Linguist Careers: Salary Info & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a career as a linguist? Get real job duties, career prospects and salary information to see if becoming a linguist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Linguist

Linguists, also known as interpreters and translators, convert spoken and written information from one language to another and can also specialize in sign language. To determine whether this is the right career for you, take a look at the pros and cons of working as a linguist below.

Pros of a Linguist Career
High growth field (46% projected growth from 2012-2022)*
Entry-level education requirement is a bachelor's degree*
Roughly 19% were self-employed in 2012*
Can work in conference centers, hospitals, courtrooms and schools*

Cons of a Linguist Career
Lower-than-average pay (median annual wage was about $44,000 in May 2014)*
Interpreting simultaneously with a speaker can be stressful*
Schedules can vary with long, irregular hours and limited work*
Stress of tight schedules and deadline pressures*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Linguists must be fluent in at least two languages in order to convert written and spoken information from one language to another. In addition, professionals have the added pressures of relaying both the style and tone of information being transmitted. Linguists can specialize in translation or interpretation. Interpreters focus on the spoken word, and can work either simultaneously or consecutively with speakers. In other words, interpreting in simultaneous mode requires a linguist to convert information at the same time someone is delivering it, while working in a consecutive mode allows a linguist to convert the information after it has been delivered orally.

Translators, on the other hand, work mostly with written materials. Ideas, facts and writing style present in one document must stay the same after being converted into another language. Slang and cultural references must also be considered. Most of this work in done electronically, and translators often have the luxury of working with several revisions of a draft before they must submit a finished product. Both interpreters and translators can work in the medical, legal, judiciary and literary fields. Furthermore, linguists can also work as guides, escorts or at conferences.

Job Prospects and Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for translators and interpreters is projected to increase by 46% from 2012-2022 (www.bls.gov). This growth is much faster than average in comparison to other occupations and reflects the growing diversity found in the U.S. population. The best job prospects will be available for linguists focused on the modern European, Middle Eastern and East Asian languages. In addition, employment for interpreters in American Sign Language is projected to grow rapidly due to the popularity of video relay services. Opportunities will also exist through the military. Of course, job prospects will vary by language and specialty.

In May 2014, the BLS stated that the median annual wage for a translator or interpreter was about $44,000. This is lower than the average for all other occupations with an entry-level education requirement of at least a bachelor's degree.

What Are the Requirements?

Education requirements in this field vary. Typically, a bachelor's degree is the entry-level education requirement to become a linguist; however, the most important requirement is fluency in at least two languages, including English. As a result, many interpreters and translators do not have a bachelor's degree. Instead, some professionals have completed job-specific training programs after obtaining the ability to communicate in multiple languages.

No universal certification exists in this field. Instead, linguists can sit for multiple examinations to prove proficiency. For instance, certification is offered through the American Translators Association, the National Association for Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, the National Association of the Deaf and the U.S. Department of State, to name a few. Furthermore, work experience is essential. Internships and volunteer work are excellent opportunities to gain valuable professional experience that can prepare you for strong job prospects.

What Employers Are Looking for

Necessary skills in this field include dexterity, cultural sensitivity and concentration. In addition, strong listening, speaking and writing skills in multiple languages are essential. Here are some job postings that were listed in May 2012:

  • A government and military agency located in Boston posted a job listing for a position as a cryptology linguist. The job required the ability to supervise and perform the detection of foreign communications with signals equipment. Duties included producing summaries of translated and transcribed target languages into English. The ability to speak multiple languages was preferred.
  • A geographic services company focused on the aerospace and defense industries advertised for a cleared French linguist who could teach basic and intermediate French at their Virginia office. Top Secret Clearance and U.S. citizenship were both required, as was experience developing and implementing a curriculum for the study of the French language. The company also requested that candidates submit ACTFL and DLPT language test scores.
  • A global supports services company in Virginia listed an available position for a language professional and Portuguese linguist with between two and five years of experience. Candidates for the position were Portuguese translators, transcribers and interpreters. Native or near native Portuguese and English communication skills were required. Education requirements were either an associate's degree with two years of work experience, or a bachelor's degree.

How to Stand out

Professional certification is one way to get an edge in this field. Few employers are willing to hire linguists without relevant work experience, and earning certification enables you to prove proficiency and capability as a linguist. Volunteer work and internships can be found through the American Translators Association. In addition, interpreters and translators with an entrepreneurial spirit and strong business skills are often able to start their own businesses and find freelance work through agencies. Taking business courses can help you reach this goal of self-employment. Also, conferences, courses and additional training programs can help you gain experience and keep your translation and interpretation skills sharp. Furthermore, earning certification in a specific field, such as healthcare, can improve job prospects.

Alternative Career Paths

Immigration and Customs Inspector

If you are interested in using your language skills in another capacity, then you may wish to work as an immigration and customs inspector to monitor the persons, goods and merchandise crossing the U.S. border. You would be responsible for discovering violations of customs laws and regulations. Duties would include examining passports and visas, seizing contraband, inspecting baggage and reporting discrepancies. According to Onetonline.org, the median annual wage for immigration and customs inspectors in 2011 was roughly $72,000.

Tour Guide and Escort

If you are interested in using your strong communication skills to travel and explain places of interest to individuals or groups through sightseeing tours, then a career as a tour guide and escort may be right for you. Duties include describing cultures and points of interest, responding to questions, guiding others through cities, researching relevant topics and planning itineraries. According to Onetonline.org, this field is projected to experience average growth from 2010-2020. In addition, the median annual wage for a tour guide and escort in 2011 was about $24,000.

Travel Guide

If you are interested in working in a variety of settings with the ability to travel while using your foreign language skills, then a career as a travel guide may be a good fit. Duties include planning itineraries, explaining destination sites, selling travel packages, resolving issues that guests may encounter, leading clients and giving travel advice. Strong communication skills are essential in this career. According to Onetonline.org, travel guides earned a median annual wage of approximately $31,000 in 2011.

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Featured Schools

American University

  • Master of Arts in Strategic Communication
  • Master of Arts in Strategic Communication - Advocacy and Social Impact Concentration

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Johns Hopkins University

  • Master of Arts in Communication
  • Post-Bachelor's Certificate in Applied Research for Communication

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Purdue University

  • Master of Science in Communication
  • Graduate Certificate in Strategic Communication Management

What is your highest level of education?

Full Sail University

  • Master of Fine Arts - Creative Writing
  • BS - Media Communications (Campus)
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts - Creative Writing for Entertainment

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Northcentral University

  • MEd - Reading Education

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Indiana Wesleyan University

  • BS Human Communications
  • A.S. General Studies - Communications
  • Undergraduate Certificate - Communications

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Queens University of Charlotte

  • Master of Arts in Communication - General
  • Master of Arts in Communication - Integrated Digital Strategy Concentration
  • Master of Arts in Communication - Undecided

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Saint John's University

  • Ph.D. in Literacy
  • Ph.D. in Literacy: Educational Leadership
  • Ph.D. in Literacy: Special Education

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