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.

Should I Become a Linguist?

Linguistics is the scientific study of language, and it's 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 lifelong learning and continuing education opportunities to stay abreast on developments in the field. 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.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees. Professional certificate or specialized training may be required.
Degree Fields Linguistics, anthropology, computer science or cognitive neuroscience, English or foreign languages and literatures
Certification Optional professional certification available
Experience Internships, volunteer positions, and other experiences are valued in the professional realm.
Key Skills English language skills, native-level fluency in one or more languages, sharp listening and speaking skills, strong writing in at least one non-English language; know various tools and techniques of natural language processing, such as programming languages, algorithms, machine learning and data mining.
Salary $43,590 (Median annual salary for all translators and interpreters in May 2014)

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

Step 1: Choose the Desired Linguist Career

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. 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, but may not need to become fluent in any languages. However, undergraduate and graduate programs in linguistics generally require knowledge of at least one foreign language. Foreign language study in high school can provide good preparation for 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. 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 or a foreign language, literature, or English. For those who wish to work in language education, combining education and linguistics coursework and language study may be the best path.

Combine linguistics with a related field like anthropology or psychology in a double major to enhance your options and prospects on the job market. 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.

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.
  • 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. Aspiring linguists can research what programs and scholarship funds are available to secure a study abroad opportunity during college.

Step 3: Gain Experience

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. 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.

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., 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:

  • 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 skills as an aspiring translator or interpreter and introduce 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

Master's degree programs in linguistics 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. These programs focus more on 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.

Computational linguists and other language research and analyst positions may require 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.

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.

Step 6: Get a PhD

For an academic career or advanced research roles, it is essential to hold a PhD in linguistics. 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, which may take up to 8 years.

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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