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Opportunities in Linguistics

Updated on September 16, 2008

After spending nearly nine years practicing law in the state of Texas in the 1980s, I made a big career switch and went for a Ph.D. in linguistics. I had always been interested in linguistics, but there were a number of reasons that I did not pursue it immediately after getting my B.A. in foreign languages:

(1) I'd taken an introductory linguistics course as an undergraduate, and I found that I disagreed with many of the tenets of modern linguistics.

(2) I was encouraged by my father to choose something that would be useful to other people in the free market, and linguistics seemed like an academic discipline that didn't produce any useful results,

(3) I had the notion that I could help fight for some of my beliefs through the legal system, as I believed in the common law and the principle of stare decisis,


(4) I wanted to write fiction, and I thought that observing the lives of other people through an active law practice would enrich my writing.

Well, I didn't get to do much appellate law, and those cases that I did take to the appeals court never made it into the law books. I didn't set any precedent. I got my fill of observing other people, though. Most of my cases were family law, and I got to see marriages break up and people squabbling over possessions and tearing their children apart in lengthy custody disputes, and finally I'd had enough. I wanted to make a difference, but my contribution to the well-being of my clients was minimal, and observing their lives from close up was really, really depressing.

So I went back to grad school. I got a Ph.D. in linguistics. I made new friends and broadened my horizons, and then I went on with my life. Grad school was a refreshing, hopeful time for me, perhaps partly because I already had some life experience behind me when I went. Getting that Ph.D. in linguistics did not solve all my problems or make all my dreams come true, but it did make me happy for the duration of the program, and that in itself is nothing to scoff at!

If you have a similar history and an interest in language, you might want to do the same. In this hub, I will show you how.

Because Linguistics is Not a Profession or a Trade, Linguistics Programs Pay You for Going to Grad School

This seems counterintuitive somehow, but going to grad school will not cost you a thing. They will pay you to go. If a program offers you admission, but requires you to pay tuition or fails to provide you with financial support, you shouldn't accept. Not only should you not have to pay tuition; they should pay your living expenses.

This is completely different from going to law school or medical school. The law and medicine are professions where people earn a lot of money. Paying for professional training is seen as an investment by the student, and that's why professional schools can afford to charge heavy fees.

Precisely because linguistics is not particularly useful to anyone, linguistics graduate programs have to pay people to attend. Instead of your investing in your future by paying fees, the program invests in you.

In order to be able to take advantage of this opportunity, you must be debt free, unencumbered and capable of living on a small income. The stipends are intended to support students. You can't support an entire family on this kind of income.

The student life is one in which you are afforded the opportunity to concentrate on learning something radically new -- possibly something that no one else has discovered before. It is not a good way to make money, and you have to be motivated to embrace a frugal lifestyle.

What is Linguistics?

What is linguistics? It is the study of how language works, how language develops in children, how language originated in mankind, and it is the study of how language evolves and changes over time. If you study linguistics, you can learn about language sounds in phonetics and phonology, about grammar and grammatical components in morphology and syntax, about how people use language in cognitive linguistics, about language and the brain in neurolinguistics, about language and society in sociolingusitics, and about language and culture in anthropological linguistics.

There are different schools of linguistics that approach language from different philosophical perspectives. Formal linguistics is represented by the MIT school. Many linguistics departments across the world follow the teachings of the formal approach to linguistics that was developed at MIT.

I myself belong to the functionalist school, of which the Rice University department of linguistics, which I atended, is a representative.

You can visit the websites of these departments to get a feel for how their programs are different.

Sense of Humor

One of the reasons I found going to grad school so enjoyable was the fellowship of other linguistics students. From my experience attending Baylor Law School in Waco, Texas, law students don't really sit around discussing the law. They cram for exams and they try to land coveted clerkships or to engage in activities that will enhance their chances of getting a job. But in grad school I finally met people who cared about ideas and would sit for hours discussing them.

What's more, these people had a sense of humor. Check out the Speculative Grammarian website. Many of the editors are ex-Rice linguistics department graduates. It's the best satirical work on linguistics available world-wide.

The Pursuit of Knowledge

These are the questions that I am pursuing as a linguist:

  1. What is language?
  2. How is language acquired?
  3. Is language unique to humans or do other animals also have it?
  4. How do languages change?

  5. How do they stay the same despite the changes?
  6. What do all languages have in common?
  7. Was there only one original language from which all languages derive, or have people rediscovered the principles of language over and over again independently of each other?
  8. Do all people use language the same way?

If you find these questions interesting, then maybe a linguistics education would be a good thing for you, too. Linguistics doesn't pay unless you really care about these issues. It is not necessarily a way to earn a living. It is, however, a way of life.

(c) 2008 Aya Katz

The Purpose of Post-Graduate Higher Education

What is the purpose of graduate school?

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    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Victor, I agree. Socializing with others who are also interested in linguistics is one of he best parts of being a linguistics grad student. Are you on Funknet? That is a great discussion list for those interested in Cognitive Linguistics!

    • Víctor Manteiga profile image

      VĂ­ctor Manteiga 7 years ago from Spain

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Aya. I am currently writing my PhD dissertation and I'm using theories from the Cognitive Linguistics approach; I am passionate about it, and I especially enjoy it when I meet up with others to discuss related topics. Research on linguistis feels like a lonely road to follow most of the time, so socializing is a crucial part of the process, I find.

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Gramarye, thanks! What aspect of applied linguistics was your doctorate in? We would all benefit from understanding how language really works! However, there are many open questions in that regard. It's not as if the field of linguistics has got things all figured out. Which is part of the attraction, of course!

    • gramarye profile image

      gramarye 7 years ago from Adelaide - Australia

      I've just completed a PhD in Applied Linguistics in Australia. It seems to me that everyone who wants to write would benefit from really understanding how language really works. But so much to learn and so little time to learn it! This hub was a really interesting read.

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 9 years ago from The Ozarks

      Well, it's an opportunity for adventure!

      Thanks, Verax, for drawing attention to this possibility.

    • Verax profile image

      Verax 9 years ago from Oregon

      I hesitate to call this an opportunity These are the people who are on the front lines providing people groups that have no written language with a written language. The job pays little, the work can be overwhelming and oh yes your life can be threatened.

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 9 years ago from The Ozarks

      Hot dorkage, thanks for the input!

      A lot of people don't know about the stipends. But the information is out there.

    • hot dorkage profile image

      hot dorkage 9 years ago from Oregon, USA

      I love linguistics but I didn't study it as a career because of the reasons you cite. Wow I had no idea they would pay you to go to grad school! Thanks for that tidbit.