Forensic Linguistics: Pros and Cons
Forensic linguists perform language analysis and advising for legal companies, private firms, law enforcement and the government. Consider the pros and cons to determine if a career in forensic linguistics is right for you.
|PROS of a Career in Forensic Linguistics|
|Higher than average median salary of about $69,000***|
|Job opportunities in a variety of industries (communications, academia, government and business)**|
|Can make a difference in solving crimes and preventing further occurrences***|
|Though work may involve analyzing crimes and dangerous/harmful situations, it isn't accompanied by physical risk***|
|CONS of a Career in Forensic Linguistics|
|Lengthy education requirements (6+ years after high school)**|
|Graduate programs in forensic linguistics are not widely offered**|
|Security clearances must be obtained for some jobs***|
|Self-employed forensic linguists will need to market their services, requiring time and money*|
Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Hofstra University and the Centre for Forensic Linguistics at Aston University, ***Payscale.com.
Job Options, Descriptions and Duties
You could serve as a consultant for a legal team, analyzing evidence from depositions, framing questions for discovery, wording arguments for trial or writing up legal documents. Reviewing written (such as letters or emails) and verbal (such as audio recordings) evidence to determine authorship or authenticity could be one job duty. As an expert witness, you may provide insight into how parties of a lawsuit might have heard instructions from a police officer or what a person meant when giving testimony. You can also serve as advisor to military personnel, police and court officers on how to speak appropriately to crime victims, children or people of differing cultures.
You may use highly technical computer programs that mine vast quantities of collected data, including phone calls, texts, digitalized documents, radio clips or television content, searching for specific phrases or content. You may create search queries and summarize the data for use by governmental bodies, such as the military or intelligence agencies. Specialists in forensic phonetics, which is a subspecialty of linguistics, perform auditory and acoustic analysis of recordings. You may work with voice identification or reclamation of data from damaged sources. This work may be done for law enforcement or for audio or recording companies.
According to Payscale.com, the median salary for all linguists was about $69,000 as of July 2015. The lowest paid 10% of these professionals earned around $41,000 or less, while the highest paid 10% earned roughly $99,000 or more. Working for the government, linguists may be hired in at a G-12 or G-13 range (from the federal wage chart), which paid salaries ranging between $61,000 and $95,000 in 2015.
What Are the Requirements?
While jobs requiring just a bachelor's degree in linguistics may be available, most forensic linguists have graduate degrees. Earning a master's degree in forensic linguistics typically takes 2 years. Programs include coursework in phonetics and phonology, the language of criminal justice, field methods, language crimes and sociolinguistics. Graduate students entering programs in forensic linguistics could hold an undergraduate degree in foreign languages, computer science, English, communications or philosophy. Pursuing a doctoral degree, which is generally required if you want to work as an expert witness, can mean as much as 10 years of schooling.
Forensic linguists are people who care about words - what they mean, how they are used and how they are received. This is a field that requires great attention to detail, the ability to communicate well and the ability to guard the privacy of the information involved in your work. If you work in a freelance type of position, you'll need to continually market your abilities and keep careful track of the details of your business. The ability to manage pressure and remain calm in tense courtroom or legal situations is helpful.
What Employers Are Looking For
Self-employed forensic linguists who work as expert witnesses generally advertise their doctoral degree in linguistics, as well as publishing and speaking credentials. Employers of forensic linguists often look for candidates with knowledge of various software, as well as communication and collaborative skills. Some employers need candidates who can relocate or travel, and many government jobs are for candidates with security clearances. Below is a sampling of job postings available in March 2012:
- A translation and transcription company in Washington advertised for linguists with the ability to read spectrograms and use audio software to work as forensic transcription consultants and support witnesses. Native speakers of English and Spanish were needed.
- A Virginia-based company posted an ad for a document and media exploitation analyst to apply forensic methods to exploit captured information related to IEDs. Expertise in forensics, linguistics and analysis would be used to review information and disseminate it. A relevant bachelor's degree plus 4 years of experience using DOMEX software and top-secret clearance were required.
- A government agency advertised for a foreign language program coordinator who, among other duties, would plan and direct the contract linguist activities in the field office providing technical support for criminal, counter-intelligence and terrorism and/or cyber investigations. The position was open to current agency employees.
- A military language school in California posted an opening for a contract specialist, with responsibilities that included training military linguists. Travel was possibly required.
How to Get an Edge in the Field
Voice recognition and analysis software programs are heavily used in some positions, so coursework and experience might help differentiate you from other candidates. While employers may not require speaking an additional language, multiple employers listed this as desirable. Fluency in Spanish in the U.S. would be a good addition to your resume, since companies who do linguistic analysis often also do translation, and much of this is done in Spanish. The court system in the U.S. uses Spanish heavily, so working as a consultant to law firms and having knowledge of Spanish language and culture could give you an edge in the market.
Join Professional Organizations
American and international forensic and linguistic societies serve as clearinghouses and discussion boards for research in the field. Membership in a society such as the International Association of Forensic Linguists, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences or the Linguistic Society of America will help keep you up-to-date with developments in the field and may connect you to job boards.
Alternate Career Paths
Teaching linguistics, which is done at the college level, may be a good option for you if you would prefer to work with students or to spend time performing research. Working as a professor would generally require you to hold a Ph.D. and to research and publish. The BLS expected an average growth rate of 17% for the postsecondary teaching field in general from 2010 through 2020 and reported that social sciences professors (category of linguistics professors) earned near $72,000 in 2011.
If you're interested in working with programs that sift through data, like language clips, but you'd rather be the mastermind who develops these programs, consider a career in computer software engineering. You'll need to earn a 4-year degree that teaches you to design and develop software using computer languages. While it requires continuing education, graduate degrees aren't typically necessary to get a start. Software engineering jobs were projected to grow by 30% (much faster than average) from 2010 through 2020, according to the BLS. Reported median earnings in 2011 were $89,000 for applications software engineers and $97,000 for systems software engineers.
Lawyers use language in careful and specific ways to represent and advise people and companies for a wide range of reasons. If you're interested in language but you want to have more of an authoritative and visible position, this is another option to consider. Lawyers need both an undergraduate and a law degree, totaling about 7 years of education, plus passage of the bar exam to become licensed. The BLS projected average growth in the field of 10% between 2010 and 2020, with keen competition for some jobs. The median income of lawyers was reported to be around $113,000 in 2011.