LINGUIST List 8.380

Tue Mar 18 1997

Sum: Advice on PhD in Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Bill Croft, Advice on PhD in Linguistics

Message 1: Advice on PhD in Linguistics

Date: Tue, 11 Mar 1997 19:14:25 +0000
From: Bill Croft <>
Subject: Advice on PhD in Linguistics

About three weeks ago I posted a query to LINGUIST asking, in the
context of the current (and future) virtually nonexistent job market
for linguistics in academia, what sort of advice to give to
undergraduates who might go on to do a Ph.D. in linguistics. This is a
summary of the responses. Not surprisingly, it is a sensitive subject,
and several respondents requested anonymity. I asked all other
respondents if they minded being named. Let me thank Danny Moonhawk
Alford, Leah Bateman, Mayrene Bentley, Carrie Clarady, Timothy
Clausner, Kurt Dusterhoff, Thomas Ernst, Daniel Everett, Sharon Flank,
Nancy Frishberg, Sharon Goodman, Richard Hudson, Ana von Klopp,
Bernard Kripkee, Mai Kuha, Elizabeth Ann Lenell, Margaret Luebs,
Mayumi Masuko, Corey Miller, Carl Mills, Zazie Todd and four
respondents who requested anonymity or did not explicitly authorize me
to thank them by name.


(i) Tell prospective students what's in store. Students WANT advice--
- honest, realistic advice----on their job prospects, and resent it
when they don't get it. It would also be useful to give them advice
on what life in academia is really like. I got very few responses
from my fellow professors/lecturers; instead they were mainly from
the students who are in this situation, or have already given up.
(ii) The advice I currently give was generally judged to be correct,
with one or two modifications. The advice, revised, is repeated in
(iii) Outstanding students who want to pursue a PhD in linguistics
should be given the facts of the academic job market, and supported
if they want to continue. The main additional point is to encourage
them to diversify, that is, develop some other skills (computational
linguistics, cognitive science, a foreign language, TESOL were the
possibilities named), in addition to the "pure" linguistics they want
to pursue. Also, we teachers must educate ourselves on the non-
academic options available to linguistics PhDs---there are a number
of these (examples given were the computer industry, publishing,
technical writing, law).
(iv) Outstanding students who don't express an interest in pursuing a
PhD in linguistics shouldn't be persuaded to do so.
(v) Not so outstanding students who want to pursue a PhD in
linguistics offered the most difficult case. It is hard to actively
discourage them, but the consensus seems to be that an honest
assessment of their personal chances, both for getting funding for
PhD research and for getting a job, is the best advice to give them.
(Of course, this is true for the outstanding students as well, but
it's not a face-threatening act with them.)
(vi) The general though not unanimous consensus was that students
interested in unfashionable subareas and nonmainstream theories
should not be encouraged to abandon them, other than the general
advice to obtain diverse training in their PhD studies.
(vii) The American respondents were universally pessimistic about
future changes in job prospects, while some UK respondents thought
things would improve in the next decade. Besides the usual reasons---
demographics, government policies---it was also suggested that we
linguists had not done a decent job, or any job, at convincing the
wider public (or their instruments, government legislatures) that
linguistics was an important subject worth sustaining in
universities. While this is probably true, it pales in significance
in comparison to the general anti-government attitude on the part of
the public and the politicians they elect, which denies the value of
public goods such as basic research and an educated citizenry. Until
that attitude changes, I see no reason to be really optimistic---but
these things tend to be cyclical.


Few of the respondents were those to whom I directed my query, namely
professors/lecturers to whom these students come for guidance. Most
of the responses were from the students themselves: some still
working on their PhD's; some on the job market; some who just got
tenure-track jobs; and some who had abandoned academia. All of the
student responses were moving, some of them heartbreaking. One former
student wrote "I remain shocked that so few faculty members see job
prospects, job search, career outlook, etc as part of their
responsibilities to the students they accept to their graduate
programs and as advisees." This view was echoed by other students,
although there were also students who were given realistic advice and
were very thankful to have been given it.

Despite a few outliers, the general pattern was that respondents who
had gotten tenure-track jobs, or were tenured professors, were more
optimistic or idealistic than those still working on their PhDs or
looking for jobs; and those who had been on the job market longer ago
(when it was better) were more optimistic/idealistic than those who
were on the job market recently, or on it now. This is not
surprising. It's easy to be more optimistic about survival when you
yourself have survived.

The questions, and the summary of the answers:

>(1) What advice do you give to students in the following
>three categories?
>(a) an outstanding undergraduate student who wants to
>pursue a PhD in linguistics.
>(b) an outstanding undergraduate student who has not
>expressed an interest in pursuing a PhD in linguistics.
>(c) a good but not outstanding undergraduate student who
>wants to pursue a PhD in linguistics.
>[The advice I currently give is as follows: (a) I tell them
>what the job market is really like, and what academia is
>really like, and advise them that if they really love what
>they are doing and want to spend the next 4-6 years doing
>it with the real possibility of having to choose another
>career, they should go ahead. This pessimistic perspective
>has not stopped any of my students yet, incidentally. (b)
>If they have other career interests, I don't try to talk
>them into an academic career. (c) I give them the facts of
>academic life as for the (a) group, but I don't encourage
>them. However, I haven't actively discouraged them either.]

	The general view was that the advice I currently give is
largely OK. A common attitude, even among the students who face
directly the prospect of not finding a job, was that they loved what
they were doing, and that it was worth doing even just for the length
of time of their PhD. Regarding the material side, one wrote, "Those
of us who have always wanted to be in academics have always expected
to be poor and occasionally out of work, and our fellow students who
wanted wealth and stability dropped off to take degrees in accounting
or engineering years ago, anyway."

	From the personal stories that students gave me, it was clear
that most of them fell in love with linguistics; it's pretty clear
that self-selection has already eliminated the less motivated. One
wrote, "linguistics has been an enriching and unreplaceable
experience in my life, even though I have not graduated yet. I tried
doing more lucrative and secure things and I was not happy." Not
everyone shared this view. A gypsy scholar wrote of her students,
"Basically I tell them it's a choice between doing what you love and
making money. Twelve years ago when I started in linguistics, I
would have said the choice was obvious: Do what you love and the
money will follow, as the saying goes. But now I'm not at all sure."

	One student wrote "your students are ultimately responsible for
their own lives. If they choose to go into linguistics, knowing the
prospects, that's their problem, not yours." However, several others
said if they still intended to go ahead after all the warnings (and
were outstanding), we should give them as much encouragement and
support as possible. I fully agree with this---once a student has
made her/his decision, we should help them in every way possible.

	There were two major additions to my advice. The first was that
we should encourage students to "diversify, diversify, diversify" (as
one put it), that is, gain expertise in something that might allow
for a related job opportunity, either in academia or outside of it
(see below). First, a student could develop expertise in a
specialized area of linguistics which gives them more job options.
Examples given were: computational linguistics (including programming
experience); ESL/TESOL; composition (for teaching in an English
department), or a foreign language (an economically important one, of

	Or, a student could do a genuinely interdisciplinary
degree. One lucky student worked in an area "between linguistics,
semiotics, media and visual communication". Another possibility is
cognitive science. Yet another is psychology (many language
acquisition specialists take their PhD's in psychology, and most
language acquisition jobs are in psychology departments anyway). And
another is speech pathology (which could also lead to a nonacademic
career). Another student suggested a Master's degree in a related
(perhaps more "practical") field, then go on to a PhD in linguistics

	The second addition is that we must do a better job of making
students aware that there are nonacademic job opportunities where one
can use their advanced linguistics expertise. An attitude that should be
avoided is described by one student: "I think it wouldn't be so bad
if departments made an effort to help students get nonacademic jobs
(or at least thought about the possibilities), but instead you're
made to feel that you've failed if you go that route." Another PhD,
long out of academia, wrote that "faculty members have such a limited
view of what one can do with a degree in linguistics."

	Several people mentioned a session at this year's LSA about
nonacademic careers for linguistics PhDs, but none could remember
details. One wrote that the session was "more inspirational than it
was specific", but "I found it psychologically helpful in getting me
to be willing to apply to non-academic positions". Another said of
the session that she recognized that "just because someone doesn't
get a tenure-track job at a university, it doesn't mean that their
skills are useless; they may just need to become more creative when
marketing their skills." Among the options mentioned, often the
professions of the students/recent PhDs responding, were:

*speech recognition
*natural language processing and information retrieval. Sharon
Flank of SRA International ( wrote,
"even Oracle now sings the praises of linguists and linguistics.
Linguists with coursework in computer science, particularly NLP and
C/C++, should have no trouble finding challenging, research-and-
development-oriented positions that use their advanced skills and
encourage publication."
*computing in general: one wrote "even though I have chosen not to do
NLP now, skills you develop as a linguist are useful in other areas
[of computing] as well"
*human computer interaction, user interface design (this person noted
that many relevant nonacademic areas didn't even exist when she was a
PhD student, so one can take heart)
*software. One student noted that "grammar" checkers are terrible,
and wrote "surely there is employment for many linguists in
developing a useful grammar tool."
*technical writing
*four-year colleges or junior colleges (in the US system). Salaries
are lower, tenure is absent, but for those who love to teach, they
can be satisfying.

	There were other useful suggestions for advice. One student
asked us to remind students that, if unsuccessful at getting an
academic job, they will be a lot older and out on the nonacademic
market. On the other hand, another student, who is doing a PhD as a
second career, pointed out that nowadays, job counselors say that "it
is reasonable to expect no fewer than five job *type* changes. Not
just positions, but job types." One respondent had done a PhD in
mathematics in 1964, then taught himself neurophysiology, then bought
and sold two software companies and worked in a third, then retired,
and is now doing a PhD in linguistics. (He recommended doing a
business career before an academic one.)

	A former academic pointed out that an academic job is not 100%,
or I might add even 50%, the excitement of doing research and
teaching committed students. It's a job---moreover one that doesn't
end at nights or on weekends---and that includes office politics,
lots of inane administrative duties, a constant fight for adequate
research and teaching facilities, and students and even colleagues
who are not as in love with the search for knowledge as one might

	Regarding (1b) and (1c): nobody suggested that an outstanding
undergraduate in linguistics should be persuaded to do linguistics if
they already had other career plans. The most difficult case for
respondents to deal with were the not so outstanding students who did
want to pursue a PhD in linguistics. Some professors stated that such
students would not get funding for their PhD studies so no dilemma
would be involved---a brutal assessment on first glance, but probably
an accurate one. There is an implicit recommendation in that remark
that students should not do PhD research unless they are funded (or
are independently wealthy). Several students stated that they would
want, as one put it, "an accurate assessment of my linguistic
ability, my prospects for being accepted by graduate schools, and my
prospects of actually finishing my Ph.D." Another student said, "to
less promising studetns I would add...the observation that there were
people who were better cut out for academic research (they might as
well be told, especially if they're going to spend their own money)."
So, difficult at this may be, it should be done.

>(2) For those of you in small or "non-mainstream" areas of
>linguistics, what do you tell students in (1a)-(1c),
>including students who have started their PhD courses and
>say "I want to do [your subfield], but I don't know if it's
>worth it because there are no jobs in it".
>[I actually haven't had to give such advice because those
>who have come to me have been pretty firm about their
>interest in my subfield(s), but I've heard of others in
>this situation.]

Few responded to this question directly. The general response to (1)
- -that if a student loves linguistics, they should pursue it---
presumably applies also to students' love of a particular area of
linguistics, even if it is unfashionable. Two respondents suggested
advising students to move into something more marketable (one being a
student who had received such advice). On the other hand, one
respondent wrote, "I've seen too many people study things they're not
interested in, believing the job prospects are better - and ending up
with mediocre work and a depressing 4 years."

>(3) Are there *sound* reasons for thinking the economic
>situation in higher education in the US and/or western
>Europe will change significantly for the better in the near
>future (i.e. by the time currently finishing undergraduates
>would receive a PhD)?
>[I should note that for 15 years now I have been reading
>that there will be a big improvement in the academic job
>market "just around the corner", and I'm still waiting.]

All of the American respondents were pessimistic. Three UK
respondents (all faculty members) thought that things would improve
in the near future because a large number of professors would be
retiring at or around the end of the decade.

	And yet, new PhD programs are being established by
universities, churning out more PhD students. One
department head wrote, "Administrators are concerned with
rankings and if we play the numbers ranking game, we are
doomed to a vicious cycle." A student wrote, "are academic
institutions socially responsible?...If universities
produce so many people with advanced degrees that many of
them are not going to be employed, then I feel that's a
systemic problem, not just a thorny question for the
individual faculty member's conscience." Another student
wrote, "the current situation (endless PhDs being churned
out to fill fewer & fewer jobs) is insane, has been for a
long time, and shows signs of getting worse. It makes me so
angry when I hear about a new PhD program being started."

	It was suggested that the LSA make a ranking of
departments based on academic quality. This is already done by the
government in the UK (the "Research Assessment Exercise").
It was also suggested that linguistics should consider re-
merging with related departments. I found this suggestion
an unusual proposal for survival, but an American linguist
in an English department pointed out to me that a small
department is more likely to be eliminated than a big one,
and she was certain she would have been eliminated at the
last budget cuts at her university if she weren't part of an English

	One student suggested that quantitative data would be valuable:
"I'd much rather hear that 10 out of 10,000 graduating linguists
found jobs than that the job market is really really bad". The only
quantitative data offered was from the LSA session, in which it was
said there were 60 jobs in linguistics comparated to 600 in
philosophy. Unfortunately what students really need to know is the
ratio of jobs to applicants (a rough measure of applicants would be
PhDs produced in the last 2-3 years), and a breakdown of the 60 jobs
into tenure-track vs temporary on the one hand, and "general" vs
"foreign language specialty" vs "ESL/applied" on the other. I will
send out another query on these lines. All I can say now is that in
1993, I was told that the LSA had listed fewer jobs than any year
since 1971---but that there were a lot more applicants in 1993. From
this, I concluded that the job market is the worst since the
Depression of the 1930s---which is to say, really really bad.

	So what about the future? Here is my attempt at market
forecasting for academic jobs:

(a) Demographics---Students. The birth rate in the US declined
precipitously from 1959 to 1978, and then started rising again. (I
don't know if it is still rising.) This decline has been reflected in
greater competition for university students, and has reduced demand
for professors, especially in the humanities. Now primary and
secondary schools in the US are expanding, and supposedly from 1996
onwards, the potential cohort will increase---but from a very low

	In the UK, the government encouraged universities to increase
the numbers of their students; but it appears that this policy of
expansion is at an end. One respondent noted that faculty staffing
levels have remained unchanged in the past decade in the UK. But at
Manchester---one of the best of the "old" civic universities---staff
levels are being cut and departments merged or eliminated. (Not

	Since I put out this query, I have read that the birth rate has
not increased since 1975 in any developed Western country except
Sweden and the United States. So there is no reason for optimism on
these grounds (for at least another 18 years), except in the US and

(b) Demographics---Faculty. This is the main reason given for
optimism. It is true that large numbers of faculty were hired in the
1960s. I have heard that the job market suddently tightened up around
1968 and has never been good since. So there is an age bulge in
current faculties. If we use a retirement age of 65 and an average
time of obtaining a PhD in the humanities of 7 years (a number I
heard in the US about ten years ago), then the time at which mass
retirements should occur would be around 2000 to 2004. In fact, one
of the UK respondents said 7 members of his department will be
retiring in 2004.

	It should be remembered though that because fewer faculty were
hired after 1968, this particular window of opportunity will starting
closing up after 2004, since there will be fewer faculty of
retirement age after that date. Things will get steadily worse for
the following 30 years, other things being equal. But other things
are already not equal...

(c) Government policies. This factor probably overwhelms the
demographic ones. In California the UC system is crammed with
students but there is no more money forthcoming (at least not in
linguistics). The fact of the matter is, governments have a lot less
discretionary funds and they're not giving much of what they do have
to higher education.

	One manifestation of this fact is the policy towards
retirement. The retirement cap for professors in the US was lifted in
1993. This means all those professors who we've been waiting for to
retire don't have to. Of course, many will anyway, and other means of
persuasion can be applied, such as the carrot of early retirement.
But retirees cost money too, and that money can't then be spent on
replacing all of the retirees, let alone expanding departments. So
much for the demographic window of opportunity, at least in the US.
(I was assured that the UK is not going to raise the retirement age---
but there is pressure to do so in western Europe, and I doubt the UK
can resist for long.)

	Several respondents raised the issue that linguists are not
doing a good enough job persuading the public (and hence
legislatures) that linguistics is an important subject and
linguistics teahcing & research should be maintained. This is
probably true; we need to do a better job.

	But it's much deeper than this. As one student who switched
fields wrote, "I assure you that the outlook is just as bleak from
the halls of other departments as it is from our own." In the current
political climate, selling linguistics to legislators will at best
preserve linguistics departments instead of some other less fortunate
discipline. Almost all academic disciplines are being strangled. The
Zeitgeist in the real world outside academia----in the US and the UK,
and increasingly in western Europe---is that government is bad,
virtually all taxes are a waste of money, and that as much as
possible should be done in the private sector, and hence subject to
market forces (which in turn are to be regulated as lightly as
possible). The idea that there exist public goods, including basic
research and an educated citizenry, has pretty much been drowned out
in the political arena. I don't think I'm exaggerating. The solution
to that problem is to change much broader public attitudes about what
is in the public good than just telling the voters or legislators how
important linguistics is. As one respondent said, "Perhaps the
current lack of respect for (and money for) learning will pass, too.
Maybe. It *could* happen."

Bill Croft
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