hard to come by now, because of HIPAA regulations. But any kind of shadowing they can do is very informative to them, and it tells us that they know what the job is about.

What is the traditional path for your doctoral students, once they have that higher degree?

The nice thing about the AuD is it’s a very clear career path. The employment rate is 100 percent. And that’s across all universities; it’s unusual to find a university that doesn’t have 100 percent employment rate after. In part because we can only graduate so many per year — it’s actually a little tiny portion we can graduate each year — and the need is much greater than what we are able to supply. So, good career path. It’s even clearer in their last year of the program, they do what’s called an externship year. That’s a year when they actually have to go off and find a job, but they’re still a student. So they’re under the umbrella of ASU; they have certain protections. We can steer them and help guide them through their externship year. So it’s basically a… what do they call the doctor one? Not a fellowship. Training year, whatever it is. They’re in a clinical environment, they have a supervisor who’s there to show them, basically, here’s what it’s like being in this position full-time. They get a lot of really good, rich experience during that year. They graduate at the end of it, and most of them stay where they are, and they are hired where they are. Or they can go off and find a job anywhere in the country. We just had our graduation ceremony, and several of our graduates were saying that they had actually turned down a couple of job offers waiting for this particular one that they were hoping to get. The jobs are there. They’re in a luxurious position of being able to pick and choose.

How often does your own audiology research come into play in the classroom?

It is frequent. And it’s usually super-flattering, so you have to kind of sit back and say, calm down. The students are always looking for opportunities to volunteer in the lab, and to contribute. And so I take as many as I can, but there’s only so much of me to go around. So I have to turn away several a year, which is unfortunate, but it’s just the nature of the beast, I guess. But, yeah. There are some who are more than genuinely interested. Occasionally I’ll train a student from undergraduate through AuD and PhD, and they go on to do research. Those are the ones I’m most proud of. They’re very rare. And we don’t really need a ton of them. The world doesn’t need too many of me. But those are the ones that are most exciting for me to find and train.

Is anything going on in audiology education that is concerning or exiting to you? Something that is afoot, or something that is changing, that you think is important to mention.

The whole transition to the doctor of audiology; that occurred, I think that became official in 2004. And all programs had to transition to the doctoral degree. And so that was a very exciting time. Now that we’ve been living with that, several programs like us have made revisions over the years. I think we’re coming up to another big revision. It’s not so much that we’re reassessing the value of our program; we’re having to deal with the forces of academia around us, and specifically tuition. Tuition has gone up tremendously, and so now we’re reevaluating our programs, plural, to make sure that the product we’re providing to the students is worth the tuition they’re paying. A couple of years ago now, I calculated exactly how much the students are spending, or having to pay for our program, and it was way more than I expected. It was over $100,000. And I went to my faculty, and I said, “Are you giving them this kind of product?” And it kind of changed things. Not that we weren’t doing a good job before, but it just changed the perspective. We, and all of the other programs that I’m aware of in the country, are re-evaluating, how can we give the students the best education experience without breaking the bank? We’re trying to bring down the tuition, or the size of the program, which brings down tuition, and yet train them very well. I think we’re just all-in-all in a streamlining position. I’m betting that that’s happening with almost every program in any university; that we’re trying to streamline our education so we don’t burden students with lifelong debt. It’s a worrisome thing, but we’re aware of it, and we’re actively working to make that better for students. So I see it as a worrisome thing, but I think what you’re going to see in the future is some significant changes in the university to address the problem.

Ting is a ValuePenguin Co-Founder. She previously evaluated corporate mergers and acquisitions as a Financial Analyst at Citigroup.