Rachael Tatman, a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Washington, has a new blog post up titled Should you get a PhD in linguistics. Her answer is a resounding NO. As someone who just graduated from a linguistics PhD program and doesn’t fully share her bleak conclusions, this seemed like a good topic to inaugurate this blog. The fact that the PhD is very recent in my mind means that I have some pretty strong opinions about the matter and that I am enthusiastic to share them, but also that my perspective is fairly limited, so I’d love to hear other opinions in the comments.
According to Tatman’s post, there are two main reasons you shouldn’t get a PhD in linguistics: the job market in linguistics is terrible, and grad school is grueling. I fully agree with the second point: getting a PhD is, in fact, really hard. Most graduate students have monthly crises where they decide to quit the program, then change their mind, then decide to quit again. And many end up actually quitting. Hal Daumé found in an informal Twitter poll last month that 78% of his followers who finished a PhD had had at least one “emotional crisis when they wondered if they could cut it”. Their crises were probably not brought on by job market anxiety: I imagine that like Hal most of the people who took the poll got their PhDs in computer science, a field that is facing such a spectacular shortage of professors that there are now one-year Master’s programs to train people with PhDs in other fields to teach in computer science departments. No: getting a PhD is actually, truly very hard.
Where I disagree with Tatman is the state of the job market. There are a lot of depressing stories about the academic job market in the humanities. Hordes of Yale English PhDs are reportedly shuttling between four different community colleges to scrape together $20,000 a year as adjuncts. I have no reason to doubt these stories. But I’m not convinced that linguistics is in the same boat. I don’t know the stats (if you do, leave a comment!), but my impression is that linguistics departments aren’t facing the same decline in undergraduate enrollments as many of the “core” humanities departments. If anything, some linguistics departments are expanding, which means that there is a reasonable number of job openings (though those positions are still very competitive, of course).
More important, though, is the fact that more and more linguists have computational and data analysis skills that make them eminently employable in the private sector. These jobs are really, really not the preserve of nerds who learned to be software engineers in their parent’s basement as teenagers. There is a huge demand right now for smart people with PhDs and quantitative research skills. Given how easy it was for people in my school who didn’t have any formal training in computer science to find a job as junior software engineers or data scientists, I’d say most of us are probably underestimating our chances of landing one of those jobs (perhaps after a two-month “boot camp”). If you’re less excited about the private sector, there’s a growing number of quantitative positions in governments and NGOs. And there are also plenty of non-quantitative jobs that linguistics PhDs are qualified to do, but I’m less familiar with those career paths and haven’t personally considered them.
The common perception that private sector (“industry”) jobs are looked down on by professors is almost certainly overblown, and even if that attitude still exists here and there, it’s on the decline. It reflects very well on a department if its graduates are gainfully employed at well-known tech companies like Nuance or Google or startups like Duolingo. There is increasing pressure in academia to collaborate with industry; academics need industry connections. And even if non-academic jobs are looked down on by some out-of-touch member of the old guard or another, are you sure you really care? Your starting salary as a data scientist is probably going to be higher than what they make as full professors.
Between academia and the private sector, recent graduates from top linguistics programs don’t seem to have a very hard time finding full-time employment. For some examples, see the placement records for Stanford, NYU and UMD. (Unfortunately some linguistics programs don’t have their placement records in an easily accessible form on their websites. We should be more transparent about this – prospective PhD students need to be able to make an informed decision!)
The big “but” here is that linguistics is made up of several subdisciplines, some of which are closer to the humanities and others closer to the behavioral sciences and computer science. Not all subfields of linguistics have the same number of faculty openings. And those subfields where competition for academic positions is the fiercest (such as syntax and morphology, according to this analysis) tend to be the ones where many students don’t receive sufficient quantitative training to get one of those cushy tech jobs, or simply don’t have any interest in doing quantitative research in the private sector. I’m not sure if the situation in those fields is as dire as it looks from the figure I linked to; I do know several talented and accomplished theoretical linguists who haven’t been able to find a permanent position three or four years after their PhD, but so far most of them have been employed in reasonably paid full-time temporary positions in good departments.
At any rate, I’m not really sure what the best way is to address this issue. Perhaps students who write theoretical dissertations should make sure they get a reasonable amount of quantitative research training. And perhaps more graduate students are currently specializing in certain subfields than we need. Of course, most of us would agree that the number of humanities PhDs that “we need”, by which we typically just mean “the number of available faculty positions”, is too low. But that’s part of a much larger debate about whether the humanities are undervalued in our society. I think they are, but as a prospective PhD student you’re not going to resolve that debate single-handedly: Tatman is absolutely right that the decision of whether or not to get a PhD and what research opportunities to pursue as part of that PhD should be informed not only by idealistic intellectual considerations but also by the realities of the job market.
So my answer to the question “should I get a PhD in linguistics” is “it depends”. Are you absolutely determined to be a professor? (If you are, don’t be.) Do the non-academic career options in your subfield appeal to you? Can you receive solid quantitative training in your program? Would you be at all interested in a non-academic quantitative job? What is the placement record of your program? How worried are you about the opportunity cost (all of that money you could save if you worked in consulting instead of getting a PhD)? Are you prepared for the emotional difficulties involved in going to grad school (and, as my professors tell me, in being on the tenure track)? And – it goes without saying – are you very, very passionate about this intellectual journey?