The job market for linguists

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Which employers are looking for linguists these days, and what kinds of linguist are they after? The usual assumption is that linguists are employed almost exclusively in academia, and that they are generally engaged in esoteric theoretical work. I've long suspected that this is not completely true, but I'd never really looked into it. Facing two long plane rides this past week, I decided to get the data and wade through them. This post reports some initial findings about 2008.

My source for the data is The Linguist List. For at least ten years, The Linguist List has been the primary place for jobs ads specifically targeting linguists. This orientation is important. I'm not asking the question, "Where do linguists work?", because they work in many, many fields; linguists have a mix of skills from the sciences and the humanities that has a lot of market potential outside the field. Rather, I am curious about which employers are looking for linguists in particular.

My scrape of the 2008 advertisements on The Linguist List turned up 579 jobs. Here's a rough breakdown by employer type:

Advertisement counts by employer type
Universities 414 (71%)
Colleges 17 (3%)
Other 148 (26%)

So it seems true that most linguists work in academia. The "Other" list is robust, though, and it is filled with a wide array of job types: lots of tech firms, lots of research institutes, some libraries, some advertising firms, as well as odd-balls like Gap International and the PricewaterhouseCoopers. Here's the full list.

What kind of linguists are employers seeking? To get a rough answer to this question, I looked at all the job area types with more than one advertisement associated with them, then did some hand clustering:

Counts of specific areas targeted by job ads
Institutionally prominent theoretical areas 203
Specific non-English languages 182
Computational 167
English 163
Applied linguistics 139
General linguistics 95

Most ads list more than one area. The counts in this table are the number of times that the area was mentioned. Thus, a single ad seeking either a computational person or an applied linguist would be counted twice. I went this route because I am curious about the opportunities open to particular specialists. For example, "How many jobs could someone like me apply to?"

"Applied linguistics" and "General linguistics" are single categories. To get the others, I combined various areas. Some notes on the breakdowns:

Institutionally prominent theoretical areas

The list I've called "Institutionally prominent theoretical areas" sorts out, from most to fewest ads, in almost exactly the order that modern theoretical linguistics developed, suggesting that the initial Chomskyan conception still shapes the way departments are built up and replenished:

Institutionally prominent theoretical areas
Syntax 35
Sociolinguistics 32
Phonology 30
Phonetics 30
Semantics 26
Psycholinguistics 21
Historical linguistics 19
Pragmatics 6
Morphology 4

Specific non-English languages

The category "Specific non-English languages" consists mainly of advertisements for positions that call for specific language skills. I even left out things like "Spanish linguistics", opting instead to include just the ones that seemed to care about fluency alone. Here are the top eleven:

Specific non-English languages (top 11)
German, Standard 29
French 21
Chinese, Mandarin 18
Arabic, Standard 15
Dutch 13
Japanese 9
Portuguese 8
Italian 6
Hindi 6
Danish 5
Russian 5

And here's a link to the full list of languages with at least two job ads targeting them.

Computational

The "Computational" group is dominated by the simple category "Computational linguistics", which probably covers lots of different researchers, ranging from people who just rely on computing power to get their work done to people who use language as a testing ground for new machine learning models and the like.

Computational
Computational linguistics 137
Natural language processing 23
Machine learning 4
Speech synthesis 3

English

Finally, the "English" area covers a diverse bunch (perhaps too diverse):

English
English 137
TESOL 15
English linguistics 6
TEFL 2
English studies 2

All positions, with counts

To close out this section, here is the raw list of positions with their counts.

Specialists and specialist positions

There is one more thing I'd like to check. Many people, I think, have the impression that it is getting harder to survive as a pure theoretician, or perhaps as a pure X for any X. The sense is that most jobs are looking for people with multiple skill sets. Is this true? It is hard to answer definitively without looking carefully at each ad, but how about this related question: For which areas A are there ads for A and only A (rather than a disjunction of areas). Specialists in such areas are more likely to be competing against just other specialists, for positions already tailored to them. Here are the top ten:

Numbers of ads targeting exactly one area
Computational linguistics 34
General linguistics 22
Applied linguistics 20
Syntax 12
Phonology 9
Semantics 6
Psycholinguistics 4
Sociolinguistics 4
Phonetics 4
Cognitive science 4

This is just the top 10. The full list has 136 jobs ads on it. So about 23% (136/579) of the jobs target just single areas. Once again, computation looks like a safe specialization. Jobs in "General linguistics" are open to a wide range of specialists, so that category should probably be removed from the list. If we do that, then just 20% of the jobs target single specialist areas.

I hope to do more analysis like this in the future. Rachel Walker and I are starting an eLanguage journal that will report on hiring in linguistics, and I'd like to provide general data like this in addition to specific information about individual moves.

In closing, some questions:

  • Why are so few colleges (as opposed to universities) looking for linguists? Or: how can colleges get away with not having linguistics? Shocking!
  • Are the TESOL/TEFL jobs mostly being advertised elsewhere?
  • Are there areas not represented on this list that linguists should be exploring for jobs (and internships)?

Comments are open for opinions, predictions, suggestions, and so forth.

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19 Comments »

  1. Kelly McCluskey said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 11:57 pm

    Report from Asia – most of the bread and butter of applied linguists seems to be Asia and the Middle East. I'm not sure about the latter, but the lions share of job postings for Asia seems to be on private sites like http://www.daveseslcafe.com (mostly specializing in the Korean market) and professional/academic sites like JALT (which specializes in the Japanese market). China may have it's own odd combination of advertising spaces – but from what I hear, they aren't too picky yet about job-seekers degrees over there. Sorry I'm not as prolific as you are with the statistics (Dave's is an old-school muddle of postings, resembling more of a newsreader than a proper job site) but the estimated ratio of specialties being asked for seems to be about 99% M.A. TESOL holders (though they don't seem to be unhappy with Applied Linguistics, either)- very occasionally a Literature specialist is specified, and quite often "M.A. in English" is lumped together with M.A. TESOL – almost leading me to believe that Korean employers, in particular, are unable to distinguish between them. Hope that helps,

    Happy year-of-the-Ox from Korea,

    Kelly

  2. Jon Hughes said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 12:27 am

    Having worked as an ESL teacher (and having had to search the internet for job postings) I found that most TEFL/TESOL postings were on sites devoted specifically to TEFL jobs. The two I used most were:

    http://www.tefl.com
    http://www.eslcafe.com"

  3. JRH said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 8:55 am

    There are also the occasional jobs of inventing new languages for Hollywood, but maybe they're only available to this guy.

  4. David said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    There is also, of course, the military, which is omnipresent to the point of life-ending harassment when you're trying to do anything in semitic languages. They do, however, have a lot of jobs to fill, if you're at all interested in accepting them.

  5. Mike Hammond said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 10:44 am

    Chris

    A really interesting summary; thanks for doing the work and posting this!

    Mike Hammond

  6. Dan T. said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    I believe the '70s show "Land Of The Lost" credited a linguist in the ending titles for creating the language used by Cha'ka and others of his kind.

  7. Kate said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    I'll second Mike's thanks – as a soon-to-be-graduated linguistics B.A., the thought that there's a market for linguists at all is comforting. Keep up the hiring research!

  8. Troy S. said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    The military is a good option for language specialists. They certainly pay well enough for the skills, but as a career you're pretty much going to have to enlist. Linguist officers are limited to diplomatic attaches and Foreign Area Officers, and these are not entry-level positions.

    Don't forget the missionary field. There are still groups like Wycliffe
    out there trying to translate the Bible into new languages. It's actually quite surprising how many langauges lack a Bible translation.

  9. Jim said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

    Don't confuse what the military calls a linguist with what this post is about. A military linguist is a soldier who translates,interprets or does radio surveillance in a language, or as officers function at the diplomatic level in the language of the country they have specialized in – not someone who studies the phenomenon of language.

    However, that doesn't mean the military doesn't hire real linguists for other reasons. Defense Language institute may be hiring people in second language acquisition and CENTCOM specifically may want specialists in aspects of Arabic and Farsi and Pushtun as that impacts commuications with Englsih speakers, beyond what a 3/3 military linguist has to offer.

  10. Chris Potts said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

    Let me just quickly poke my head in here to say thanks for the kind words about the post, and also thanks for all the suggestions and links — these are all making the post much richer as an information source (and illustrating the positive effect that weblog comments can have too).

  11. Rick DeNoble said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

    I'm on my third industry position using my linguistics background. The positions I've held are: (1) Ontologist [B2B e-commerce firm], (2) Discourse Analyst [e-discovery firm], and (3) Categorization Analyst [search engine]. "Taxonomist" is also a title you often see here. These types of positions tend to fall under "Knowledge engineering" broadly, and many (but not all) are actually looking for programmers who can also do classification/categorization work. Many positions are looking for folks with a background in linguistics or MLIS (library science). I've also seen ads for branding/naming companies looking for linguists as well.

  12. Simon Spero said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

    Shouldn't the following 62 items from all-areas.txt be members of the Computational group?
    text/corpus linguistics20text mining01assessment, computer-mediated
    teaching & learning01computer science01natural language processing,
    machine learning, statistical parsing01human computer interaction01syntactic and phonological processing01multimedia manager01cognitive interaction technology01machine translation evaluator01instructional technology01natural language processing, text mining01syntax, corpus linguistics01speech analysis/recognition01computer/software programming01spoken language processing01multimodal computing and interaction01cat tools01speech and language processing01natural language & information processing01computational modelling of discourse and semantics01software development01computer assisted language learning01information retrieval, machine learning01ontological engineering01natural language parsing01natural lanuage processing01language developer & quality engineer01taxonomies, knowledge base01neurocognition of language and nlp01corpus linguistics01
    single source publ., computer aided transl., ir01
    computational semantics01genetic classification01c++ development for nlp01corpus linguistics01
    information processing01natural language processing, information retrieval01speech recognition, natural language processing01data mining, natural language processing, text mining01c++, linux, windows, python, perl, asp01

  13. Simon Spero said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 9:31 pm

    grrr. The preview shows HTML tables, but not the final. Also my count was off by 1 – total of 61, not 62

    text/corpus linguistics 20
    ——
    text mining 01
    assessment, computer-mediated teaching & learning 01
    computer science 01
    natural language processing,
    machine learning, statistical parsing 01
    human computer interaction 01
    syntactic and phonological processing 01
    multimedia manager 01
    cognitive interaction technology 01
    machine translation evaluator 01
    instructional technology 01
    natural language processing, text mining 01
    syntax, corpus linguistics 01
    speech analysis/recognition 01
    computer/software programming 01
    spoken language processing 01
    multimodal computing and interaction 01
    cat tools 01
    speech and language processing 01
    natural language & information processing 01
    computational modelling of discourse and semantics 01
    software development 01
    computer assisted language learning 01
    information retrieval, machine learning 01
    ontological engineering 01
    natural language parsing 01
    natural lanuage processing 01
    language developer & quality engineer 01
    taxonomies, knowledge base 01
    neurocognition of language and nlp 01
    corpus linguistics 01
    single source publ., computer aided transl., ir 01
    computational semantics 01
    genetic classification 01
    c++ development for nlp 01
    corpus linguistics 01
    information processing 01
    natural language processing, information retrieval 01
    speech recognition, natural language processing 01
    data mining, natural language processing, text mining 01
    c++, linux, windows, python, perl, asp 01

  14. Kenny Easwaran said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 1:15 am

    I thought I had heard anecdotally from friends in linguistics that the numbers are in fact somewhat smaller – people in areas like phonology have said that there are only about ten or so jobs they could even apply for, which sounded like the situation in linguistics was drastically bleaker than the situation in philosophy (I applied to 60 or 70 jobs last year). Is it the case that many of those 30 phonology jobs have additional requirements, like being farther along in one's career or having some specific language specialization as well?

  15. Chris Potts said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 6:08 am

    Simon Spero!

    Shouldn't the following 62 items from all-areas.txt be members of the Computational group?

    I skipped the long tail of items with one ad. For some areas, including them was going to involve a lot of judgment calls. Also, it seemed like a lot of work … Many thanks for putting together the extended computational list.

  16. Chris Potts said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 6:11 am

    Kenny Easwaran!

    I thought I had heard anecdotally from friends in linguistics that the numbers are in fact somewhat smaller – people in areas like phonology have said that there are only about ten or so jobs they could even apply for

    Yes, I hear similar comments a lot. I think they are just impressionistic — linguists do love their intuitions. For people willing to think outside of the university narrowly construed, the situation is better.

    which sounded like the situation in linguistics was drastically bleaker than the situation in philosophy (I applied to 60 or 70 jobs last year)

    Heidi and Shannon's numbers are useful here. I suspect that the number of PhDs in Philosophy is also much (much) higher, so the competition for those 60-70 might be every bit as fierce.

  17. Forrest said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

    I've worked in and around computational linguistics for a while. A lot of what I've done, and seen job openings for, is taxonomy ( stock photography houses tagging images: geographic feature -> mountain range -> Rockies -> Yellowstone Nat'l Park -> Geyser Basin ).

    There's more difficult work, though, with higher aspirations. Lexalytics has a "salience engine" that claims to be able to read tone or sentiment out of text, and to correlate that feeling with whatever it's being applied to. ( "I hate expensive gas, but I love my car." Negative for gas, positive for "my car." ) Autonomy advertises "meaning based computing;" this is the software the US government used to index the countless Enron emails, memos, and other documents, then to find the ones that were most likely to be actionable. Another NLP engine cum search indexer, Cognition, shows that they can do admirably on queries for "strike a match," "strike up a conversation," and "strike oil in California."

    As another commenter pointed out, though, these types of jobs tend to require a mix of natural language skills, and computer programming language skills.

  18. Carol Genetti said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 7:15 am

    Thanks for this interesting and relevant study. I wonder, though, that you didn't list language documentation under either "institutionally prominent theoretical areas" or under 'specialist positions". I count ten tenure-track job in the archives (Arlington twice, Kiel, Hawaii, North Texas, Adelaide, Regensberg, Fairbanks, Rice, Zurich), all posted since 2008. Clearly an up and coming area!

  19. Rachel Becker said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 8:20 pm

    I am just about to graduate with a BA is both german and linguistics. I am REALLY interested in finding a career in discourse analysis, though I have no idea where to even start looking. It's at least uplifting to know that people really do hire linguists.

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