The field of linguistics is at a unique cross-roads of the major divisions of study: the humanities, the social sciences, and the physical sciences. Linguistics provides the opportunity to test proposed theoretical assumptions through data. That involves the creation of working hypotheses that need to be verified through the patterns of data observed. Since language is all around us, students have easy access to an abundant supply of data which they can collect for analysis and research. Such data can include one’s own intuitions about grammar, measurements of individual speech sounds, observations of child language acquisition, language in narratives or in conversation, and more.
Training in linguistics is helpful for those specializing in any field in which attention is paid explicitly to language, such as communications, communication disorders, speech and reading therapy, pre-school and elementary education, foreign language teaching, teaching English, computer science, law, philosophy, and psychology (Steele 1995). Notions from linguistics have been influential in a number of fields. For example, linguistics has exerted a profound influence on anthropology and sociology (e.g. Lévi-Strauss), as well as literary theory (e.g. Barthes, Kristeva, Lacan). More recently, linguistics is playing a large role in cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and computation. Practical applications have included pioneering methods of foreign language teaching (especially during World War II), assisting in breaking secret codes, and leading efforts in machine translation. More recently, linguistics is making valuable contributions to computer speech synthesis and recognition. In addition, linguistics has contributed to areas involving written and oral communication, such as developing ways for bureaucracies like the Social Security Administration and insurance companies to write clearly, for doctors to communicate more effectively with their patients, etc.
In the United States, there are more than 160 institutions of higher education with programs in Linguistics. The professional association of linguists, the Linguistic Society of America, has about 4,500 members. Because linguistics is a broad field, it is possible to combine academic interests in language with knowledge of a foreign language, English, psychology, education, communication, anthropology, sociology, computation, or engineering. For an informal survey of a variety of such careers in linguistics, see Moravcsik (1995).
According to a survey done by the Modern Language Association, of the 135 PhDs in linguistics awarded in 1993-1994, 68% found employment in higher education (25% tenure-track, 15% post-doctoral fellows, and the rest in a variety of postsecondary teaching positions), while 25% were employed in other sectors (10% in private business, 6% self-employed, 6% were in not-for-profit organizations, and the remainder in government or K-12 education).
The Linguist List, an influential electronic discussion group for linguistics, posted 674 job listings in 2004. However, not all linguistics jobs are posted there. Job opportunities are thus not abundant, but are comparable to those in other fields.
To search The Linguist List for jobs or offers of student support, click here.
Business, Government, Industry, and More
About 25% of Ph.D.s end up in non-academic careers (compared to 8% of English Ph.D.s), in part due to a tight academic job market, and in part due to more lucrative possibilities outside higher education. Knowledge of linguistics can be helpful in many fields. Here is a sampling:
Computational Linguistics: machine translation, natural language processing, text-to-speech synthesis and speech recognition, information retrieval, knowledge engineering, and artificial intelligence.
Advertising: inventing and testing new product names and slogans.
Counselling: Linguistic notions of how conversation works are crucial in all forms of counselling and social work.
Criminal investigation and forensics: linguists have contributed to capturing the Unabomber, identifying or ruling out suspects, and have testified in court as expert witnesses. The FBI occasionally advertises for linguists.
Educational Testing Services (ETS) and other testing agencies need linguists to design tests.
Entertainment: Actors who are good at accents can be helped by a knowledge of linguistics; another possible career is as a dialect coach, who helps actors sound authentic for their roles.
Accent reduction for non-native speakers or speakers of stigmatized dialects who wish to advance.
Military/Intelligence: foreign language teaching, translation, and cryptography. The CIA and the National Security Administration occasionally recruit linguists.
Missionary: Bible translators rely heavily on linguistic fieldwork for their missionary work.
Modern Language Association. 1995. The MLA’s 1993-94 survey of PhD placement: Major findings. MLA Newsletter 27:4.1-3.
Moravcsik, Edith A. 1995. Summary of careers in linguistics. Linguist List 6.1632 (19 Nov. 1995). Online. Internet.
General career information from the University of California, Riverside.
Guide by WorldWideLearn.com on the skills acquired by linguistics majors and their careers.
First-person accounts on linguistics in private enterprise.
Career possibilities from a page at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Links to linguistics in business.
Testimony from graduates of the University of Sydney, Australia about the role of linguistics in their various careers.
See UMW’s page on graduate schools for information on becoming an academic linguist.