Should you go to grad school for linguistics?

So I’ve had this talk, in different forms, with lots of different people over the last couple of years. Mainly undergrads thinking about applying to PhD programs in linguistics but, occasionally, people in industry thinking about going back to school as well. Every single one of these people was smart, cool, dedicated, hard-working, a great linguist and would have been an asset to the field. And when they asked me, a current linguistics graduate student, whether it was a good idea to go to grad school in linguistics, I gave them all the same answer:

“But Rachael,” you say, “you’re going to grad school in linguistics and having all sorts of fun. Why are you trying to keep me from doing the same thing?” Two big reasons.

The Job Market for Linguistics PhDs

What do you want to do when you get out of grad school? If you’re like most people, you’ll probably say you want to teach linguistics at the college or university level. What you should know is that this is an increasingly unsustainable career path.

In 1975, 30 percent of college faculty were part-time. By 2011, 51 percent of college faculty were part-time, and another 19 percent were non–tenure track, full-time employees. In other words, 70 percent were contingent faculty, a broad classification that includes all non–tenure track faculty (NTTF), whether they work full-time or part-time.

More Than Half of College Faculty Are Adjuncts: Should You Care? by Dan Edmonds.

And most of these part-time faculty, or adjuncts, are very poorly paid. This survey from 2015 found that 62% of adjuncts made less than $20,000 a year. This is even more upsetting you consider that you need a PhD and scholarly publications to even be considered for one of these posts.

(“But what about being paid for your research publications?” you ask. “Surely you can make a few bucks by publishing in those insanely expensive academic journals.” While I understand where you’re coming from–in almost any other professional publishing context it’s completely normal to be paid for your writing–authors of academic papers are not paid. Nor are the reviewers. Furthermore, authors are often charged fees by the publishers. One journal I was recently  looking at charges $2,900 per article, which  is about three times the funding my department gives us for research over our entire degree. Not a scam journal, either–an actual reputable venue for scholarly publication.)

Yes, there are still tenure-track positions available in linguistics, but they are by far the minority. What’s more, even including adjunct positions, there are still fewer academic posts than graduating linguists with PhDs. It’s been that way for a while, too, so even for a not-so-great adjunct position you’ll be facing stiff competition. Is it impossible to find a good academic post in linguistics? No. Are the odds in your (or my, or any other current grad student’s) favor? Also no. But don’t take it from me. In Surviving Linguistics: A Guide for Graduate Students (which I would highly recommend) Monica Macaulay says:

[It] is common knowledge that we are graduating more PhDs than there are faculty positions available, resulting in certain disappointment for many… graduates. The solution is to think creatively about job opportunities and keep your options open.

As Dr. Macaulay goes on to outline, there are jobs for linguists outside academia. Check out the LSA’s Linguistics Beyond Academia special interest group or the Linguists Outside Academia mailing list. There are lots of things you can do with a linguistics degree, from data science to forensic linguistics.

That said, there are degrees that will better prepare you for a career than a PhD in theoretical linguistics. A master’s degree in Speech Language Pathology (SLP) or Computational Linguistics or Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) will prepare you for those careers far better than a general PhD.

Even if you’re 100% dead set on teaching post-secondary students, you should look around and see what linguists are doing outside of universities. Sure, you might win the job-lottery, but at least some of your students probably won’t, and you’ll want to make sure they can find well-paying, fulfilling work.

Grad School is Grueling

Yes, grad school can absolutely be fun. On a good day, I enjoy it tremendously. But it’s also work. (And don’t give me any nonsense about it not being real work because you do it sitting down. I’ve had jobs that required hard physical and/or emotional labor, and grad school is exhausting.) I feel like I probably have a slightly better than average work/life balance–partly thanks to my fellowship, which means I have limited teaching duties and don’t need a second job any more–and I’m still actively trying to get better about stopping work when I’m tired. I fail, and end up all tearful and exhausted, about once a week.

It’s also emotionally draining. Depression runs absolutely rampant among grad students. This 2015 report from Berkeley, for example, found that over two thirds of PhD students in the arts and sciences were depressed. The main reason? Point number one above–the stark realities of the job market. It can be absolutely gutting to see a colleague do everything right, from research to teaching, and end up not having any opportunity to do the job they’ve been preparing for. Especially since you know the same lays in wait for you.

And “doing everything right” is pretty Herculean in and of itself. You have to have very strong personal motivation to finish a PhD. Sure, your committee is there to provide oversight and you have drop-dead due dates. But those deadlines are often very far away and, depending on your committee, you may have a lot of independence. That means motivating yourself to work steadily while manage several ongoing projects in parallel (you’re publishing papers in addition to writing your dissertation, right?) and not working yourself to exhaustion in the process. Basically you’re going to need a big old double helping of executive functioning.

And oh by the way, to be competitive in the job market you’ll also need to demonstrate you can teach and perform service for your school/discipline. Add in time to sleep, eat, get at least a little exercise and take breaks (none of which are optional!) and you’ve got a very full plate indeed. Some absolutely iron-willed people even manage all of this while having/raising kids and I have nothing but respect for them.

Main take-away

Whether inside or outside of academia, it’s true that a PhD does tend to correlate with higher salary–although the boost isn’t as much as you’d get from a related professional degree. BUT in order to get that higher salary you’ll need to give up some of your most productive years. My spouse (who also  has a bachelors in linguistics) got a master’s degree,  found a good job,  got promoted and has cultivated a professional social network in the time it’s taken me just to get to the point of starting my dissertation.The opportunity cost of spending five more years (at a minimum–I’ve heard of people who took more than a decade to finish) in school, probably in your twenties, is very, very high. And my spouse can leave work at work, come home on weekends and just chill. This month I’ve got four full weekends of either conferences or outreach. Even worse, no matter how hard I try to stamp it out, I’ve got a tiny little voice in my head that’s very quietly screaming “you should be working” literally all the time.

I’m being absolutely real right now: going to grad school for linguistics is a bad investment of your time and labor. I knew that going in–heck, I knew that before I even applied–and I still went in. Why? Because I decided that, for me, it was a worthwhile trade-off. I really like doing research. I really like being part of the scientific community. Grad school is hard, yes, but overall I’m enjoying myself. And even if I don’t end up being able to find a job in academia (although I’m still hopeful and still plugging away at it) I really, truly believe that the research I’m doing now is valuable and interesting and, in some small way, helping the world. What can I say? I’m a nerdy idealist.

But this is 100% a personal decision. It’s up to you as an individual to decide whether the costs are worth it to you. Maybe you’ll decide, as I have, that they are. But maybe you won’t. And to make that decision you really do need to know what those costs are. I hope I’ve helped to begin making them clear. 

One final thought: Not going to grad school doesn’t mean you’re not smart. In fact, considering everything I’ve discussed above, it probably means you are.

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5 responses

  1. I’m a PhD student entering my 7th year. It is grueling. But I’m not in it to advance my career prospects — I have a “real” job in industry, and finishing the degree won’t confer any benefits I don’t already enjoy — I’m in it because I want to know the answers. (Well, also because with 6 years of momentum it seems silly to stop now.) Here is how I advise people: If you want to learn more about the subject, a Masters program is a great way to do that. If you have a small or medium sized question you want to research within the gates of academe, a Masters program is a great way to do that. Only if you have a large question which has not been addressed before that you want to spend years focused on should you consider a PhD program — and once you have passed that hurdle, you need to pick the person you want to work with before you take your next step. Find out who in the field you want as an advisor, and go talk with them, they are really the only person who 1) can guide you through the process, 2) if you and they see remotely eye-to-eye on the subject, and 3) if you can get into their program. What should you expect from completing your PhD? Nothing but a 300 page stack of paper it took 4-8 years of your life to write. I see too many people (like I did) entering a PhD program not knowing what question they want to answer and not knowing who they wanted to work with. Hence years of time wasted figuring that part out, and once I had figured it out I was stuck in the program where I’d spent those years without flexibility to transfer elsewhere.

  2. Thanks, Rachael, for a candid post. The decision to do a PhD in linguistics should not be taken lightly. I would take a less discouraging position than you (maybe unfairly), but would suggest three key things to address the valid concerns that you raise.

    i. Do anything possible to figure out ahead of time whether this is the right path for you. Post-bac positions are unfortunately scarce in linguistics, but they can be a great way to find out. I’ve seen equally wonderful people go through this process and decide that a graduate degree is right for them or is not the path that they will most like. Good decisions in either case.

    ii. Really, really do your homework on the environment in the program or research group where you’ll end up. Forget cachet, forget geography, and look at the support network that you’ll have, and the intellectual community. It makes a huge difference to the graduate school experience, and to subsequent outcomes.

    iii. PhDs can be successful contributors to society in many ways. And that includes linguistics PhDs. We’ve had great presentations by people who are successfully using the skills from their linguistics PhD in rewarding non-academic careers. They were surprised at the things that their linguistics PhD made them unusually good at.

  3. Really excellent post. Thank you. This is very similar to what I tell MA students who are wondering about PhD programs. The one thing I would mention that mitigates a bit of the badness is that most of the contingent faculty positions in linguistics are not adjuncting. This is because there just isn’t such a huge market for undergrad teaching in linguistics. Instead, most of the temporary positions mentioned in that Language Log post are likely to be 1-3 year post-doc or Visiting Assistant Professor positions. Now, being a post-doc or VAP isn’t a dream job, but you definitely get paid more than $20K and get benefits. And, depending on the department and your colleagues, some of these jobs actually *are* pretty close to dream jobs, except for the ending after 1-3 years thing.

  4. I have been seeing many 1-semester/1-year teaching positions on LinguisList, and it makes me furious and nauseated as it is a form of exploitation. See this article on why such practice should stop: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/academia-has-to-stop-eating-its-young/article23296659/

    I have in fact on a couple of occasions written to the persons (usually department chairs) who posted such temp positions and told them that they are practicing academic cannibalism on young PhDs and they should be ashamed of themselves. People with some conscience should boycott such practice. LinguistList should stop posting such adverts and departments should stop this exploitative practice. Simply because the job market is bleak does not mean you should exploit fresh PhD graduates. It is better for them to realize soon that academia is a dead-end for them and seek other options in life, than being “strung along”. Also, enrollment into PhD programs must shrink, and Linguistics programs must begin to incorporate coursework and training that prepares students for non-academic positions. For departments to do nothing is shameful indeed!!!!!

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