Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Greetings from October 2015. This post remains one of the most popular on the site, and I figured I'd edit and update it, now that I've spent five more years in the field, to reflect the changing job market and world. I've added some new information, in italics where needed, and updated the old information where prudent.

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 very 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. 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.

But, keep in mind that if you’re looking to progress within linguistics, a BA is really only scratching the surface, and you’re going to probably want to proceed to get the Ph.D.

“I got my MA too!”

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

There are some 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 sometimes get you a job as a professional research assistant, helping with experimental linguistics and working in labs to help faculty members. Unfortunately, though, a tenure-track faculty position is simply not an option without the Ph.D.

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.

Realize, though, that an MA isn’t really a terminal degree in Linguistics for most areas of the field. There are jobs where the MA will suffice, particularly in the tech world and teaching English as a second langauge, but you’ll want to seriously consider whether you’d be better off doing the full Ph.D, and if not, whether doing an MA makes financial sense. Many departments don’t even offer an MA in Linguistics, reflecting this view.

“Ph.D, here I come!”

If you’re accepted into a Ph.D program, more 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. You won’t be making great money as a TA or research assistant, but it’ll be enough, if you make smart choices.

If you’re applying to Ph.D programs, apply to a bunch of them, and decide between the programs which offer you full 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 support you if you fit well, so you should never use your own money to get a Ph.D”.

This is more true than ever. Ph.D programs are very expensive, and given the job market, taking out loans to fund your own Ph.D is unlikely to pay off. If you don’t get a funding offer, try other schools, or improve your application and try again next year. A linguistics Ph.D is a great thing, but if nobody else is willing to pay for it, you might be better off looking at other options.

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 with support, even if you’re not 100% sure you’re going to finish. 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. 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 is often interested in Ph.Ds, 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 projects, rather than analyzing data or working on other people’s problems. If you know you’re interested in industry jobs, it’s a good idea to talk to people in your desired field, and ask what kind of experience and specializations they’re looking for.

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. If you’re a US citizen and are willing to move to Northern Virginia and then stop talking about what you do for a living, the FBI/CIA/NSA are always interested in linguists, particularly those with computational or speech emphasis.

In academia, you’ll be able to apply for Post Doctoral Fellowships, 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. A PostDoc is a really good idea, given the slow Linguistics job market. It’s 1-2 years of financial support, where you can get some publications, get some new experience, and learn about a new department.

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. But keep in mind, these are really rare in Linguistics, and more often than not, you’ll be expected to teach.

You can also take a lecturer or adjunct faculty position, where you’re not on track for tenure, and you’ll no job security at all, but it’s a job, and you’ll be at the helm of classes and getting paid (minimally) for a few years. This is an option if other factors in your life are preventing you from committing to a longer term stay in a given place, if you need some experience teaching, or if you’re simply not sure that you’re wanting to teach for the rest of your life. But realize that adjuncting pays very little, and places you at the whim of your department’s teaching schedule.

Chasing Tenure

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 it’s not all milk-and-honey.

Tenure-track jobs are fairly rare. In October 2015, in my chosen speciality (phonetics), there are currently 6 tenure track jobs open in the US and Canada. And that’s treating 2 general positions that are open to phonetics folks as options. And this is considered to be a pretty great year, often there are only 1 or 2. So often, you need to just “get in line”, and wait out the position that’s right for you.

This means you have startlingly little control over your destiny, because you basically don’t get to choose where you’ll end up. You’ll apply to anything that’s open, and if the university of the Sixth Circle of Hell offers you a tenure-track position, then pack your foil suit and welder’s hat, because you’re on your way. You need to be sure that you are willing to relocate, and that your partner is able to do whatever they do, wherever you end up. And you need to be prepared, particularly if you have to be picky, to spend a few years adjuncting or being otherwise under-employed, as you wait for a position to come along.

If you and your partner are both academics, you’ll be trying to find one school with job openings for both of you. This is very, very hard to do, and gives rise to the classic “two body problem”. It can be overcome, particularly if a department really wants one or the other of you and can convince another department to make a job, but this is something to consider, both as you search for jobs, and as you search for partners.

The other factor is that these jobs are really competitive. For example, I was recently (peripherally) involved in a job search for a (fairly niche) tenure track position. 80+ people applied. Of those, 20-30 were serious candidates (who actually met the qualifications and subfield well enough to consider), four people were invited to interview, and one got the job. In order to get one of these positions, you need to be very good at what you do, and to be able to show that to the world.

Finding a tenure-track job within linguistics is hard, but it’s not hopeless, particularly if you’re in a speciality which is in demand, and if you’re able to distinguish yourself somehow or another (unique research, lots of publications, etc). Several of my friends and colleagues have found great jobs at great schools, and at the end of the day, if your passions are teaching and language, you’re going to make it work.

So, I’d advise you think long and hard about whether the Tenure-track world is for you, and whether you’d be happier in industry. Academic linguistics is a weird road, and not for the faint of heart. But if you’re one of us who can’t picture doing anything else with your life, well, welcome. We’re all rooting for you.


Mind you, this is just my perspective. I’m just a young faculty member, I have my own particular biases, and there are likely many 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, think things through, ask the right questions, but 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 and do interesting research, 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.

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