Skip to main content

The information on this page consists of recommended practices for being successful in our MA program. For official policies in our program please see our page here or the program catalog page here


Table of Contents

    1. What is Grad School For?

    2. The Life Cycle of an MA

    3. Preparing for What Comes Next

    4. Working Groups and Discussion Fora

    5. Frequently Asked Questions

What is Grad School for?

    1. Starting Assumptions

      • The goal of being in linguistics grad school is to become a good linguist

        • Different from being in undergrad, where the goal is to become an educated person
      • A good linguist is someone who does good linguistics

        • Doing means being “productive”, i.e., actively contributing to human knowledge by making and publishing discoveries about language.
        • Good means work that other knowledgeable people will take seriously and will want to read.
    2. Learning to do good linguistics therefore means acquiring some important skills, including:

      • Finding research questions–gaps in our knowledge that need filling, new ways to make sense of currently baffling facts, or widely-held incorrect beliefs that need correcting. This entails paying close attention to what other linguists have said and are saying (“the literature”).
      • Getting and interpreting evidence to resolve those questions.
      • Explaining to others why your question is interesting, and your answer is right (or at least, righter than what we had before)
    3. If you want to go on doing linguistics, you will have to convince someone to pay you for it. That someone will judge you by what you have produced—not by what you might have produced, or by what courses you took.


    Grad school is for becoming the kind of person who comes off well when judged by those standards. 

The Life Cycle of an MA

YEAR 1: FallStart accumulating evidence that you an NC resident 

Take 3 courses 

M.A. foreign-language requirement (reading knowledge, 1 language — must be a Relevant Language for students in the Hispanic Linguistics MA-PhD program). 

Look for an M.A. project topic. (No such thing as too early!) 
YEAR 1: SPRINGIf you are interested in being a teaching assistant, be sure to let the Department Chair (Misha) know that at the start of the semester. 

Take 3 courses 

Find a thesis advisor 
SUMMERStart work on M.A. research prospectus. 

Follow up on first-year final projects. Can you make any of them publishable or presentable? 

Apply for North Carolina residency if eligible. 
YEAR 2: FALL* Take 3 courses
Thesis option: 

Form an MA committee (advisor + 2)  

Finish thesis prospectus. 

MA orals (prospectus defense +)
Research-paper option (and all Hisp Lx. MA-PhD students):  

Find two faculty sponsors. Write and defend proposal. 
* If applying to PhD programs, you have till about December to maximize your competitiveness.
YEAR 2: SPRINGNo courses, just “thesis credit” or “thesis substitute credit” 

Research, write, and defend thesis or research paper. 

Finish revisions to thesis or paper, if any. (This often slops over into summer.) “Apply to graduate” in Connect Carolina. 

Apply for jobs. 

Hispanic Linguistics MA-PhD students: Write to the Director of Graduate Studies in the Romance Studies department to ask to be “term activated” in ROMS. 

LifeCycle (pdf version of above table)

Preparing for What Comes Next

When you finish the program, you will want to do something next (a job, a PhD, etc.), which means you will have to convince someone to let you do it. It is therefore critical to use your time in the program to maximize your impressiveness to strangers who are looking for a linguist. Some important ways to do this include:

Do good new linguistics and publish or present it. Don’t hide your light under a bushel basket; be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to submit to conferences, or even to journals. Recent examples:

2023JulyJarem Saunders, "Improving Automated Prediction of English Lexical Blends Through the Use of Observable Linguistic Features", SIGMORPHON
2021MaySean Foley, “The acoustics of apical vowels in two endangered Ngwi languages”, Chicago Linguistics Society
AprilBrian Hsu and Yiwen Peng, “Positions of Mandarin classifiers in and out of compounds: implications for Distinctness, selection, and projection”, West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics
JanYu Cai, “Phonetic description: lexical tones in Nanchang Gan”
2020NovLeah Dudley, “Accent accommodation in American students studying in the UK”, Center for Languages and Intercultural Communication conference.
OctSean Foley, “Naruo: an endangered Ngwi language spoken in Yunnan, China”, International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics 
SepElliott Moreton, Brandon Prickett, Katya Pertsova, Josh Fennell, Joe Pater, and Lisa Sanders, “Learning repetition, but not syllable reversal”, Annual Meeting on Phonology
Jiefang Li and Yiwen Peng, “Testing Speech Learning Model through Investigating the Mandarin Vowels produced by ‘Na¨ıve’ Mandarin Speakers”, Linguistic Association of the Southwest conference
MayYu Cai and Rebecca Winters, “Cognitive Load Effect on Formant Frequencies of English Vowels”, Northwest Linguistics Conference 
JanTristan Bavol and Victoria Johnson, “Divergent principals of numeral formation in Azajo P’urhepecha (Tarascan)”, Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas

Nothing is more impressive than a good early publication or presentation record, because it shows that you do things, and that other linguists think it’s good.

Make normal progress in the program. Especially if you’re going to be applying to a PhD program afterwards. They will take your progress in our program as an indicator of what’s likely to happen in theirs.

Give the faculty something to brag about in their recommendation letters. If all we can say is that you came to class, fulfilled the requirements, and completed the program, that won’t be a highly effective letter. It is much better if we can write about concrete, specific things you did that exceeded the bare requirements, and that we can use to illustrate your initiative, ability, and persistence.

Working Groups and Discussion Fora

In Linguistics  

  • Friday colloquium, aka LING 700 (Jules Michael Terry; 3:30–4:30 on Fridays, Smith 107).  
  • P-Side (phonetics and phonology; Elliott Moreton in Fall, Jennifer Smith in Spring) 
  • Fieldwork groups (all David Mora-Marin)  
    • K-Side (Sgaw Karen) 
    • M-Side (Mayan)  
    • T-Side (Tigrinya)  
    • P’urepecha  
  • Acquisition Lab (Misha Becker)  
  • Concept Lab (Katya Pertsova and Elliott Moreton)  
  • Sporklab (Katya Pertsova, Elliott Moreton, and Jennifer smith; currently dormant)  
  • Linguistics Outreach Group (David Mora-Marin and Katya Pertsova)  
  • Semantics Reading Group (Jules Michael Terry)

In other departments: 

  • Cherokee Coffee Hour (205 Wilson St., American Indian Center, 1–2 on Thursdays — contact Ben Frey,  
  • NCSU Linguistics brown-bags (contact Jeff Mielke, 


Frequently Asked Questions

I’ve collected questions and answers from various members of the department. Although many of these answers are from faculty, they do not represent official department policy!

How much time should I be spending on linguistics?

  • A 3-class load in grad school is not like a 3-class load in undergraduate school. You need to learn to manage your time because you won’t have enough. If you find you have as much free time as you did in college, you are doing something wrong.
  • Treat grad school as a full-time job with a lot of overtime
  • Minimize non-grad-school life
  • In grad school, you must overdo everything.
  • Linguistics should be occupying lots of your brain time — you get to be selfish and focused, for once in your life

What should I be getting out of classes?

  • Classes are the gym, but what matters is the race.
  • Graduate courses are training for researchers. Doing well means learning more than is assigned.
  • Assignments require thought and initiative. Do something with each new piece of information. After you chew, swallow! Don’t forget stuff; try to connect each new piece of information to what you know already

When should I start looking for an M.A. thesis topic? When should I start on the thesis research itself?

  • Start looking for a thesis topic now. Constantly be thinking: What is my contribution to linguistics going to be? How will I leave the field better than I found it?
  • Never too early to start working on thesis — start talking to people about ideas.
  • The summer after the first year is valuable. You should be using it to read widely and deeply in search of a problem to work on. If you have done a promising class project in your first year, you can use the summer to work on growing it into a thesis proposal (or a conference submission).
  • Take advantage of overlapping classes
  • Try to make it so all your papers and projects overlap in some way (same language, etc.)
  • In the classes you think are different from your interest, the final projects are great opportunities to combine your actual interests with the class’s focus.
  • You’ll take classes in areas you don’t think you’re interested in, but that also helps with performance in areas you are interested in. Give it a chance and try your hardest

Where do research ideas come from? How do I know a good one when I see it?

  • Read widely and deeply. This takes time and effort, but that is what you are in grad school to do.
  • Be curious about the field of theoretical linguistics. Hang out in the library and read some random journal articles. If you find a fact or claim that strikes you as particularly interesting, surprising, or unsurprising but cool anyway, turn it into a paper of your own. Check out conference calls and think about submitting abstracts.
  • One of the more useful pieces of advice the department has given me is to attend events in multiple departments
  • The library and internet (esp. Google scholar) are your friends. Learn to use them to search for literature! Don’t forget the library! Go and talk to the librarians if you have questions!
  • Talk to other students, incl. more senior students, and faculty
  • Go to other people’s MA defenses
  • Friday colloqs are a good source of ideas. You really do have to come, every time we have one. And they’re good for you.
  • When reading, constantly ask yourself: ‘How can I use this new piece of knowledge? What can I do with it? How can I use it to produce more knowledge?
  • A lot of published work in linguistics is awful. The solution is not to complain about how awful it is, but to surpass it.
  • In research, ‘interesting’ does not mean what it means in ordinary use. A fact or proposal is ‘interesting’ if it gives you ideas for what to do next.
  • Learn the art of ‘idea management’. A good research idea in theoretical linguistics is one that connects data and theory in a testable way.
  • Courses don’t end at end of semester; they’re jumping-off points for projects
  • Write term papers to be publishable

How can I tell whether I am “making satisfactory progress”? How much is enough?

  • If you feel like you’re getting your butt kicked, that’s normal.
  • Grades in graduate courses are not informative. You must pay attention to what you’re producing in terms of new good linguistics.
  • It can help to compare yourself with other students at UNC and in linguistics programs at other schools. Are they presenting at conferences? Which ones? Read their papers and theses on the Web. What skills do they show that you don’t yet have? What is your plan to acquire those skills?

What is my faculty advisor for? My thesis supervisor?

  • The faculty advisor helps you choose classes and ensure you’re fulfilling the program requirements. Don’t change your plans without checking with your advisor first! The thesis supervisor is there to help you discover something new and publish it to the world.

How do I get into conferences? When should I start submitting to conferences? How many talks and publications should I have when I start applying for jobs?

  • Every class project is a potential conference talk so start earlier and put more work into it than the undergrads.
  • Be bold about applying to conferences! Try submitting class projects. You’ll get feedback.
  • The best way to make conference talks less intimidating is to do them.

How do I learn how to write?

  • When you read linguistics articles, pay attention to how the author writes and presents his/her arguments. Then, when you go to write your own paper, emulate the authors you have read. This includes dividing your paper into sections and subsections. Start with an outline if this helps you organize your argument. Think about the reader as you write and try to present your arguments in a coherent and flowing manner.
  • Also about writing: give examples to support your claims! Pretend you are writing to convince a jury of your case. How much evidence do you need to make a solid case? Are there alternatives that you are not considering?

What other skills do I need?

  • Don’t underrate the value of a computer language of some kind.
  • Take statistics—you’re not guaranteed to have the Odum Institute forever.
  • You won’t end up doing your dissertation on what you were thinking about when you started grad school. Cast a wide net!

What is summer for?

  • The summer after the first year is valuable. You should be using it to read widely and deeply in search of a problem to work on. If you have done a promising class project in your first year, you can use the summer to work on growing it into a thesis proposal (or a conference submission).
  • Before summer starts, make a reading list in the area you’re considering for your thesis (get a faculty member to help you). Read what’s on that list and make notes. These papers will lead you to more papers. Read them!

How do I maintain mental health?

  • Worrying isn’t productive; it doesn’t help you pass comps, it doesn’t get your thesis draft written, and it certainly doesn’t get you a job (speaking from personal and recent experience!). It’s certainly easier said than done, but figure out what you need to do to keep your stress levels in check
  • If you tend to workaholism, think of it as losing the battle to win the war: you will have more staying power and do better and more solid work if you don’t use it all up at once. You will also be a happier and healthier human being. This is especially important during periods of heavy stress that goes on for a while – read: thesis/dissertation time. i personally learned the hard way that it’s NOT the best idea to hole up and do nothing but code data for months on end. The other way is a much more humane approach. . . .
  • Burn-out is an ever-present and serious threat. Take time every day to chill out, work out, and spend time with your friends and loved ones. go for a walk; read a book that has neither Chomsky nor Smolensky amongst its authors