Caveat emptor

Randy John LaPolla (Prof) RandyLaPolla at NTU.EDU.SG
Wed Sep 25 01:58:47 UTC 2013

Not just 20 years ago, but 30 years ago this year, when I started my PhD at UCB, we were told there were no jobs in linguistics. We got so scared a couple of us organized a symposium and invited people from outside academia to talk about jobs for linguists outside the universities.

And as Bill says, it isn't just linguists: we have a glut of engineers here in Singapore, so we have had to reduce the number of students we accept for that field, as many now end up working as bank tellers or in other non-engineering jobs.

But for me the key issue here is the relevance of linguistics. The so-called Chomskyan turn made linguistics irrelevant to almost everything, and many linguists (particularly in the US), including many typologists, are still very much in the grip of Chomskyan assumptions and ways of doing things (some of which go back to the Structuralists). If linguistics is to survive as a discipline, it has to become relevant and useful. Insights into behavior and cognition gained from working with real languages and real communication are very relevant to many aspects of life, but abstract theorizing about abstract idealized languages, or worse, idealized components of language divorced from all other aspects of communication, like "syntax", is not. So this means even moving away from many of the Structuralist assumptions about language as a fixed system to look at real language use emergent in communication.

We should also get rid of the unnecessary and harmful division between "applied" and "theoretical" linguistics. Michael Halliday's work is some of the most insightful theoretical work ever done in linguistics, as it grew out of working with actual language use and deals with the entire communicative situation, but it has been "condemned" as "Applied" because people working in language teaching and translation found it useful for improving their work. If your work has no application to anything in the world other than abstract linguistic theorizing itself, then why are you doing it?

So the solution is not to cut back on the total number of PhD's, but to push PhD students in the direction of doing work that is relevant in some way outside the academia, or at least outside the narrow confines of linguistic theorizing. This will not only make it easier for them to get jobs outside academia, but also build the view of linguistics as an important discipline, which I firmly believe it is. We also have to get out there and make the argument that linguistics is relevant. For example, many psychology graduates go into marketing and advertising, yet this is something linguists could just as easily get into, and possibly do better, if the industries involved understood the relevance of linguistics to these industries. But linguistics will only be relevant to these industries if it is the study of communication, and not the study of abstract syntax divorced from communication (for example).


Prof. Randy J. LaPolla, PhD FAHA (罗�地)| Head, Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies | Nanyang Technological University
HSS-03-45, 14 Nanyang Drive, Singapore 637332 | Tel: (65) 6592-1825 GMT+8h | Fax: (65) 6795-6525 |

On Sep 24, 2013, at 2:24 AM, William Croft wrote:

I was out of town last week and missed out on all the discussion. Dan raises two questions that merit discussion:

1. Is it morally wrong to encourage students to pursue a PhD in the humanities and other less remunerative disciplines?
2. Is it practically (economically) wrong for university administrations to let students pursue PhDs in such disciplines?

Question 1 is one that many of us who are professors of linguistics deal with every day. Question 2 is one that administrators deal with, from department chairs to deans to higher administrators. Dan strongly suggests that the answer to both questions is 'yes'.

First, a couple of things should be mentioned that should be taken into consideration, at least in the US system. There has been a huge shift towards non-tenure-track academic positions, thanks in part to the cutting of funding of public universities by state legislatures. So the chances for a tenure-track job has been diminished by a political change in attitudes towards funding higher education (and it is ultimately a political phenomenon), leaving aside any question of how many students pursue PhDs. I believe this is also true of private universities in the US, but not so much for UK universities, at least by the time I left the UK (2005).

On the other hand, departments are under pressure to increase PhD enrollments. As graduate admissions chair, I am soon to be visited by an administrator to ask how we could increase our graduate enrollments. And as minimum course enrollments are raised, we are given another incentive to increase graduate enrollments; otherwise, our graduate courses will be cancelled. Perhaps Dan, as a dean, is interested in pushing back against this trend; but at the University of New Mexico, it is a constant pressure.

Several people said that the answer to 1 is to be honest with students pursuing a PhD program. I asked a similar question on Linguist List around 20 years ago, and pretty much got the same answer. We are honest with our students about job propects at UNM.

The resources question (question 2) is an interesting one. Perhaps we should be more selective in admissions. Getting an academic position is one selection bottleneck. Getting tenure is another. Even so, most scientists do not contribute to the advancement of science, as pointed out by David Hull in "The evolution of conceptual systems in science" (included in his "Science and selection", CUP 2002). One might think this is very wasteful. But in the same article Hull reports a study of physicists and their publishing rates showed that the massive cutbacks in hiring in the late 1960s and 1970s led to a decrease in the number of physics publications. Biological evolution is "wasteful"; conceptual evolution may be as well. That is, cruel as it may be to the unlucky (or untalented?) individuals, giving as many persons a shot at a PhD, then at an academic position, may lead to more scientific advancement than engaging in conscious intentional selection processes. Of course, being generous in opportunity means being generous in funding as well; try convincing a state legislature of that...

Bill Croft

On Sep 16, 2013, at 10:59 AM, "Everett, Daniel" <DEVERETT at BENTLEY.EDU<mailto:DEVERETT at BENTLEY.EDU>> 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 am not knocking the discipline. I just see too many folks in the areas where I have lived looking for part-time employment because they cannot get full-time work.


A lot of what drives prestige attribution in academics are rejection rates. Publishing in a journal with a 95% rejection rate is usually more prestigious than publishing in a journal with a 50% rejection rate. Getting into a college or program with a high rejection rate is usually more prestigious than getting into one with a lower rejection rate.

So it is only natural that academics, enculturated into this system, might believe that their department is better the more applicants it gets for a position. Up to a point perhaps. But if you are, as we had at places I have been in English departments, Linguistics Departments, Philosophy Departments and so on getting, say, hundreds of applications per position, it isn't prestige that is involved. It is an ailing discipline that needs to declare a moratorium on PhDs. Remember, potential graduate students  trust us. They will enter our programs if they seem interesting, even if there is about zero chance for them to get a good job. They do this because they believe that you wouldn't have accepted them knowing they had little chance of employment.

We need to think about this and talk about it more as a discipline.  One might make the case that PhD students should not be admitted to programs who have less than 95% employment rate in the subject of the PhD. Perhaps a few points lower. At least perhaps we could consider a moratorium on PhD admissions for lower-placement departments.

Daniel L. Everett
Dean of Arts and Sciences
Bentley University – Morison 308
175 Forest Street
Waltham, MA 02452
T: 781.891.2188
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