How can I become a field linguist and/or a historical linguist?

First part, you get the PhD. Margaret FalerSweany has got that covered.

Expect to have to do at least one postdoc too.

Now the fun part. How do you become an academic.

Nick Nicholas’ answer to What is your personal experience with obtaining a linguistics degree?

Did you run into any unexpected issues? Apart from the fact that you can’t become a tenured academic without

  • stepping on corpses
  • selling out and doing research in fashionable areas
  • coming to view both research and teaching as drudgery
  • having your career contingent on grants funding
  • having no free time, let alone time for research, because you spent half your life applying for grants, half doing admin, and the other half marking?

… Still here? OK:

Field Linguist:

Read Nick Nicholas’ answer to I want to be a linguist focusing on conserving languages. Should I do it?

You’ll need to get a job in a country that has a fieldwork tradition, and where grant authorities are prepared to fund you to go to Boingo Boingo (or wherever). Australia is a good country for that. So’s Germany (Max Planck). Bits of the US. But not, say, Italy or Spain.

There’s some chance of getting a gig as a language worker with an indigenous community. That’ll get quite political, you won’t be running your own agenda, the pay will be even worse, and you’ll be living in Boingo Boingo. Some people enjoy that. 🙂

Historical Linguist:

You’ll need to get a job in a country where historical linguistics is still taken seriously, or is put up with as a necessary evil adjunct to fieldwork of underdocumented languages. The former: Germany, UK, very small patches in the US. Most European countries, though in niche positions (e.g. lexicography). The latter: Australia I guess, and other fieldwork places, although you can kiss goodbye to any work on Indo-European.

There’s some chance of getting a gig as a language revival worker with an indigenous community. See above.

Academic Linguist at all.

See unexpected issues above. You will have to network; publish; chase fashionable work; work wherever there is a gig; put up with successive postdocs and penury; and be a good salesperson to grants bodies.

Many linguistics departments in most countries were created by baby boomers, in the post-Chomsky boom. (The boom in Australia was a bit later, and more fieldwork-driven.) Waiting for people to retire (or, failing that, die) is going to have to be part of your calculation.

… Z-Kat, you didn’t expect a positive answer from me, did you? 😉

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