Ethics of recommending PhD research
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Most of you out there who teach linguistics encounter
students, perhaps one or two a year, sometimes more,
sometimes less, who either excel at linguistics or are
intent to pursue (post)graduate research in linguistics, or
both. (And others of you reading this list are those
students.) The discovery of these students is one of the
most satisfying things in university teaching---after all,
we were once those students, and they share our passion for
our chosen field.
But I have a moral dilemma in advising them about pursuing
a linguistics research career. On the one hand, these
students' inclinations and abilities mark them out as
future linguists, and for the most part that is what they
want to be. On the other hand, the current job market has
been dreadful for the two decades I have been doing
linguistics, and doesn't look like it is about to change. I
have real ethical problems recommending students to devote
several intense, poverty-stricken years to come out at the
end with little if any prospect of a career---even for the
Another, morally problematic factor that we must consider
is---to put it most frankly---self-interest, both short-
term and long-term. In the short term, most of us are under
pressure by our universities to admit more research
graduate students; this is true in at least the US and the
UK. If we don't, our departmental funding might be cut, our
Ph.D. program (and their courses) may be eliminated, and
perhaps our department (or our job) will be eliminated as
well. These facts pressure us to encourage not-so-brilliant
students who want to pursue an academic career, or
brilliant students who haven't considered the option, to
pursue PhD study, in order to keep our department an
economically viable segment of the university.
In the long term, these students are the future of our
field, especially for those of us in less popular
subfields. Discouraging them, or not encouraging them, may
lead to the decline or even demise of our subfield, or even
the field as a whole, and none of us wants that either.
So my questions are:
(1) What advice do you give to students in the following
(a) an outstanding undergraduate student who wants to
pursue a PhD in linguistics.
(b) an outstanding undergraduate student who has not
expressed an interest in pursuing a PhD in linguistics.
(c) a good but not outstanding undergraduate student who
wants to pursue a PhD in linguistics.
[The advice I currently give is as follows: (a) I tell them
what the job market is really like, and what academia is
really like, and advise them that if they really love what
they are doing and want to spend the next 4-6 years doing
it with the real possibility of having to choose another
career, they should go ahead. This pessimistic perspective
has not stopped any of my students yet, incidentally. (b)
If they have other career interests, I don't try to talk
them into an academic career. (c) I give them the facts of
academic life as for the (a) group, but I don't encourage
them. However, I haven't actively discouraged them either.]
(2) For those of you in small or ''non-mainstream'' areas of
linguistics, what do you tell students in (1a)-(1c),
including students who have started their PhD courses and
say ''I want to do [your subfield], but I don't know if it's
worth it because there are no jobs in it''.
[I actually haven't had to give such advice because those
who have come to me have been pretty firm about their
interest in my subfield(s), but I've heard of others in
(3) Are there *sound* reasons for thinking the economic
situation in higher education in the US and/or western
Europe will change significantly for the better in the near
future (i.e. by the time currently finishing undergraduates
would receive a PhD)?
[I should note that for 15 years now I have been reading
that there will be a big improvement in the academic job
market ''just around the corner'', and I'm still waiting.]
I should make clear that I am referring to advising
students about pursuing a PhD in linguistics. Advising
students to take an undergraduate degree in linguistics is
another story of course, and one that has already been
discussed on this list on a number of occasions.
I will summarize responses to the list (plus my assessment
of whether I should change the advice I give).
I am looking for information regarding the sonority hierarchy. What
I would like, ideally, is a table showing a specific value for each
English phoneme rather than the broad grouped values I have access to
The closest thing I have been able to find to what I am looking for
so far is Elizabeth Selkirk's 1982 article entitled ''On the Major
Class Features and Syllable Theory'' which appeared in a volume
entitled _Language Sound Structure: Studies in Phonetics Presented to
Morris Halle by his Teacher and Students_. In this article, Selkirk
divides English phonemes into groups according to manner of
articulation and voicing. Voiceless stops are the lowest in the
hierarchy, carrying a value of 0.5. Voiced stops come next with a
value of 1.0, and so on, with liquids and glides toward the higher end
of the spectrum and with vowels appearing at the top.
This is really good information. The only problem is that
affricates and [sh] and certain other sounds are not included. Also, I
believe that there must be data out there somewhere that presents a
specific value for each sound rather than simply presenting broad
values based on groups of sounds. For example, it is said that [sh]
is more sonorant than [s] yet a grouping of all voiceless fricatives
together into one group and assigning them all one value does not
capture this fine distinction.
Thanks for whatever information you can give me in terms of actual
data or references. I understand that either Jakobsen and Halle's
_Preliminaries to Speech Analysis_ (1952) or Bloch and Trager's
_Outlines of Linguistic Analysis_ (1942) may have such information,
but I have been unable to track down these sources as of yet. It may
be that more modern equipment is able to measure the data more
accurately, anyway, so I would prefer to have access to something
fairly recent if it's available.
Incidentally, similar information in the form of a chart or table
for any other languages (especially Arabic, Spanish, and Chinese)
would be very helpful, as well.
Thanks in advance,
David Harris email@example.com
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