Caveat emptor

Nigel Vincent nigel.vincent at MANCHESTER.AC.UK
Tue Sep 17 19:12:33 UTC 2013

These are much more than anecdotes - they are rather evidence of a systematic pattern in many countries where recruiters for high level jobs in many domains are coming to look on a doctorate as a desirable or even a necessary qualification. In the UK a body which has produced some interesting data on this is called 'Vitae' - see their recent publication entitled 'What do PhDs do? - downloadable at:
I share the view of those contributors to this exchange who have suggested that aiming at an academic career is by no means the only reason that people undertake PhDs. That doesn't mean we shouldn't advise interested students about the job prospects but, as someone else said, a PhD programme is not simply a professional school for future academics.

Professor Nigel Vincent, FBA
Professor Emeritus of General & Romance Linguistics
The University of Manchester

Vice-President for Research & HE Policy, The British Academy

Linguistics & English Language
School of Arts, Languages and Cultures
The University of Manchester
Manchester M13 9PL
From: Discussion List for ALT [LINGTYP at LISTSERV.LINGUISTLIST.ORG] on behalf of Everett, Daniel [DEVERETT at BENTLEY.EDU]
Sent: Tuesday, September 17, 2013 7:17 PM
Subject: Re: Caveat emptor

These are great anecdotes. But for everyone of these there are many times  this who don't have such rewarding jobs. Or where the jobs come much later.

PhDs involve significant enculturation. It is hard for those who finish them to be objective about them at first.


Sent from my iPhone

On Sep 17, 2013, at 14:13, "KOUWENBERG,Silvia" <silvia.kouwenberg at UWIMONA.EDU.JM<mailto:silvia.kouwenberg at UWIMONA.EDU.JM>> wrote:

Who says Linguistics does not prepare you for a professional career? One of my graduates holds one of the top positions in the Jamaica Defense Force – and credits his Ph.D Linguistics with his meteoric rise in that institution. One of my Ph.D candidates rejected the opportunity to complete at the M.Phil level, because her long-term goal is to hold a very senior position in the Jamaican civil service, for which a Ph.D is required. Et cetera.


From: Discussion List for ALT [mailto:LINGTYP at] On Behalf Of Donald Stilo
Sent: Tuesday, September 17, 2013 09:15 AM
To: LINGTYP at<mailto:LINGTYP at>
Subject: Re: Caveat emptor

Dear Dan,
It seems to me that the trend in the 21st century education is that students now go for university degrees in those fields leading to “show-me-the-money” careers, even though the individual’s passion may be in the humanities or certain social sciences that produce close-to-nil chances of employment. How many MBA’s, LLD’s, DDS’s are we going to produce before the house of cards collapses the way the banks did five years ago? A certain trend in the 90’s (and maybe now too) was that MBA’s went into the work force in business positions, were soon disillusioned, and went back to get degrees in education to become teachers. I know countless Iranians whose passion may have been for, say, anthropology but whose families forbade that and forced them into engineering or medicine (the only two choices) and produced successful ($) but unfulfilled sons and daughters.  Or take the American friend of mine who went into Information Technology but lamented that he would like to have done English literature instead and now in his 50’s feels it would be too hard to start all over again. If he had studied English lit, he may have ended up in the same job in IT anyway but may have been more fulfilled “on the side”.  (Don’t many linguistics students go into IT?)
I am not trying to say we should play ostrich and stick our heads in the sand. So what if someone studies linguistics out of pure drive and innate love for language(s) but doesn’t find a job in the given field? That doesn’t mean they won’t find other fulfilling ways to exercise that passion and, say, work on documenting some endangered language on their own time and perhaps with some money from their more lucrative profession. We have an obligation to young people in two directions: A) warn them that there are very few real jobs in linguistics (and the like) and B) encourage them to pursue their true interests with the knowledge that they may not be able to make a living in that field and will have to look for a salary elsewhere and stick with your interests as an avocation.  (In rereading this I just saw Sebastian’s e-mail.) I’ve given that advice to various students who then followed their hearts in their studies, worked in other fields less interesting to them, while continuing their passion as an avocation and they came to me years later (even 30 years later!) and thanked me.
Opportunities sometimes come from strange directions, often seemingly out of nowhere.  Paul Frommer (PhD in linguistics from USC with Bernard) was teaching writing and communication skills to business students and eventually created the Na’vi language for the movie Avatar and is now all over the web ('vi_language).
I myself left academia for 12 years out of disillusionment and pursued being a chef, a bartender, a word processor temp in lawyers’ firms and Lehman Brothers on Wall Street, ESL teacher, etc. but never gave up my passion for endangered Iranian languages.  I doggedly stuck with that pursuit (and reading typology books) on the side and after a wild and complex course of twists and turns of fate ended up at EVA in Leipzig for 11 years which allowed me to publish more than I ever had before and do field work in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Israel, Los Angeles and New York (with the last speakers of an Iranian Jewish language), and Germany (often with speakers of languages I had only read about in books and never dreamt I would actually meet, but Cologne's got 'em...).
Yes, we have an obligation to make prospective students aware of the problems in our fields but we are also charged with encouraging the human spirit, not dampening it.
My best to all,

On Sep 17, 2013, at 1:03 PM, Everett, Daniel wrote:


I think that the joy of doing the PhD fades for people when they see what they have received in exchange for it.

On the one hand, there  is this positive article that agrees with you:

But it sidesteps the main issues. And it in effect admits that we have always admitted too many.

A more realistic piece:

And yet another popular-level blog:

The main observation for me, however, is the adjunct professor situation. And that is what happens to too large a number of bright young PhDs in the humanities.

-- Dan

On Sep 17, 2013, at 5:59 AM, Sebastian Nordhoff wrote:

On Mon, 16 Sep 2013 18:59:24 +0200, Everett, Daniel <DEVERETT at<mailto:DEVERETT at>> wrote:

I am posting this because linguistics is one of the disciplines I think needs to consider this seriously. There are too many academics in the liberal arts with no chance of full-time, secure employment in the area in which they have done their PhD.

I might note that there are job possibilities outside of "the area where they have done their PhD". Getting a PhD in Typology does not necessarily mean that the only career opportunities are within the, indeed restricted, field of academic linguistics.
Best wishes

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