So I applied to a linguistics PhD program my senior year of undergraduate studies in Chinese and Spanish. I wasn't accepted, and the university provided the explanation that essentially I didn't have enough background/research experience in the field. I am reapplying to this graduate program now five years later, and I am wondering if I should apply directly to the PhD program again or to their master's program. My career goal is a professor, so I know I will need the PhD for that. I also know that funding preference is given to PhD admits, but I just don't know if I have a strong enough background for them to consider me.

There are prerequisites to the program that I still only fill one of unfortunately, but they do allow you to take them your first year if needed. What is new to my application is that I've taken three linguistics MOOCs (massive open online courses), audited a phonetics course in the speech language pathology department, and completed a TESOL certificate program. My work experience is as an ESL tutor. I do not have any research experience.

Thanks in advance for your time and help.

3 Answers 3


(Disclosure - I am part of the admissions staff at a linguistics department in a UK university)

Talk to the department you are applying to first. Although they won't be able to give a definitive 'no - you won't get the PhD offer if you apply', most departments (at least in the UK) will be happy to talk, informally, about whether you fulfil the prerequisites.

There are some general points to remember though. A student enrolled on a PhD will be required to submit a substantial body of scientifically original work at the end of the course, and your ability to deliver this is what the admission committee will be trying to gauge. In your case, it is worth remembering that linguistics is the scientific study of language* - and actually has a very little to do with language skills themselves. Unfortunately, knowing Chinese and Spanish, and being able to teach English as a second language, do not provide evidence of your understanding of the science of linguistics (although they clearly show your enthusiasm with languages, which will be a plus). You have gone about correcting this in the right way, by doing MOOC and phonetics courses, but this may not be enough. The committee have to be sure you will be able to write up a good scientific thesis - if you are accepted, and are subsequently unable to write a good scientific thesis, (in the UK at least) they may stand to loose funding.

You don't say where in the world you are applying, but if it is in the UK, most prospective PhD's students have decided beforehand - at least vaguely - the broad sub-field they plan to do their PhD in, so they can approach a PhD supervisor at the department they intend to join. (So, for linguistics, subfields include semantics, first language acquisition, phonetics, prosody etc). This is why masters courses are so useful as a first step before a PhD - they allow the student to be sure of the subfield they want to work in, to work out if that department has the supervisor they want, and to familiarise themselves with the field so they can locate potential supervisors in other universities.

You say you aspire to be a professor one day - if so, perhaps a masters course would help you find that subfield of linguistics you really enjoy, and to find a supervisor that will inspire you to do great science.

Good luck!


EDIT: Added after further information by the original poster

I had actually considered asking but was worried about making a poor first impression. I don't want to start out appearing doubtful of my abilities to do graduate study.

If you are asking for information about the course, or clarification about entry requirements, this will not be seen as you doubting your ability. It will be seen as you having the maturity to find and clarify the information you need to make the right decision about which course is right for you.

I plan to apply to UC Davis - who exactly should I ask, do you think, about their general admission standards for MA vs PhD?

The ‘graduate administrator’. For UC Davis’ graduate linguistics programs, the name and email address of their administrator can be found at the bottom of this page: http://linguistics.ucdavis.edu/graduate-program/admission (her title is ‘graduate co-coordinator’). If you email her, then she will answer any questions you have herself or forward it on your behalf to whoever is best placed to answer them.

I agree that (to me at least) the prerequisites to this course seem a little ambiguous, saying that, if you haven’t taken some of their prerequisite undergraduate courses, you can take them during the first year – which makes it seem like they are not prerequisites at all. But this is a perfectly sensible clarification to ask by email, something along the lines of:

  • I am considering applying to your department for a graduate course and I am trying to decide whether your masters or PhD course is more suitable for my circumstances.

  • I see that the prerequisites for the PhD on your website are courses equivalent to four undergraduate classes.

  • I have taken the online [fill in MOOC course here] linguistics course, which covered [X] hours of teaching and [X] hours of course work. Would this set of courses fulfil the prerequisites for your PhD program?

As I say, this is a very reasonable question, and the email itself will not negatively affect your chances of getting in. There are two further pieces of advice I would give based on the information you have given:

  • Each course they list as a prerequisite is 3 or 4 hours each. Some include course-work or discussions. I'm afraid that, if your MOOC course was not of a similar high standard, you should be prepared for the answer to be ‘no’.

  • You mention that you completed a TESOL certificate. While this is a great thing to put in your application to show your enthusiasm for the subject area of second language development, I suspect the admissions committee may not feel it demonstrates your ability as a scientist in this subfield. But again, ask the department first to make sure - they may feel differently.

  • Thanks so much for your informative response. I feel like I've familiarized myself well enough with the field to have an idea of what research in it will entail. I do also have ideas as to what I might want to research, but I have been having a hard time deciding for sure. Also, I forgot to mention that I completed a TESOL certificate program, and so I have a fair amount of experience in second language acquisition and development, which is one of four areas of emphasis at this program. It is not nearly as interesting to me, though, as other areas, such as psycho- and sociolinguistics.
    – Danielle
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 18:49
  • I forgot to ask, who exactly should I ask, do you think, about their general admission standards for MA vs PhD? I had actually considered asking but was worried about making a poor first impression. I don't want to start out appearing doubtful of my abilities to do graduate study. Also, to answer your question, I'm applying in the US - University of California, Davis.
    – Danielle
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 20:01

Arguments for applying direct to PhD from a BA 1. Some US institutions have lots of research training and seminar work in the PhD that will equip you for the original research component. 2. Many PhD students have to learn a lot about a new field if their research stumbles into it. Your ability to learn quickly and independently is one of the things they look for.

On the whole, however, I wouldn't advise it. 1. Being inadequately prepared reduces your chances of successful completion. Besides, "linguistics" is a very broad and complex field. Most likely, you will be able to do only one sub-discipline. So skills in some other parts of linguistics doesn't necessary prepare you for your specialist area. Even if the rules say they could accept you, they don't want someone at high risk of non-completion. 2. Many US schools now require more than a bachelor degree for PhD admission, even though it was once more common to go direct from a BA. In some jurisdictions, accredited institutions are not even permitted to admit applicants to a PhD without a Masters. 3. As has been said above, having a set of applied skills is not the same as ability to handle theory development and research.


Why not apply to both? I know that some schools will allow you to apply for both a Masters and a PhD with one application.

  • It has a drop-down to select one or the other, so I don't think you can apply to both at once.
    – Danielle
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 5:11

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