Become a Linguist: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Find out how to obtain a job in the field of linguistics. Research the education requirements and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in linguistics.

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Do I Want to Be a Linguist?

Linguistics is the scientific study of language, and is a very broad field with many specialties. Some linguists work in academia, researching and teaching different areas of language, such as phonetics (sounds), syntax (word order) and semantics (meaning). Other researchers focus on specialties like computational linguistics, which seeks to better match human and computer language capacities, or applied linguistics, which is concerned with improving language education. Still others work as language experts for the government, advertising companies, dictionary publishers and various other private enterprises. Some might work from home as freelance linguists. The ranks of linguists also include translators, interpreters and language teachers, who marshal their language expertise to facilitate communication and learning. Professionals in these careers often need to embark on life-long learning and continuing education opportunities to stay abreast on developments in the field.

Job Requirements

Because of the diversity of career paths in the field, requirements to become a linguist vary considerably. Many linguists have at least a bachelor's degree, though a graduate education might be required for positions in research and academia. The following table offers a general guide:

Common Requirements
Degree Level A bachelor's degree is a standard qualification for many linguistic careers, though some may demand a master's degree, and academic and advanced research careers usually require a PhD;* for interpreters and translators, a professional certificate or other specialized training may be necessary**
Degree Fields For academic or industry research and analysis careers, linguistics or a closely related field (such as anthropology, computer science or cognitive neuroscience)***; for interpreters and translators working in technical fields, healthcare or the law, a major related to that specialized area; for others, the field may vary, though linguistics, English or foreign languages and literatures may be especially valuable**
Certification Interpreters and translators may pursue optional certification based on language or specialty (such as court interpreting)**
Experience Work experience is vital for interpreters and translators** and important for some roles in computational linguistics****
Key Skills Excellent English language skills needed in all fields; translators and interpreters must have native-level fluency in one or more other languages; interpreters need sharp listening and speaking skills; translators need to be strong writers in at least one non-English language; sign language interpreters need manual dexterity**
Computer Skills Computational linguists generally should know various tools and techniques of natural language processing, such as programming languages, algorithms, machine learning and data mining****

Sources: *Linguistic Society of America, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ***Georgetown University, Department of Linguistics, ****Job listings on Monster.com from July 2012.

Step 1: Choose the Desired Linguist Career

Preparing for a career in linguistics requires first deciding on which position one wants to aim for. Interpreters and translators who work for federal agencies like the FBI may not need to have a degree, but still must have strong language skills in English and native-level fluency in at least one other language. For other interpreters and translators, a bachelor's degree is a common qualification, and a professional certificate or other specialized training is often necessary. Those who wish to teach English as a second language need a bachelor's degree and often some specialized training in language pedagogy.

Language researchers and analysts, who work for tech companies, government agencies and various other types of firms, typically hold a bachelor's or master's degree in linguistics. Professors of linguistics and other advanced researchers in academia and industry normally need a PhD. These types of linguists, who study the structures and functions of language, may not need to become fluent in any languages other than English for their work. However, undergraduate and graduate programs in linguistics generally require knowledge of at least one foreign language.

Success Tip:

  • Aspiring linguists should take English and foreign language classes in high school. Every type of linguist needs good communication skills in English, whether for writing, researching, teaching, interpreting or translating. In addition, a strong foundation in a non-native language can be beneficial. Translators and interpreters may already be bilingual. But for other linguists, understanding how languages work can only be enhanced by some exposure to more than one of them. That is why undergraduate and graduate programs in linguistics generally require study of at least one non-native language. Foreign language study in high school can provide good preparation for these later language requirements as well as for translating, interpreting or teaching language.

Step 2: Get a Bachelor's Degree

While some interpreting and translating jobs do not necessarily require a bachelor's degree, most linguist career options do. Those who wish to pursue an academic or research career in the field should major in linguistics or in a closely related field. Linguistics majors can expect to take courses in such areas as phonology, semantics, grammatical analysis, foreign language teaching and language in society.

Those who know they want to be an interpreter or translator in a specialized area, such as finance, healthcare, science or the law, should pick a major related to that area. For other interpretation and translation careers, the field in which a bachelor's is earned may not be important. But foreign languages and literatures or English can be good choices as majors. For those who wish to work in language education, combining education and linguistics coursework and language study may be the best path.

Success Tips:

  • Consider specializing in computational linguistics. Computational linguistics is a booming subfield that merges linguistics with computer science to develop technologies like machine translation and speech recognition software. Computational linguists generally find a broader range of employment options in private industry than other linguistics graduates. They also acquire familiarity with programming languages, algorithms and other IT tools that could be put to marketable use in other jobs. Aspiring computational linguists should take classes in theoretical and computational linguistics, statistics, math and computer science. A combined BA/MA program in this field of study may be available.
  • Combine linguistics with a related field like anthropology or psychology in a double major to enhance your options and prospects on the job market. Computer science is not the only field that combines well with linguistics. An interdisciplinary approach with complementary fields not only increases the range of relevant careers, but also enhances a graduate's marketability in either field with the added skills and perspectives from the other discipline.
  • Take advantage of study abroad opportunities. Immersion in a foreign language through extended time abroad can be invaluable for those seeking to achieve fluency in a non-native language. Time overseas also confers cultural expertise that can be essential to professional translators and interpreters. Even language analysts who do not need to be bilingual can benefit from experiencing life as lived speaking another language. While a term or summer overseas may not be feasible for everyone, aspiring linguists can research what programs and scholarship funds are available to secure a study abroad opportunity during college.

Step 3: Gain Experience

Many linguist careers, such as translating and interpreting or computational linguistics, require relevant experience. The actual amount of time spent gaining experience is not necessarily important. What is important is being able to demonstrate proficiency in either the language or technical skills required, which often calls for more than just classroom studies.

For translating and interpreting, volunteering or interning is a good way to gain experience and build a portfolio. The American Translators Association and the Red Cross work together to place volunteer interpreters in crisis situations. Students may also find volunteer opportunities at community organizations or hospitals.

In computational linguistics, where job ads may include a long list of technical specifications, internships are an ideal way to gain specific skills (and contacts) in a real-world environment. LinguistList.org, which posts widely consulted job ads in the field, maintains listings of linguistics internships, the bulk of which were paid positions in computational linguistics as of July 2012.

Success Tips:

  • Volunteer, teach or work abroad to prepare for a career in translating or interpreting. There is no substitute for firsthand experience of a language and culture for those who wish to translate or interpret for a living. Even with study abroad experience, additional time spent abroad can only benefit a new graduate seeking to establish a career that requires foreign language fluency. Many websites offer information on overseas placements. For those who cannot afford time as an unpaid volunteer or intern, there are abundant employment opportunities in teaching English abroad. Training and certification in teaching English as a second language is recommended and sometimes required to teach overseas.
  • Read widely and keep abreast of current events to prepare for interpreting and translating careers. The most successful interpreters and translators are worldly in their knowledge of history, politics, international affairs, economics and other important areas of contemporary life. Reading newspapers and books on various topics and watching TV in all relevant languages can continuously sharpen an aspiring translator or interpreter's language skills and endow them with broad multicultural knowledge.

Step 4: Get Certified

For interpreters and translators, certification is not generally required, but it can be beneficial. The American Translators Association offers certifications in 24 languages to those who pass an exam and achieve a requisite level of education and/or experience. There are also specialized certifications offered by government authorities and non-profit organizations for sign language, conference, court and healthcare interpreters and others who demonstrate proficiency.

Step 5: Get a Master's Degree

For several linguist specialties, a master's degree is required or highly valuable, though in what field depends on the specialty. Computational linguists and other language researchers and analysts may need graduate training in linguistics or a related field (such as computer science for computational linguists or education for applied linguists) to obtain higher-level positions. Graduate programs in linguistics may award professional master's degrees and Master of Arts degrees in teaching, as well as research-oriented Master of Science degrees. Earning a master's normally takes around two years. For those who wish to pursue an academic career, a research-oriented master's program is the best preparation for continuing into a PhD program, whether in the same department or at a different university.

Conference interpreters, who provide interpreting services at international business and diplomatic gatherings, often obtain a master's or other graduate-level training in this highly skilled specialty. Other interpreters or translators may opt to complete a more generalized graduate program in their field. These master's degree programs include courses on such topics as public speaking, translation project management and computer-assisted translation.

Success Tip:

  • Boost career prospects and possibly save time with a professional master's program. Some universities offer master's degrees in linguistics. These programs are designed to provide a professional, rather than strictly academic, credential in an area with many practical applications, like computational linguistics or sociolinguistics. Some of these programs may be completed in 12 months, instead of the normal two years. Even if they do not save time, these programs still provide tangible benefits over traditional master's programs in the attention they pay to networking, job market preparation, placement and other career-related skills and concerns. For students who want a marketable specialization and a career in the private sector, one of these programs may be the best route to earning a master's degree.

Step 6: Get a PhD

For an academic career or advanced research roles, it is essential to hold a PhD in linguistics (or possibly in a related discipline if the research specialty concerns language). Students may earn a master's and PhD consecutively in the same program or they may join a doctoral program after earning a master's. Earning a master's and PhD together in a social science like linguistics took an average of nearly eight years in 2003, according to a National Science Foundation study.

Doctoral students normally spend 2-3 years completing coursework covering various subfields and methods of linguistics and taking qualifying exams and/or writing qualifying papers. Most programs also require that students show reading proficiency in one or two languages other than English. The rest of a doctoral program is spent researching and writing a dissertation. Normally, this is a book-length work of scholarship based on original research, done under the guidance of a faculty advisor. PhD graduates typically go on to college and university teaching posts, postdoctoral researcher positions in and outside the academy and high-level research jobs at government agencies or private firms.

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