Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Grad school?

Color me sheepish. I misspelled Rachael Tatman's name. I left out the  'a'. I am sorry. I will now correct it but this is an apology.

Rachael Tatman has written a very thoughtful post on going to grad school in linguistics (here). She is currently a ling grad student and her post considers the question of whether it is worth going to grad school in linguistics given the dim prospects of landing a tenure track job in an academic linguistics department. As she points out, the odds are stacked against this possibility, so going to grad school is akin to buying a lottery ticket if one’s hope is for a permanent academic appointment that can sustain a semi-decent standard of living.  I have a couple of comments on her piece, but I urge you to take a look. It is an excellent post. Some comments.

First, this horrid job market is a long-standing problem. It occurred when I was looking for work in the early 1980s as well. I recall that at that time grad schools would send out letters with acceptances noting the paucity of academic jobs while all the while noting the intellectual stimulation that grad school would provide. If anything, things have gotten worse. This is especially so given that there are many part time/adjunct jobs that often pay miserably, have no benefits and give the illusion that something better might crop up. For many this never pans out. So, things stink now in a different way than they were lousy in my time.

The paucity of jobs has a second effect, one that I think we might be able to mitigate somewhat. If you leave academia then you are generally also leaving the discipline. This need not be so, but it is. One could imagine dedicated non-academic linguists still enjoying a professional association with linguistics. For example, they could be affiliated with departments even if not paid by them, they would be welcome to conferences and workshops etc. I don’t know how many would partake, but the possibility of not leaving linguistics when not getting a job might be attractive to some who really are doing linguistics because they love the work. For many, it’s the issues and research that is the most attractive feature and this need not become impossible to do in the absence of a paid academic position. However, right now, it seems to me, that there is really no place for the dedicated amateur (i.e. non paid professional).

Third, I cannot tell whether Rachael is suggesting this or not, but one way of making life less distressing is simply to not admit as many grad students to begin with. I personally do not like this option, though most university administrators do. I don’t like it because it ends up seeing graduate education as only instrumentally valuable. What’s good is what trains you for a job. But I don’t see education’s virtues in this way. The work is intellectually interesting and intrinsically rewarding.  The possibility of doing it should be up to the individual, though grad admissions should make clear that though the work can be rewarding, the job prospects are tough.

But, the lousy situation does put more responsibility on grad depts. They (we) should do their best to prevent students from going deeply into hock, i.e. decent stipends should be routine. We should help students do the rewarding stuff well (write papers, go to conferences, provide feedback etc.). We should try to make the grad years really intellectually fulfilling.

We should also encourage MA+PhD degrees, where the MA might lead to employment. Rachel discusses this too insightfully. I agree with her.

Last point, again reiterating a point that Rachael makes: don’t go to grad school unless you really like doing the work. It is hard and frustrating and need not lead anywhere career wise. Go if you like the problems and you like doing research on problems for which there are, as yet, no explanations. Many very smart people don’t like the unsettled nature of basic research. They don’t like working on problems for which there is no back of the book to glance at to find the “right” answer. If this is not your cup of tea, don’t go to grad school. Rachel has made a strong case that going to grad school in linguistics is not a smart career choice. The only good reason to go is the intellectual allure. If this suits you, it’s a great 4-5 years whatever else happens. If no, don’t!


  1. A good post, indeed, but I disagree with the claim that an MA in a specific field is a better preparation for a job than a PhD. It is a more efficient preparation since it only takes two years, but nothing prevents you from learning the same material during the five years of your PhD plus some other stuff on top. And in contrast to an MA, a PhD offer is usually funded (if it isn't, don't take it). Here at Stony Brook, for example, our PhD students have access to a large number of computational courses, and it keeps growing. As a matter of fact, we have enough courses that it is impossible to take all of them in two years. Plus you get to do genuine computational research, which is worth a lot if you want to move up the career ladder at a latter point.

    So the job prospects in industry are a little dim only if you never venture beyond, say, theoretical syntax, but if those are your interests then a CompLing MA isn't a viable alternative anyways.

    1. I think I agree. I was thinking of doing a "useful" MA while also doing a PhD. So a kind of "minor" in speech pathology, for example. We might even consider having PhD programs fund this to some degree.

  2. I completely agree that you should think about your career options when deciding whether, where and in what field you should get a PhD. But I worry that the categorical "grad school in linguistics is a poor career decision" message the you and Rachel are sending is a bit too strong, especially since linguistics is such a heterogeneous field in terms of the skills and experience you come out of your PhD with (as Thomas has pointed out). I've written some more about this here.

  3. My impression of dabbling with the job market outside of academia is that it is easy enough to get a job that pays at least as much as a junior academic position if you have some technical skills (e.g. I have been offered programming / hardware jobs that meet this description). The difficult part is to persuade tech companies to see you as anything other than a junior hire in the absence of any previous industry experience. There are some linguistics PhDs who can seriously present themselves as candidates for a mid-level position in some kind of technical role on the basis of what they've done during their PhD programs, but I think that they are a fairly small minority. (And they work on topics that many of us simply wouldn't have wanted to work on in grad school.)

    So, yes, the prospects for making a living are not so bad. The worry for many people, I think, is the feeling that you are starting at 30 a career that you should have started at 21.