Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Hello all! I’ve just gotten a reader question, and rather than just sending her back an email, I figured I’d throw the answer up here instead so that more people can perhaps learn from it.

I am in my 3rd year of a bachelor degree in Linguistics, and I love it! I am just wondering what I could actually do with the skills I am learning… I mean for a living.

What you can do depends on what you enjoy doing, and how advanced a degree you want to (and can) get.

“I have a BA in Linguistics!”

If you want to start working after you get the BA, there are some possibilities for linguistics-specific sort of work. Lots of industries are using linguists for market research, especially doing things like data annotation and analysis on content and whatnot. You probably won’t be making many decisions at first, and you’re more likely to find jobs which just pay you hour-by-hour to do annotation. There is also the military/intelligence route, if that’s your style.

Mind you, with just the BA, linguistics-specific jobs will be scarce, you’ll be at a lower pay grade than an MA or Ph.D student, and the point of entry is going to be a bit lower on the totem pole, but of course, you can work up. If you’re going this route, I’d recommend trying to do an Honors Thesis, so you have an example of some research you’ve done in the field of Linguistics, and so you can show having some degree of specialization in the field.

“I got my MA too!”

If you’re able to get into an MA program and graduate, you’ve got many more options beyond the ones discussed above.

There are plenty of industry jobs out there for Linguistics MAs, especially if you’ve got a speech or computational bent. Google and big tech companies always want Natural Language Processing people, and places like Rosetta Stone are often hiring linguists for speech analysis, language analysis, and data collection. And every speech recognition place in the world wants more linguists and phoneticians.

The main disadvantage to industry jobs is that you end up having to deal with lawyers, NDAs, and non-compete clauses. Some companies are very draconian, preventing you from publishing on languages you’ve worked with while working for them, and some of them even claim as proprietary any insights you might have about the grammar or functioning of natural languages. As such, you may end up working for a company that actually claims as proprietary parts of the grammar of the language you’re working with. By going industry, you’re often going to have to sacrifice the openness and dedication to spreading knowledge that’s omnipresent in Academia, and you certainly won’t be able to take as much credit for your research. Instead, you’ll be studying language to improve your company’s profitability and product, with much of what you actually do and discover hidden behind the veils of corporate secrecy, under penalty of lawyer. All that said, the pay will be better than in academia, and I strongly suspect that not all industry players are as draconian and litigious as some of the subjects of the horror stories I’ve heard from friends in industry.

Some places, usually private language schools or companies, will hire Linguistics MA students to teach English as a second language, especially outside of English speaker countries. If you enjoy living abroad, that’s a very good option, as some of those places are willing to pay handsomely for your expertise. So, definitely keep that option in mind.

In academia, an MA degree can definitely get you a job as a research assistant or researcher, helping with experimental linguistics and working in labs to help faculty members. It’s also possible that you’ll get a TA job, especially if you’re in the MA program at the time. Unfortunately, though, you’d be extremely unlikely to end up in a tenure track position with just the MA.

Also, it’s worth noting that many schools will also hire MA-level research assistants for the long term, who have specialized in a given area and participate in projects where they’re necessary. Here, you have some job security, and the possibility of being paid well, but without having to go through the Ph.D process.

“Ph.D, here I come!”

If you’re accepted into a Ph.D program, many doors open. In many places, people admitted into a Ph.D program with support will automatically be given a job as a teaching assistant or a research assistant. This is wonderful because you get that experience, and you can earn enough to keep yourself afloat, at a part time basis, while you’re getting the degree. If you’re applying to Ph.D programs, apply to a bunch of them, and decide between the programs which offer you support, either as a stipend or as a TA/RA job. As my advisor told me during the Ph.D application process, “there are lots of places willing to pay you if you fit well, so you should never use your own money to get a Ph.D”. So, in academia, there are plenty of jobs for Ph.D students that an MA student would be less likely to.

Also, there are lots of industry companies that are happy to snatch Ph.D students away from academia, even if they’ve not finished the degree, and a few of my friends have taken this route. For them, they get most of the the benefits of somebody with Ph.D level education, but without having to pay the salary of somebody with a full on Doctoral degree. So, as silly as it sounds, even if you’re looking to go into industry after you get your MA, it might not hurt you to apply to Ph.D programs, and to accept an offer. You’ll likely get pulled in by other companies at a higher pay grade, and if you decide to return to academia later (and you kept publishing), you’ll have been accepted once.

Mind you, once you’re out of academia and a Ph.D program, it’s always tougher to get back in, and if the job you left for leaves you, especially if some time has passed, you risk having trouble there. So, unless you need the extra money right away, or you’re offered your dream job with great security, I’d highly recommend you work for the company as much as you can while still working on your Ph.D and dissertation, but keep working on that Ph.D and dissertation. They’ll pay you more when you graduate, and once you’ve got that magical piece of paper, everything will be just a bit easier in case you end up changing jobs down the road.

“That’s Doctor Linguist to you!”

Finally, if you fight through and get the Ph.D, you’ve got your pick. Nearly all of the opportunities mentioned above will be open to you, and new doors will open besides.

Industry will likely want you, especially if you’ve got the right specialization for their programs. You’ll also be paid more than MA and Ph.D student candidates, and will likely come in higher on the totem pole. You’ll be more likely to be able to guide events, not just annotate or work on problems.

There are also jobs for linguists in other places that aren’t industry, but aren’t quite academia either. For instance, many linguists, some who are faculty elsewhere, can become known as being good expert witnesses in trials and lawsuits which deal with matters of language and communication. Some people end up practicing forensic linguistics in law enforcement and intelligence, analyzing language to learn about speakers. Of course, there are also plenty of opportunities in intelligence, defense, and working for the military or military intelligence services.

In academia, you’ll have the opportunity to take a Post Doctoral appointment, doing research or teaching at a school for a few years before putting yourself on the market as a professor or researcher. This can be as part of a grant or a project, or simply as a member of a department who needs some help for a little while.

You can try for a research position, where you’ll have minimal teaching load, and instead, are used more to bring the department prestige, grant money, and publications. If research is your thing, then larger, research universities are where you’ll want to be, and these sorts of positions are definitely right up your alley.

You can also choose a lecturer or adjunct faculty position, where you’re not on track for tenure, and you’ll not have much in the way of job security beyond a few years, but it’s a job, and you’ll be at the helm of classes and getting paid for a few years. This is a great option if other factors in your life are preventing you from committing to a longer term stay in a given place, or if you’re simply not sure that you’re wanting to teach for the rest of your life.

Finally, some people, like me, eventually want to become full, tenured professors and pass on this knowledge in new and interesting ways to new and interesting people. To do this, you’ll likely start as an assistant professor, work your way up, and ideally, eventually win tenure. As a tenured professor, you’ll teach, do some research, publish, and participate in the workings of the university. You’ll be faculty, have the benefits and security of such, and be paid the salary of a full professor. It’s a pretty sweet gig, but winning such jobs can often be very competitive.

Disclaimer

Mind you, this is just my perspective. I’m just a little Doctoral student, I have my own particular biases, and there are likely a zillion opportunities that I’ve never been exposed to or even heard of. I’d recommend that you talk to your advisors in the department, talk to other linguists, and watch sites where linguistics jobs are posted (like LINGUIST list).

Most of all, though, follow your passion. If you want to do research, take jobs that offer you that chance. If you want to develop new and interesting products, and make a good deal of money doing it, look into industry jobs. If you’re like me and you just want to teach, well, keep pushing, keep collecting the necessary degrees, and eventually, you’ll be able to get there.

At least, I sure hope so.

Program note: I’ve been getting a lot of very good questions from readers, and although not all of them are this involved, I’m going to try and start posting some of my responses. I make no guarantees that I’ll be able to answer every question, but if you send me a good one, I’ll try and respond, and who knows, I might even post your response here. Let me know if you’d like to be credited for your questions, if I do end up responding publicly. Thanks for all the feedback and email, even in my relative absence. It always makes me smile.

Edit: I just got this email from a reader who wanted to contribute her story. You’re welcome to email your own story, and I’ll make sure it ends up here!

I’m a former linguistics student, hopeful future linguistics student, and forever in love with linguistics. I was reading your post on jobs and just wanted to say that having a BA in Linguistics has helped me get jobs as a private ESL tutor, but mainly as a tutor for high school level reading and writing skills, and also as a SAT Critical Reading/Writing tutor. Now, tutoring English for the SAT can be a somewhat tedious job, but it is related to language, I always find ways to sneak in excerpts from the Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, and I can often get kids thinking about language in general. Plus, I get to help them improve their scores and get into college, thereby furthering the education of a generation (while rhyming). I also get to tell them how wonderful linguistics is, if they’ll listen, and hopefully plant a seed in the minds of those who are unsure of what to study. So overall, I do find it a satisfying job, and one that required only a BA in Linguistics. Now, I do intend to go for a PhD in either Neurolinguistics or linguistic anthropology (endangered languages maybe, a la The Linguists), and one day teach at a higher level, but for right now tutoring is good work and is definitely a worthwhile job.



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