What is your personal experience with obtaining a linguistics degree?

By: | Post date: February 19, 2016 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Academia, Personal

My story is common to that of many people who did a PhD out of hope and idealism, and got crushed by reality. This is not to discourage you to do linguistics as such, but to keep your eyes open. And read people like Rebecca Schuman at Slate.


I was always interested in languages, and learned quite a few in high school. But I was in science stream, and my undergrad was in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. (Computer Science, because I am that old.) I did the degree because it had the highest entrance score in the state, so all the geeks in school did it; and because I liked maths.

Engineering managed to destroy my love of maths, thanks to its charming “shut up and learn the formula” approach to Fourier transforms. I never particularly cared about Engineering, and forgot everything I learned the day after the exam. Computer Science on the other hand gave me some good theoretical grounding, and ultimately my day jobs.

Towards the end of my undergrad degrees, I met a girl at a party, who was doing linguistics. I was intrigued by what she was saying about historical linguistics, and started showing up to her lectures.

I grinned throughout the lectures, because the lecturer was doing historical linguistics by fiat, instead of trying to prove the plausibility of what he was saying. (That’s why I get annoyed by circular reasoning in linguistics.) But by the end I was hooked, and I did enough linguistics as electives that they let me do a PhD. (The Australian system is rather less rigorous than the American.)

  • What was your deciding factor? Unlike Computer Science and Engineering, it was something I felt passionate about.
    • It gave me a sense of community (in my fellow students), and probably the first real friendships in my life.
    • It gave me a sense of empowerment: I could (and did) make myself a world expert in something.
    • It gave me a sense of purpose—indeed, a mission: by the time I was fifty, I decided, I was going to write the reference grammar of Mediaeval Greek.

(You’ll notice that my name is not listed on the staff in Greek Grammar to fill the gap. The reference grammar’s homepage is offline too. That’s what happens when grants runs out…)

  • What jobs have you worked? Tangential ones.
    • My job at the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae is a combination of linguistics and programming, but it’s not linguistics research as linguists understand it; computational linguistics is much more an engineering job in general, and the Greek morphology recognition work is much more philology than linguistic research.
    • I’ve done some other odds and ends in  computational linguistics over the years, but the same caveats apply.
    • I lectured as a casual for a couple of years. They may well have been the happiest of my life, but I decided I could not put up with the famine-or-feast or the flattery and fashionmongering that academia requires  to get ahead. Especially as I had no interest in pursuing an employable subject area, as opposed to an area I was passionate about. (And noone hires Europeanist historical linguists in this country.)
    • Linguistics gave me great analytical and communications skills which I’ve applied to my subsequent jobs, in IT policy and standards. Ontologies are something linguists naturally take to. But the formal semantics and discrete maths that would make ontologies second nature are usually in the too hard basket for linguistics departments. Right next to historical linguistics.
  • Where did you hope the degree will take you? To being a tenured academic, lecturing with adoring audiences at my feet, writing 20 papers a year, and living the dream.
  • Did you run into any unexpected issues? Apart from the fact that you can’t become a tenured academic without
    • stepping on corpses
    • selling out and doing research in fashionable areas
    • coming to view both research and teaching as drudgery
    • having your career contingent on grants funding
    • having no free time, let alone time for research, because you spent half your life applying for grants, half doing admin, and the other half marking?
  • Geez, bitter much? Yeah, actually. It took me years to find something I was passionate about, and years to reconcile with giving up on it. But my self-respect was ultimately worth more to me.
  • Is there anything you would have done differently looking back? Despite this rant… no.
    • It’s better to have loved and lost than to have gone straight out from Uni into programming. (Besides, how many Business Analysts start out as Business Analysts?)
    • It’s good to have become a world expert; and it’s part of the reason why I’ve taken to Quora—I love communicating on it, and fora like Quora allow me to still be a linguist.
    • It’s good to have honed your mind as a theoretician; they are transferrable skills, and you might as well have fun while acquiring them.
    • If  anything, I wish I had more humanities as an undergrad, so I could have had a more rounded education in linguistics.

And it’s good to have worked in a field whose native format is paragraphs and not dot points. As you can tell, I no longer work in such a field…

Answered 2016-02-19 · Upvoted by

Steve Rapaport, Linguistics PhD candidate at Edinburgh. Has lived in USA, Sweden, Italy, UK.

Leave a Reply

  • February 2016
    M T W T F S S
  • Subscribe to Blog via Email

%d bloggers like this: