The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Graduate Program

Ph.D. in Linguistics

The Department of Linguistics offers graduate work leading to the Ph.D. degree. Students may concentrate their graduate work in any of the following areas: syntax, semantics, phonology, phonetics, psycholinguistics, language acquisition, morphology, and Optimality Theory. Graduate training in the department is strongly oriented toward preparing students to carry on individual creative research and teaching in theoretical linguistics as early as possible in their graduate careers. The graduate program is set up so as to maximize close student-faculty contact. Most of our students go on to become professors in the field of theoretical linguistics at universities around the world.

As one of the top four graduate programs in theoretical linguistics, the UMass Amherst program receives more than 130 applications each year, but can only accept between 5 and 8 students a year. Because of the structure of the program, applications are accepted only for fall semester admission.

Interdepartmental Work

Our students often do additional graduate-level work at the University in departments with course offerings related to the study of natural language, such as Philosophy, Computer Science, Communication Disorders, Psychology, the foreign language programs, and Mathematics.  The Ph.D. program normally lasts five years.

Structure of the Ph.D. Program

The program is structured to train students to become skilled linguists, capable of outstanding independent scientific research and teaching. Course requirements are structured to emphasize the core areas of syntax, semantics, phonetics, phonology, psycholinguistics, and language acquisition. Faculty and students are also highly engaged in research and teaching in Morphology and Optimality Theory. Very early in their graduate education, students begin pursuing original research projects, learning to evaluate different models critically. Like scientific research in any field, this is a collaborative effort in which both students and faculty participate. In the process, a great deal of learning takes place in individual interactions between a single faculty member and a student, or among the students themselves. Most course work is completed in the first three years of the program, with the fourth and fifth years devoted to dissertation research and preparation. Students must successfully write and defend two “generals” papers and a “breadth” paper before beginning dissertation work. See more on the Ph.D. program requirements.


The Graduate Program Director (GPD) advises all first year students. By the end of the third semester, each student forms a Doctoral Guidance Committee (DGC), consisting of two specialists for the generals paper and a third member (the 'Chair') appointed by the GPD. Each semester the DGC meets with the student to provide continuing advice and supervision in planning a course of study before embarking on dissertation research. The DGC also approves the completed generals papers.


Since most people holding a Ph.D. in linguistics become university teachers, it is important for a graduate program to set up a framework within which teaching skills can be developed. The department therefore requires that every student acquire some teaching experience, either through faculty/student team teaching or by being responsible for teaching a section of one of our introductory courses. In addition, most seminars are structured in such a way as to provide maximum student responsibility and opportunity for classroom participation. See more on the department's teaching philosophy and teaching resources.

Summary of Ph.D. Program Requirements

First Year

Fall Classes: 601 (Transformational Grammar), 603 (Generative Phonology), 610 (Semantics & Generative Grammar), 791A (Linguistics Colloquium)

Spring Classes: 604 (Syntactic Theory), 606 (Phonological Theory), 791A, two electives

Second Year

Fall Classes: 791A, Area Workshop, 3 seminars and proseminars

  • Choose first Doctoral Guidance Committee (DGC) with GPD in September
  • Attend DGC meeting

Spring Classes: 791A, Area Workshop, 3 seminars/proseminars

  • Submit first Generals to DGC by April 15
  • Defend first Generals before end of classes
  • Choose second DGC with GPD by end of May
  • Attend DGC meeting

Third Year

Fall Classes: 791A, Area Workshop, 3 seminars and proseminars

  • File first Generals by first day of classes
  • Attend DGC meeting

Spring Classes: 791A, 2 3-credit courses and one independent study

  • Submit second Generals by February 1
  • Defend second Generals by March 15
  • File second Generals by Student Progress Meeting
  • Notify Graduate Program Secretary of Breadth paper
  • Ask Graduate Program Secretary to prepare Comprehensive Exam (D-2) memo
  • Attend DGC meeting

Fourth Year

Fall Classes: seminar and/or Dissertation Credits

  • Write dissertation prospectus with faculty guidance
  • Form a disserataion committee
  • E-mail Graduate Progam Secretary with request for Graduate School committee memo
  • Attend DGC meeting

Spring Classes: seminar and/or Dissertation Credits

  • Submit prospectus to committee for approval by May 1
  • Prepare Graduate School cover sheet for prospectus and file with Graduate Program Secretary
  • Submit approved prospectus to Graduate School by May

Fifth Year

Fall Classes: program fee or Dissertation Credits

  • Check to see if your statute of limitations has expired

Spring Classes: Dissertation Credits or program fee

  • Submit advisor-approved dissertation draft to committee 6 weeks prior to defense
  • Ask Graduate Program Secretary to request an oral examination 4 weeks prior to defense
  • Defend dissertation by end of May
  • Submit a defense results memo