Linguistics Degrees: Masters, PhD & Online Course Info

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Master's and doctoral degrees in linguistics can lead to careers in and out of academia. Get the truth about the requirements, courses, and career options, and find out what you can do with your degree.
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Studying Linguistics: Degrees at a Glance

Linguistics is the scientific study of language. As a linguistics major, you'll study how people acquire the knowledge needed to learn and process language. Linguistics degrees acquaint students with the important elements of language, including sounds, words, sentences, and meaning, among others. Although having a linguistics degree is rarely a job requirement outside of academia and research, scientific knowledge of language can prove useful in a wide range of jobs related to language. For instance, according to the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), linguistics work can be helpful in the computer industry where they work on speech recognition, artificial intelligence, synthesis of text to speech, and many other areas.

Linguistics majors also find work in education, where they are involved in research and the development of training materials to help educators teach language more effectively. Other career options include interpreters or translators, foreign language teachers, ESL teachers, university-level teachers, and lexicographers. You might also work for government agencies, such as the FBI, CIA, or NSA. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), from 2010 to 2020, growth in job opportunities for many of these jobs is expected to grow as fast as the average for all jobs measured.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Students interested in understanding how we learn language Students who want to advance in their careers as linguists and researchers in the public and private sector, and those who want to teach at the university level and gain tenure
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - ESL teachers ($51,000)*
- Lexicographers (N/A)*
- Technical writers ($67,000)*
- Postsecondary English language and literature professors ($69,000)*
Time to Completion 2 years full-time 3 years after completing a master's program
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 45 credit hours in linguistics courses
- Master's thesis or research project
- Master's exam
- Foreign language requirement
- Most (or all) of the master's degree requirements
- Approximately 4-6 additional graduate level courses in linguistics
- Ph.D. exam(s)
- Dissertation prospectus
- Dissertation
- Teaching requirement (not required at all schools)
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree
- Official GRE scores
- Letters of recommendation
- Statement of purpose
- Master's degree or proof of graduate level credits
- Official GRE scores
- Letters of recommendation
- Statement of purpose
- Academic writing sample
Online Availability Yes, but accredited schools are rare, and degrees might only be offered through hybrid online/on-campus programs None currently available, but on-campus programs might offer independent study options for some students to allow them to complete work off campus

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's in Linguistics

During a linguistics master's degree program, you'll study the important components of language, such as phonetics (the structure of sounds), morphology (the study of words), syntax (sentence structure), and semantics (how meanings get made). There are several areas of linguistics you can focus on. For example, studying historical linguistics can help you gain perspective on how language has evolved over time. Sociolinguistics can provide insight on how language is used across different groups and cultures. In addition, many other subfields such as psycholinguistics (exploring the cognitive side of language) and applied linguistics (the science of teaching and learning languages) offer a diverse range of possible specializations.

Although a bachelor's degree is required for admission into a master's degree linguistics program, your bachelor's degree doesn't have to be in linguistics. Master's candidates without a linguistics background might be offered the opportunity to take basic courses in linguistics to catch up, but you should be aware that these courses might not be counted toward your graduate credits requirement.

Pros and Cons


  • As a linguistics major, you can gain valuable skills, such as the ability to express yourself clearly, think critically, and use analytical reasoning, that are useful for a variety of careers
  • Some schools offer specializations, such as applied linguistics or computational linguistics*
  • Opportunities to study and travel around the world for field work as a research assistant


  • You might have to explain what the study of linguistics is to potential employers because some may not be familiar with the field
  • Many schools assume that a doctorate is the goal of most graduate-level linguistics students, so you might have to make special arrangements before you begin your graduate program to get only a master's degree

According to the BLS, a master's degree in linguistics might be more education than you need for some jobs, yet not enough education for some academic or research positions in the field

Source: *Georgetown University's Department of Linguistics.

Courses and Requirements

Linguistics students are usually expected to choose a concentration from one of the large subgroups of linguistics, such as phonology, syntax, semantics, or historical linguistics. You might also be able to focus your thesis on a more specialized area of linguistics, such as computational linguistics (modeling aspects of language), psycholinguistics (processing language), or anthropological linguistics (relationship between language and social, historical, and cultural issues), among others. You might even have the option of choosing courses in a separate but related field, such as cognitive science, anthropology, and communication sciences, among others.

Most linguistics master's degree programs include the following core courses:

  • History of linguistics
  • Phonological theory
  • Syntactic theory
  • Formal syntax
  • Semantic theory
  • Pragmatics
  • Structure of non-Western linguistics
  • Field methods for linguistics

In addition to the required core courses, you might need to pass a comprehensive exam or complete a research paper or thesis project. Many linguistics departments also have a foreign language requirement.

Online Degree Options

Accredited schools offering master's degree programs in linguistics entirely online are rare. Some schools offer hybrid degree programs where you'll have to take only some courses on-campus. This option might not be offered as a standard procedure, so you might have to request it at schools that offer it as an option.

Stand Out with This Degree

If you want to stand out with a master's degree in linguistics, think about what you want to achieve with this degree and then focus on taking courses in those areas. For instance, if you want to work with speech recognition software, take computer science classes as electives. According to the Linguistic Society of America, having a double major can make you more marketable during your job search after graduation.

Ph.D. in Linguistics

For many linguistics departments, a doctorate is considered the endgame. The Ph.D. program is normally a 5-year program from the start of your graduate coursework until the defense of your dissertation. Although many departments do not require a bachelor's degree in linguistics for admission, some departments do require that you have some graduate-level courses on your official transcript. Students who pursue this degree are likely planning to teach at the university level or go into research.

Pros and Cons


  • If you decide to teach at the university level, you'll have job security after you achieve tenure
  • As a professor in this field, you could have many opportunities to travel to work on books and papers, conduct research and attend conferences and seminars
  • Could have the opportunity to have a say in the future of the linguistic program by serving on administrative and academic committees


  • Completing a Ph.D. program is a long and intense process
  • Tenure can take an additional 7 years beyond the 5 years normally required to get a Ph.D.
  • Competition for tenure can be more intense in the future because colleges and universities are offering fewer tenure positions

Courses and Requirements

In addition to the courses required for the master's degree program, doctorate students also have to complete courses toward completion of the Ph.D. program. They will also likely have to complete some combination of the following:

  • Several hours of a professional development or activities requirement
  • Submission and successful defense of their dissertation
  • Successful completion of an oral or written exam
  • Additional research papers intended for publication in the linguistics field (sometimes required)

Online Degree Options

Online degree programs through accredited schools are not available at the doctorate level. However, due to the nature of graduate program work, much of the work is done outside of the classroom (though access to campus library facilities is often necessary to complete research work).

Stand Out with This Degree

To stand out with a doctoral degree in linguistics, you should focus your publishable research papers on the areas you hope to work in after you graduate. According to the BLS, having published work is considered a plus both in academia and other industries. If you are undecided about which areas of linguistics to major or minor in, you might want to choose the areas with the least competition to improve your chances of finding employment.

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