Elise Davis-McFarland, PhD, CCC-SLP

Elise  Davis-McFarland, PhD, CCC-SLP
Dr. Elise Davis-McFarland, ASHA President | Photo courtesy of http://www.asha.org 

Meet Elise Davis-McFarland, PhD, CCC-SLP


One of the inspirations for this blog was a conversation I had with a friend and fellow SLP, Kelly. Upon entering the ‘real world’, we were, for the first time, removed from our academic SLP bubble, and were beginning to conceptualize our futures as speech-language pathologists. One of our friends had recently graduated with a degree in marketing and was sharing how overwhelmed she felt in deciding which avenue to take her career. Kelly and I felt we couldn’t relate. Sure, we could explore different settings or work with different populations, but at the end of the day, we would still be ‘SLPs’. There was no ‘promotion’ to receive or ladder to climb, except for say, opening your own private practice or becoming a clinical manager–neither of which appealed to us at the time. I remember turning this idea over with her and worrying that we had chosen a profession which would limit us. How, with this degree, could I possibly explore a different discipline or apply my skills in an unconventional way? My major wasn’t as broad as ‘marketing’ and I felt like my skill set was too narrow and specific to clinical work.

In retrospect, I think, ‘Ugh! What fraudulent thinking! And what a limiting mindset!’. Through this blog project alone, I have learned from individuals who have explored far beyond the scope of speech-language pathology in their career journey. Dr. Davis-McFarland, our current ASHA president, is an excellent example of how encompassing a growth mindset as a speech-language pathologist can elevate your career to unexpected levels.

Dr. Davis-McFarland’s path is far from traditional. When a move to South Carolina resulted in difficulty finding a job as an SLP, she pursed opportunities in other disciplines. She has held leadership and management positions within brokering programs, colleges, and even within the Governmental Affairs Division for her local Chamber of Commerce. She eventually returned to speech-language pathology, marrying her leadership experiences with her clinical skill set, and driving her to become our current ASHA President!

ASHA President Davis-McFarland’s journey reminds me that anything is possible when you follow your passion, find joy in your work, and carry yourself confidently. 

Her Path: Elise Davis-McFarland, PhD, CCC-SLP began her career as a school SLP in North Carolina. Following an audiology internship at the VA and Duke Hospitals in Durham, NC and graduate study at the University of Virginia and University of Pittsburgh, she joined that University of Houston faculty. After she married, Dr. Davis-McFarland moved to South Carolina where, in the absence of an academic SLP program, she took on the position as VP of Governmental Affairs for the Charleston Chamber of Commerce and later as director of Institutional Research at The Citadel. Later, she lead the development of the interdisciplinary graduate program in Communication Sciences Disorders at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). Dr. Davis-McFarland is very interested in global issues withi the field, which led her to a Rotary Faculty Fellowship, allowing her to teach speech-language pathology at the Medical University of Southern Africa. She has held numerous leadership and service positions within ASHA, where she currently serves as the 2018 President. Her areas of research include speech and language development in infants and children with HIV-AIDS, multicultural issues in language assessment, literacy development, and pediatric dysphagia.

I tell SLPs who take career detours that they can always come back into our field, if they want.  There is room in our profession for those of us who have branched out and have different experiences to bring back skills to management, clinical and research endeavors within our profession.” – Elise Davis-McFarland, ASHA President

The Interview

What advice would you give to a new graduate who is about to start their clinical fellowship (CF)?

I would tell them that our field is ever expanding and that they must be prepared to be life-long learners if they want to be successful clinicians.  I would also tell them their CF year is the beginning of their professional life as an SLP and that they should embrace the experience and cherish their opportunity to use their knowledge and skills, learn everything they can from their supervisor and others who are knowledgeable and experienced and, finally, if they are in a multidisciplinary setting to learn as much as they can about their colleagues’ work and approaches to habilitation and rehabilitation because at some point they will be able to use all that they learn. Finally, I would encourage them to use the CF year as an opportunity to increase their network of professional colleagues because the people they meet will become life-long colleagues.

What is one belief, habit or routine that has significantly impacted your life?

I think people are more successful when they know their purpose and are disciplined about achieving their personal and professional goals.  For me, doing a periodic self-assessment that requires me to think about my purposes and whether I am being true to my purpose as a citizen of my community, a leader, a spouse, a mother, a person of faith helps me maintain the life balance I need in order to pursue my goals.

Where did you complete your CF? How does the career path you’ve traveled differ from the path you imagined as a new grad?

I completed my CF at Virginia State College (now University) where I accepted a faculty position right after graduate school.  I worked primarily with college students who required speech and language therapy. My career path (as I explain in question 9) was somewhat different that I expected, but that path led me to where I am today.

What book do you most frequently recommend? Is there a book that has greatly impacted how you think?

For people who are in leadership positions or who aspire to leadership I always recommend Lincoln on Leadership by Donald T. Phillips. It is an excellent recounting of how Abraham Lincoln turned professional challenges into victories and was able to get his enemies to support his vision. Another of my favorites is The Book of Southern Wisdom edited by Criswell Freeman.  It’s a compilation of wise sayings and bits of wisdom most of which are funny and uplifting. Finally, there is The Trumpet of Conscience by Dr. Martin Luther King. It includes five talks Dr. King gave as part of a lecture series of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

What is your favorite failure?

I often speak with undergraduate and graduate students about the inevitability of failure, and that the only true failure occurs when we don’t learn from our mistakes. Good things can come from bad situations. It’s the learning from the failure that is the good thing. My favorite failures are the ones I learn the most from and the ones that keep me from making the same mistake again.  As long as I’m learning and moving forward, I’m winning.

What areas in the field of speech-language pathology do you see the most opportunity for growth?

I think there is a lot of opportunity for growth in telepractice.  I am still amazed at some of the advances that are occurring in that area.  I think clinical strategies that use computers and artificial intelligence show a great deal of promise, especially those that target cognitive-communication habilitation and rehabilitation. Our knowledge and practice in the area of culturally and linguistically diverse populations has grown quite a bit, but there is still more that we need to know about how best to serve clients, patients and students of diverse cultures and language backgrounds. I also think how we educate students will change.  I see graduate programs emphasizing competencies more, and I also think curriculum changes will lead to more emphasis on the physical and cognitive sciences, gerontology, as well as business practices and bilingualism.

What are bad recommendations you hear in the field or in your area of expertise?

There are still some, not necessarily SLPs, but others who teach or provide services for children, whose first language is not English who discourage parents from allowing them to speak the language of their home. This jeopardizes their opportunity to use their home language as a foundation for learning English, and it can rob them of the opportunity to become bilingual.

What was a notable turning point or shift in your career? How did this impact your professional journey?

I’ve had a couple of turning points in my career. I left a faculty position at the University of Houston to come to Charleston, SC when I married.  To my surprise I could not find a suitable position as an SLP in Charleston. At that point, I transitioned into a position developing and directing an education brokering program.  From there, I went on to an institutional research position at a men’s college. I also ran the governmental affairs division for the local Chamber of Commerce. None of these positions were what I had envisioned for myself, but each position prepared me for the job that followed.  When I got the opportunity to develop an interdisciplinary graduate Communication Sciences and Disorders program at the Medical University of South Carolina, I was successful in recruiting students from diverse backgrounds because of my educational brokering experience. I was able to use data to justify and illustrate the program’s existence and our students’ success because of my institutional research experience, and my chamber of commerce and governmental affairs experience helped me use business connections to support the program.  When I became a community college Vice President of Student Affairs, I was equally at home with the academic side of the college because of my previous experience developing an academic program and supervising faculty.

I tell SLPs who take career detours that they can always come back into our field, if they want.  There is room in our profession for those of us who have branched out and have different experiences to bring back skills to management, clinical and research endeavors within our profession.

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