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Will Styler

Assistant Teaching Professor - UC San Diego

This was originally posted on my blog, Notes from a Linguistic Mystic, but I've moved it here and kept it updated. As this was always one of the most popular on the site, I've kept it updated to reflect the changing job market and world. It's current as of October 2018. See all posts

What kinds of jobs can a linguist get?

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, but honestly, not too many.

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.

It's worth noting that some 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.

Unfortunately, though, an MA won't get you far in Academia, and a faculty position, even as an adjunct is simply not an option without the Ph.D in most American universities.

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 that, whether doing an MA makes financial sense. For exactly this reason, unless you're doing tech or TESOL, I don't recommend you spend money for a Linguistics MA, and many departments don't even offer an MA in Linguistics, reflecting this view.

"Maybe I should get a Ph.D in Linguistics!"

Honestly, no, you probably shouldn't.

I say that not because a Ph.D in Linguistics is a bad thing, or an awful process. I say it even though Linguistics is a great field and a worthy pursuit. I say that, still feeling happy with my choices, and from the comfort of a Tenure track type job. In fact, it pains me to say it at all. But it's pretty true, and it's a big problem for the field.

The simple fact is that American Academia's not a great place for Linguistics Ph.Ds right now. Tenure track jobs are few and far between, and the competition grows every year, as departments around the world continue to produce new tenure track hopefuls more quickly than university administrators produce new tenure track jobs. And short-term academic jobs off of the tenure track are not a way to make a life or a living, even though university administrators are increasingly relying on them. I'll discuss this issue more later in this article, but simply put, the odds of you successfully landing the kind of job that your linguistics professors have right now are not good.

It's also the case that even in industry, a Linguistics Ph.D is a very specialized tool that many folks aren't looking for. Think of the number of people who, when you explain that you study Linguistics, look at you blankly. Those same people are often hiring for corporate jobs, and unless it's a speech-focused company, people with language problems often don't even know they need a linguist, let alone where to find one. Computational Linguists and Speech Scientists have a better chance in industry, but even still, if you're after gainful employment, there are surer bets (even in Ph.D's). If you know you want to go into industry, a Ph.D is a much more reasonable plan, but it's still a bet, and you need to be prepared for some uncertainty.

It's also the case that the costs of the Ph.D are growing increasingly large. Even putting aside the money (discussed below), this is 4-7 years of your life where you cannot put down roots (as your next job will likely not be where your Ph.D program is), you're paid barely enough to stay afloat (if you're lucky), and you're going to put in long hours between learning and teaching and writing, leaving little left elsewhere. Grad school was a pleasant time in my life, and I remember much of it fondly, but comparing my life to that of friends and family who chose a more conventional route, I realize now that nearly 7 years of financial stasis (at best) immediately after college has left me behind the curve fiscally, as well as in terms of a stable career and a reasonable adult life. Even in a well-funded Ph.D program, where you can leave the program in roughly the financial shape you started off, the opportunity costs of getting a Ph.D (in anything!) are huge.

So, getting a Ph.D in today's educational and academic climate in the USA is a bit of a gamble, and doing so in a field which is producing Ph.Ds at much-higher-than-replacement rates is even more so.

So, you should strongly consider whether other fields, other paths, and other careers would also allow you to be happy and healthy, with a much higher probability of material success. And you might also consider approaching your interests in language from another field where jobs are more plentiful, for instance, a Natural Language Processing focused degree in Computer Science, or working in Speech Pathology or Audiology.

But there's going to be a subset of you who are like me, and for whom everything I just said will be no deterrent. For whom a burning passion for Language, for answering questions, and for better understanding this thing that we do with letters and sounds to express our thoughts to others will override all practical concerns. So, if you can think of nothing else you'd rather do with your life, like me, then read on.

“Ph.D, here I come!”

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 fellowship 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", and 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 in Linguistics is crazy. If you don't get a funding offer, try other schools, or improve your application and try again next year. If nobody else is willing to pay for your schooling, you'll be better off looking at other options than going deep into debt on what is already a bit of a gamble.

You should also remember that stipends mean different things in different places. Don't hesitate to ask other grad students about local cost-of-living, and remember that a higher offer may still mean less in your pocket if local cost-of-living is out of control. Money shouldn't be the main factor driving your applications, but the best program in the world means little if you can't afford to finish.

But once 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 usually be enough, if you make smart choices.

Also, there are lots of companies in industry 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 many 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. 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 being left holding the bag. 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 may be just a bit easier in case you end up changing jobs down the road.

“That’s Doctor Linguist to you!”

Finally, if you push through and get the Ph.D, nearly all of the opportunities mentioned above will be open to you, and a few 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. And it's never too early to start networking, thinking about internships and making friends in the industry you're working on.

There are also jobs for linguists in other places that aren't industry, but aren't quite academia either. For instance, a rare few linguists, many of whom 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. And no doubt, even if you're outside the US, there's an agency in your home country that might be appreciative of your skills.

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, as an invited guest academic, given time and support to work on their own questions, or simply acting as a member of a department who needs some help for a little while. In Linguistics, a Post-Doc or two is rapidly becoming a requirement, given the glut of over-qualified Linguistics Ph.Ds on the job market, but it's also a pretty good setup, if you can land one. It's usually 1-2 years of reasonable financial support, where you can get some publications, get some new experience, and learn about a new department, and buy more time before going on the job market. Many people have multiple Post Docs as a result, some jumping around the world.

You can also take a lecturer or adjunct faculty position, where you're not on track for tenure. At most universities, you'll no job security at all, but it's a job, and you'll be at the helm of classes and getting (under)paid 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 no Post-Docs are available in your field. But realize that adjuncting pays very little, places you at the whim of your department's teaching schedule, and generally offers no long term path forward, except by moving to another job elsewhere. Practically speaking, in 2018, adjuncting is someplace between "treading water" and "drowning", and isn't a sustainable long term plan.

Chasing Tenure

Finally, some people look to continue climbing the academic ladder and eventually become 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 professor. It's a pretty sweet gig, but it's also very hard to find.

Open tenure-track jobs are becoming exceedingly rare. In Fall 2017, in my chosen speciality (phonetics), there were three tenure track jobs open in the US and Canada. The year before, there was one in my specialization. The job market for linguistics Ph.Ds in academia in the English-speaking world right now is brutal, as few people are retiring and few new positions are being opened up. Many wolves, few steaks, and a small enclosure.

The other factor is that these jobs are really competitive. For example, in one recent (niche) job search, 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, you need to be able to show that to the world, and you need to hope that nobody more senior and more qualified than you is searching at the same time.

All of this means you have startlingly little control over your destiny, because you basically don't get to choose where, geographically, 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 mask, 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 post-docking, adjuncting or being otherwise under-employed, as you wait for a position to come along.

If you and a partner are both academics, you'll be trying to find one school with job openings for both of you, or the ability to create a job for your partner. This is 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. I was once sat down and told earnestly, by a senior faculty member, that I should not even consider a relationship with another academic for precisely this reason. Hard advice, and the heart wants what it wants, but if you can follow it, it's good advice.

Finding a tenure-track job within linguistics is really, really 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, excellent teaching, etc), and if you're able to stay on the market long enough to become senior enough to be competitive. Myself, as well as several of my friends and colleagues have found great tenure-track jobs at great schools, and at the end of the day, if your passions are teaching and language, you're going to make something work. But you need to seriously consider what you're going to do if you're unable to find a position in academia, because right now, that's exceedingly likely.

One other thing that you're not told is that the academic job market is, frankly, emotionally brutal. Not intentionally so, but the sum total of it is really difficult. You will fear for your future. You will feel terribly inadequate. Your imposter syndrome will flare up. You will be put in direct competition with friends and colleagues for few positions. You will "apply into the void" much more often than you get any response, and many schools won't even send out a rejection email, let alone a response explaining why you weren't hired and where you can improve. And you'll face sleepless nights, wondering whether you made the right choice, whether you should've done X, Y or Z differently, and whether it's too late to move to Siberia and just raise muskrats. I applied for jobs for four years before I landed a faculty position, and until the phone call came in extending me an offer for what basically amounted to a dream job, the anxiety was real, every single day. I say this not to dissuade you, but to let you know that when it happens, you're not alone in feeling that way, and that you have my deepest sympathy.

Put more simply: If you're looking to get a Ph.D in Linguistics with the intent to teach or remain in academia, the odds in 2018 remain strongly against you. You are not guaranteed a job, post-doc, tenure track, or otherwise, and even if you're able to find an academic position, there's a very good chance that you'll be adjuncting or doing Post-Docs for 2-5 years following your graduation. And you will need to out-last many on the market. If you are contemplating getting a Ph.D in Linguistics only so that you can teach in Linguistics in the USA, you are making a very risky choice, and I would advise you strongly consider alternative paths to your own happiness.

So, I'm living proof that it can work out, but think long and hard about whether you will be able to endure this process, whether you want to try your luck here, and whether you'd be happier in industry, or in another field. But if you're one of us who can't picture doing anything else with your life, well, we're all rooting for you.

Disclaimer

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 or the Academic Jobs Wiki for the current year).

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 hopefully, you'll get there.