Jobs in linguistics: Some application counts

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Heidi and I posted a few times last month about the job market in linguistics (see Counting linguistics job ads and dissertations for links and data). In the comments, Eric wondered:

Honestly curious here: are numbers of applicants for particular jobs a matter of public record (at least, at public institutions)? It would be good to contrast the numbers above with some numbers that show how many folks are actually competing for individual jobs.

Shannon Bischoff, who contributed the data for post #2 in this series, followed up on this, by writing to twelve departments asking if they would supply their application counts. (Many thanks, Shannon!)

Shannon writes, "The departments that responded range from mid-size state universities to large R1 institutions and private universities". We're still not sure whether these counts are a matter of public record, so we're serving up the data without identifying features:

Job (identified only by field) Application count
General linguistics 180
Phonetics (experimental) 33
Syntax (formal) 47
Syntax (specific language) 75
Syntax (specific language) 16
Applied linguistics 80
Applied linguistics 67

All these jobs were advertised in the last five years, so they are probably specific data points from post #3 in this series. The syntax job with just 16 applicants was reported as a special case; the language was very specific and the time from ad to deadline was short.

With only seven jobs, we don't have enough data for a confident quantitative assessment, but the numbers still help put things in perspective, I think. And they provide a good excuse to repeat Geoff P's comment, which (typical of Geoff) is forthright and also heartening if you really listen:

I want to make a brief comment about this, addressed to linguistics doctoral students. I speak as one who simply would not listen when people said "You can never become an academic in linguistics because job vacancies are just too scarce." For me, the prospect of not spending a life in linguistics was unpleasant to think about, so I refused to think about it. This is the way to think about that enormous blue column over Syntax, the worst piece of data in the bar graph above. If you think it is saying you can't make it, you are overlooking something important. You are missing a key variable. What's being left out is just how good you are determined to be.

This is the way to look at that blue spike: The numbers show there are only about 20 job vacancies in syntax for each 100 syntax dissertations. But that is great for you! It means that on average you only have to be better than the next four syntax dissertation-writers who come along, and (assuming broadly merit-based hiring) one of those jobs has your name on it! You know that at every conference you've seen papers presented by students who are worse than you aim to be. You have seen real turkeys mumbling away up there at the mike, presenting analyses that don't fly, or even waddle. You can damn sure be better than any random four of them. Can't you?

Don't look at the gross numbers. Look at the field in the competition, and where you think you can place. You only need to stay out of the bottom 80 percent! You can do that! If you work and train harder, you can probably do better than that, and get one of the really good jobs. It isn't about how many dissertations are being written and accepted; it's about how many dissertations are being written by people who just aren't going to look as good as you are when it comes time for a job talk. There are lots of them. All you need to do is think harder than they did, and write better, and give better talks. And you can do that. Yes, you can. Even in syntax (and in the other areas it's easier), you can get a job teaching and researching in an area you find fascinating. Go for it.

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22 Comments »

  1. John Cowan said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

    I read the subtitle as a sentence using the verb counts.

  2. Ed said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 8:48 pm

    While I appreciate Geoff's forthrightness, for those of us who tried and failed it's very disturbing to hear this sort of stuff. I'm pretty sure I was the best I could be and that apparently was not good enough. I went through some very tough, dark times coming to terms with that fact. I now have nice career outside of academics and am actually in more demand than I ever could imagine. And still I have regrets.

    I truly think that the Humanities in general and Linguistics in particular need to do a better job helping those 80% that are not the top of the field transition to a life after academics. Unfortunately, I don't see any reason for them to do so.

  3. marie-lucie said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

    Whether you are hired or not does not always hinge on whether you are "better" than five or six others (or many more) who may be applying at the same time and who, in academia, will not be hired as extra members of a team: you may be just off because of your chosen topic, of who your thesis director was, of being too close (or not close enough) to the specialty of a leading member of the place you are applying to, etc. There is also the fact that universities have changed tremendously in a few decades: there was a time when many new PhD's could have their pick of jobs (especially if they were male), but this has not been the case for quite a while. People who trained and got their first job at the time when there were a lot of opportunities do not always realize that they might not have been so lucky at the present time, no matter how good or smart they are.

  4. Chris Potts said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 10:21 pm

    John Cowan!

    I truly think that the Humanities in general and Linguistics in particular need to do a better job helping those 80% that are not the top of the field transition to a life after academics. Unfortunately, I don't see any reason for them to do so.

    I agree. What makes you say, "I don't see any reason for them to do so"? I am not sure I can speak for the humanities in general, but for linguistics in particular, my view is that there are incentives all around for helping linguists get jobs outside of academia.

  5. Chris Potts said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

    marie-lucie!

    People who trained and got their first job at the time when there were a lot of opportunities do not always realize that they might not have been so lucky at the present time, no matter how good or smart they are.

    My experience has been different. The linguists I know all recognize an element of luck in their career paths. Open discussion about the vicissitudes of the job market was part of the professional training course I took as a grad student.

  6. Ed said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 12:23 am

    Chris Potts!

    I can only speak from my experience, but I don't see the incentive. There's no prestige in having students go on to non-academic jobs. I assume that most linguistic PhD in non-academic careers are not in careers that use their linguistic training. If my experience is typical (a big 'if') most people end up doing something they learned about after grad school or did before it. I imagine post-academic careers for linguists are pretty idiosyncratic. So the chance that other students might follow that path are slim.

  7. Bob Ladd said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 5:30 am

    I completely agree that luck plays a big role in any career. (As some people know, it's approximately accurate to say that my own position in Edinburgh came about because Anne Cutler accidently damaged a disk with experimental data at Sussex the spring of 1979.) I also agree that lots of people recognise the role of good luck – including Geoff Pullum. But that doesn't invalidate Geoff's pep talk. In its original context, his point was not so much "do your best and you will succeed" (which, as Ed points out, is not necessarily true) but more along the lines of "if you really want to do do syntax, don't settle for applied linguistics (or vice-versa) just because you think it will get you a job". Precisely because good luck is an important element in any academic career, it's just as important to be doing something you really want to be doing as it is to try to tailor your interests to the job market.

  8. Delia Turner said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 6:50 am

    A little perspective: I'm hiring a 7th grade English teacher and I've received over 70 applications. Getting a job of the sort you want is hard no matter what your field.

  9. Todd said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 8:22 am

    This is the sort of talk that gets 20-somethings committing suicide being unemployed and in six-digit debt.

    Do the world a favour and encourage people to have viable back-up options outside academia. It's better to aim a bit lower for something you still enjoy and hit your mark than to waste everything you've got on a 1/1,000,000 chance.

    Can PhDs in syntax still ever get jobs as electricians? I'm still hoping…

    [Hey, come on, get real! There's a difference between pessimism and outright innumeracy. It may be tough to get an academic job, but it is not a one-in-a-million chance. The figures above show that for the people in the application pool in these cases it was between 1 in 16 and 1 in 180, for those specific jobs. There aren't a million people out there waiting to grab your job. There are between a dozen and a couple of hundred, it looks like. And my point is some of them are turkeys, and you can get in there and look a lot better than they look. (Or if you honestly think you can't, then for heaven's sake, don't make yourself miserable: don't apply for academic jobs. They're not that desirable, after all. I'm an academic only because it's so much better than being a rock musician — and that's the only other job I ever seriously tried. It may be that there are dozens of jobs that would have been even more satisfying.) —GKP]

  10. marie-lucie said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 10:10 am

    Sure, luck plays a part in getting any sort of good job, but "just be better than everyone else" is a little like "just say no", easier said than done at a time when jobs are scarce. When looking at job applications, it is rare that a single person truly stands out, and more likely that it is very hard to choose between what appear to be equally brilliant and qualified applicants, each of whom is the favourite of some members of the hiring comittee. Being second or third on the short list does not mean that you are that far removed from the top candidate, and there may be other reasons why you are not the top choice for that particular job at the particular moment although you might have been a year or two before or can be again in a couple of years.

    A brilliant linguist I know, who wrote a grammar of a very difficult and little-known language and was also known as an excellent teacher, could not get a job in linguistics and reconverted as a physiotherapist.

  11. Chris Potts said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 11:15 am

    Ed!

    I can only speak from my experience, but I don't see the incentive. There's no prestige in having students go on to non-academic jobs.

    I see. I think you have a point. However, perhaps it's not so absolute as this. If I had a colleague who was teaching and advising theoretical linguists, and whose students kept getting jobs in education, e-discovery, machine translation, political consulting, and so forth, rather than along the tenure track, then I would be eager to learn this colleague's secrets. Imagine if we got a theoretical linguist placed high up in the DoE, or heading machine translation at Google, or advising Supreme Court justices … Viva la revolucion de Chomsky!

  12. Ed said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

    Shorter Pullum: Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

  13. K. said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 7:21 am

    I'm with Pullum. I have always been aware of the challenges of the academic job market; the first time I met with my undergraduate academic adviser, he spent the entire time trying to convince me there was no career to be had in linguistics. But I have persisted precisely because I wouldn't be able to forgive myself for not trying.

    But my mama didn't raise no fool. I chose to spend a year teaching English phonetics at a university in China (where the only requirements for employment are a B.A. and being a native speaker). I figured I would find out if I really liked teaching and, if I didn't, I'd at least improve my Chinese, which is marketable. Turns out I love it and I plan to enter grad school stateside next fall.

    Of course I will try to diversify, branching into computational and applied linguistics, but I will definitely focus my attention on phonetics, my first love, precisely because I may never get a job as a phonetician: this might be the last opportunity in my life to delve in so deeply. If I do end up working as a middle manager or a librarian, at least I will be able to tell obnoxious coworkers complaining about sentence-final prepositions "Well, actually, I have a Ph.D. in linguistics…"

  14. Nightstallion said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 7:36 am

    If anyone's interested in a little perspective from outside the US: Here in Austria (and reportedly in other places in Europe, too), it's quite a lot harder to remain in academics unless you're very, very lucky. Universities in Austria just about rehire the positions left empty by retiring professors, and not even all of *them* are replaced; and if you want an assistant position, you can only have one for one term of six years, after which you *can not* remain in academics in Austria in that field unless you find a position as professor, period — another term as assistant or rehiring in a comparable position is strictly not possible.

    So, either you're lucky and a professor in your field retires when you are sufficiently qualified to apply for the position — or you'll have to find something somewhere else outside of academics.

  15. marie-lucie said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 8:02 am

    K., the academic world does not consist only of large universities with graduate programs in linguistics, which can afford to hire full-time phoneticians. There are also smaller institutions where you can combine teaching phonetics (or at least some linguistics) with teaching other things: this was discussed in an earlier thread. Phonetic expertise is also in demand for training speech therapists, an occupation where there is a shortage of personnel.

    Besides, a phonetician with computational expertise should also be in demand outside the academic world.

  16. outeast said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 8:27 am

    You know that at every conference you've seen papers presented by students who are worse than you aim to be. You have seen real turkeys mumbling away up there at the mike, presenting analyses that don't fly, or even waddle. You can damn sure be better than any random four of them. Can't you?

    Don't look at the gross numbers. Look at the field in the competition, and where you think you can place. You only need to stay out of the bottom 80 percent!

    Without wanting to add to the gloomshow, doesn't this upbeat analysis of the situation rather take it for granted that your main competition is actually going to be from other new PhDs – rather than from mid-career faculty from other schools, for example?

    More positively: a bit of comparison from other fields may offer rather cool comfort, but perhaps (misery loving company and all) comfort nonetheless. An article I just googled up on the Economics field, for example, noted that 'On average, departments reported receiving a total of 170 applications per position.' Compared to that, you guys have it positively cushy!

    The truth is that jobs in academia are prized highly, you need to be both good and lucky to score, and water is still wet.

  17. David Scrimshaw said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    I'm not a linguist, but if I were, I'd be optimistic about my career prospects. The world's population continues to grow and every new connection between two people creates communication difficulties to sort out.

    Furthermore, I see that some linguists in Montreal are pioneering a lucrative new opportunity to help Celine Dion break out of the French/English vocal ghetto:

    "Enrique Pato, a Hispanic studies professor at Université de Montréal Department of Literature and Modern Languages, has established the Research Group on Spanish in America (RGSA) to provide the Quebec diva with new tools to break through Spanish-speaking markets."

    http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-02/uom-c1w021709.php

    If this works out, perhaps linguists could become as much of a fixture in music stars entourages as hair stylists and sushi chefs.

  18. Ed said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

    I'd be interested to hear from other linguists who are not in academia about what they are doing. Also I wonder what the unemployment rate among PhDs in linguistics is.

  19. Linguistics Student said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

    Hm, interesting discussion. I've applied to MA programs in Linguistics for this fall, so it was of particular interest to me.

  20. John said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 6:38 pm

    My sympthathies are with Ed in this thread.

    Taken as job advice, what Pullum has to say is really toxic. It's a very "pure academic" attitude and is a disservice to his students.

    Getting to do what you want can be very meandering, and "what you want to do" frequently changes with age, which twenty-somethings might not know. I know a mathematician who had a very difficult time in pure algebra starting out in a tenure-track position, had a bad personality conflict with the department head, and ended up – for lack of another job opportunity – going into theoretical computer security, where he now is a very senior, very successful (program chair of countless conferences), and very contented. You really do need flexibility, and deciding on an emotional level at 23 that you need to succeed in, e.g., syntax, or die, is quite unhelpful. For a senior figure to encourage that sort of attitude in his students is … well.

  21. felix said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 5:25 am

    That's not what Geoff was doing at all. You've both just said there's plenty of job opportunities out there. You've just said that I should be pessimistic about my job opportunities, and settle for second best. However great the second best job can be, I can never devote as much of my attention to getting a second-best job as I can to a first-best job; I should therefore be the best I can be at my first choice, and then if I can't succeed there, I should do as your theoretical computer security friend should be. Linguistics, there's plenty of practical non-academic jobs out there. But I won't aim for them till my priorities have changed.

  22. marie-lucie said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    Felix, it is not that you should be pessimistic, but realistic. Of course you should try for the best. But the more assets you have, the more likely you are to find a job, even in academia.

    I am surprised that our host Mark Liberman has not given his opinion: he did not start in academia himself, or even linguistics.

    I remember years ago reading an item in the newsletter of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Georgetown, precisely about non-academic jobs for linguists. One linguist working in some non-academic specialty wrote to the effect that "academics tend to have have the impression that intelligence and creativity are found only in academia, but that is far from being the case." It is true that the academic life offers many advantages, but a non-academic job does not have to be less interesting or challenging than one in a university.

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