How to choose a graduate program in Spanish, Master's and PhD

When selecting a graduate program in Spanish, there are a number of important things to keep in mind.

  • Never pay for a Master’s or PhD in Spanish. Universities that offer graduate degrees in Spanish often have well-developed undergraduate programs in Spanish, and they save a lot of money by using their graduate students as Teaching Assistants (TAs) to teach their undergraduate Spanish courses. If you accept a teaching assistantship, you should receive full tuition remission, and you should receive a salary for your work, and full health insurance. Importantly, TA remuneration can vary enormously, and it can affect you enormously. For example, a few universities offer just over $16,000/year (2020). According to U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines (2020), a single-income, single-person household with an income of $12,760 or less is living in poverty. If you accept that TAship, you will earn a TA salary near the poverty level, and unless you have other means, you will live near the poverty level. Other universities are far more generous. New York University, for example, offers a TA salary of $18,000 plus a $25,000 stipend (free money), but that generosity needs to be evaluated in the context of living in one the most expensive cities in the county, NYC. In other cases, universities cover your tuition and expenses without your having to teach at all. Duke University, for example, does this for their entering PhD students in literature. Not teaching at the beginning of your program is highly preferred, even if you love teaching, or you see your degree as a high-prestige teaching credential. When you teach for your department, you typically spend a large part of your time preparing for classes, shuttling back and forth to class, teaching and grading, sitting in office hours without a soul showing up, and, in some cases, navigating your department’s politics more than you’d like.
  • Examine faculty profiles to match your academic interests with the interests of the professors within the department. If you want to study Golden Age literature and the department doesn’t have a scholar who lists and publishes Golden Age Literature, you should look elsewhere. If you want to study Hispanic sociolinguistics and no professor lists it as an interest, go elsewhere. If you want to be trained in quantitative methods (how to make sense of statistics for your research) in linguistics, not just narrative methods, and the department lacks that kind of expertise, consider somewhere else. Statistics are not scary if you work with scholars who know how to teach them and make good use of them themselves. Keep in mind that most universities have a separate Linguistics department, and there may be close collaboration between Linguistics and Spanish departments. Find out because the Linguistics department may complement the Spanish department very nicely for your area of interest and preferred research method.
  • Examine current student profiles and their thesis/dissertation topics to determine if you would fit in. Match student profiles with faculty profiles to get a sense of what the academic foci are in the department. Whether you’re writing a thesis (Master’s) or a dissertation (PhD), you will want to ensure that the department has scholars with the type of expertise you need.
  • Understand the importance of networking. Who you know matters in academia. A well-connected professor can give you a reference that will open doors. Fellow graduates from the same university who found employment may also be able to influence a hiring decision in your favor. Co-authoring academic work can be an excellent strategy for exponentially increasing your academic productivity and recognition. This, in turn, can influence hiring decisions, salary decisions, and the speed of ascending from assistant professor to associate to full professor. While researching a department pay attention to where the professors earned their degrees, specifically their PhD Where did the department’s recent graduates go? You may notice regional hiring trends among universities, or special links across the country. If a Spanish program is on your shortlist, you would be wise to get a feel for the personal-professional network you would plug yourself into because where you go next could depend it.
  • Don’t rely on mass-published university rankings. In 2010, the National Research Council published the most comprehensive graduate school rankings to date, and they included a set of rankings of U.S. Spanish departments. Some scholars consider the NRC ranking to be a highly problematic attempt to rank the un-rankable. The NRC has been charged with making errors that, when corrected, completely change the rankings (evinced by the “more-correct” 2011 version available online). Perhaps most relevant to Spanish graduate students is the fact that most Spanish departments are typically small, meaning the departure of just one (1) highly productive scholar could radically change the rank of the department. Further, the NRC ranking is based on information gathered in 2005, and it isn’t going tell you much about the department in 2020. If that doesn’t convince you to be wary of the NRC ranking of Spanish programs, consider the fact that the NRC literature reveals that the university professors they polled opined overwhelmingly that the productivity of a department’s professors was the best indicator of the department’s quality. Productivity is measured by the number of peer-reviewed articles, conference proceedings, book chapters, and books published by professors, and by how often their works were cited (their impact). Keep in mind that some academic journals are highly selective, and others are not. Since the NRC did not consider academic journal selectivity, the faculty productivity variable – the most important one in their study – may not carry weight. This fact alone makes the statistical results an utter crapshoot. As Benjamin Disraeli has been purported to have said, “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Create a ranking based on what’s important to you, and keep the above points in mind when you do it. Read Hispanic Linguistics Master’s and PhD Rankings to learn more.
  • Don’t rely on search results from the Internet. The algorithms that Google, Bing, Yahoo and others use to deliver search results is completely unrelated to the quality of Spanish graduate programs and how well they will fit your interests and aspirations. These algorithms do an excellent job of helping you find many things, but finding a quality university programs that matches your interests is not one of them. For example, search results are often tweaked depending on where your IP address (you) are located. The closest program might show up at the top, and it might not be the best fit for you. Also, Some universities have search engine optimization experts who can manipulate the signals picked up by, say, Google, and their university’s programs wind up at the top of the search results. Better, set time aside and go through the unaltered list for Spanish Literature here, and for Spanish Linguistics here.
  • Complete your PhD degree in the United States…perhaps. At present (2018-2019), if you want a U.S. university teaching position at a research university after you graduate, you may be passed over for the job if you completed your PhD abroad. Why? Albeit based more on observation and scuttlebutt than science, the reason may be because a PhD is a research degree, and foreign degree-granting institutions in Spain and Latin America may not train academic researchers with the same empirical rigor as institutions in the United States. This is certainly an unfair assumption in many cases. Also, it’s common to complete your PhD in three (3) years abroad (as in Europe), so hiring universities in the U.S. may question the depth and breadth of the PhD candidate’s training if they studied abroad. The Master’s degree in both Hispanic Literature and Hispanic Linguistics at Arizona State University is three (3) years, so that degree may be equivalent to PhD’s from abroad. It’s unfortunate because pursing a graduate degree from a Spanish-speaking country could greatly benefit graduate students. Certainly there are many benefits from living in a Spanish-speaking culture during academic training. If would like to take your chances and do your PhD work abroad, ensure that you study social research methods with aplomb, that you network with U.S. graduate students and professors through social media, that you present at U.S. graduate conferences, that you find a U.S. professor to be part of your dissertation committee (if allowed), and you publish as much as possible in highly regarded academic journals that are directed by U.S.-based scholars.
  • Plan on becoming a researcher, not just a domain expert. Many graduate students of Hispanic literatures and linguistics will later seek employment in higher education. If this is your goal, understand immediately that you be expected to articulate three things: (1) teaching, (2) research and publishing, and (3) community service. From a purely economic viewpoint, teaching pays the university’s bills, and yours. Community service, from the same viewpoint, is good publicity for the university, and for you. Research, coupled with selective publishing, will distinguish you from your colleagues, and it will accelerate and advance your career. It is safe to say that scholars of Hispanic linguistics and literature who know how to conduct research and get their research published will be far less likely to get stuck in lecturer or adjunct Limbo ad infinitum. A lecturer is the lowest on the totem pole among permanent teaching staff, and the adjunct position is typically temporary. Yet many lecturers and adjuncts have doctorate degrees and are as equally qualified (on paper) as the “full professors” who are paid much, much more and teach far fewer classes. In rank order, the positions are Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Full Professor. In many cases, what distinguishes one professor from another is their research record and academic publishing successes. Here’s the rub: too often lecturers and adjuncts are treated as grunt teaching labor and, to survive economically, they are forced to teach so many courses – and courses they don’t particularly like – that they don’t have time to improve their research skills, conduct research, and publish (a time-consuming process that is sometimes emotionally exhausting). How do you avoid getting trapped in some sort of professional limbo? Realize early on that you must (not may) approach your academic career as being comprised of two larger, interdependent parts: (1) domain expertise, and (2) research expertise. The first, your domain expertise, is what you’re studying, and probably the reason why you’re going to graduate school for Spanish in the first place. The second, research expertise, is the set of complementary skills you’ll need to contribute to and advance your field and be successful in the academic market. As soon as possible, even before you begin your program, figure out, for your research area, how research is done, and where research is published. For those interested in linguistics, the research traditions are broadly categorized as quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative, as mentioned earlier, involves using and interpreting statistics (which anybody can do with a can-do attitude and proper training). Qualitative is broadly narrative, providing a story about what you’ve observed, but in dense academic-ese with lots of buzz words familiar to the area of research. In reality, there is no such thing as purely quantitative research because the numbers and figures generated need to be interpreted through a narrative analysis. Demand training in both quantitative and qualitative research, and pay special attention to the quantitative methods because decades of quantitative research in Spanish linguistics, and in the social sciences in general, is based on misunderstanding and misreading statistics. We don’t make fast friends when we correct people’s grammar, nor when we correct their statistics, so tread lightly. You can read about one of these problems here: Fall of the p paradigm: Modern methods for reporting linguistic research.

Common Questions

  • Is there a job for me? The outlook for Spanish language professionals within the U.S. is excellent, of course depending on where you want to work, secondary schools, community colleges, research universities, or in an industry outside of academics. Compared to other “foreign” languages, Spanish has by far the best outlook for university jobs, according to authoritative sources like the Modern Language Association (MLA). in terms of trends in employment, you may want to keep an eye on the increasing demand for Spanish linguists specializing in Second Language Acquisition (SLA), sociolinguistics, bilingualism/heritage speaker linguistics, and translation. These trends are related to population projections that suggest that Hispanics will outnumber all other minorities in the United States by 2050, regardless of 2018 U.S. Administration attempts to reduce the likelihood of seeing a largely Hispanic United States. Hispanics are regaining a sense of cultural and sociolinguistic pride that may very well lead to more and more U.S. citizens speaking Spanish in professional environments and in schools, even in parts of the country that are not usually known for diversity. Undoubtedly, there will be an increasing demand for services in Spanish, especially in education where there may be more jobs for Spanish educators who specialize in the unique needs of Spanish-English bilinguals.
  • What is the job market like for Spanish professors? Finding a job as a Spanish professor in the United States can be difficult and full of winding paths before you find the place that best suits you. While Spanish is far and away the best foreign language to pursue among the languages in terms of total jobs available, landing a job can be a slog. Hiring decisions are made within the private realms of oft highly-politicized departments, and how departments arrive at their hiring decision can seem like a complete mystery. The best way to jump-start your careers is by following the points above during your initial program selection process, and start reading the Academic Jobs Wiki for Spanish and Portuguese 2020-2021 to discover the most recent job activity, job seeking problems, and to find out which Spanish departments treat their applicants fairly and which don’t. For example, some universities will post a job and interview applicants because they must follow university and department policies and procedures, but really, they have someone in mind from the beginning. This is a particularly unseemly process that leads to wasting the time of applicants who, in the last round, might fly in and spend days socializing, meeting with graduate students, doing presentations, and getting drilled. As you might expect under these conditions, the Academic Job Wiki can seem like chaos because contributors engage in a lot of speculation around what’s “really” going on, and they sometimes argue and deride each other, delete postings made by others, among other things. Still, it’s a useful resource, but don’t let collective anxiety deter you. Pay closer attention to larger trends like declines in tenure-track positions.
  • What if I don’t know what I want to study? Exploring your interests in graduate school is completely legitimate. If this is the case, it may be wise to choose a larger program (more professors and students) with a larger number of specialties. It is also advisable to choose a program that offers both literature and Hispanic linguistics. Switching between literature and linguistics happens, even for students who swear allegiance to one or another when they start their graduate studies. Be careful not to make decisions that limit your options. You don’t want to be part of the statistic “failed to complete degree” or “took more than 8 years to complete” because you didn’t jive with literature or linguistics.
  • How important is diversity? Great relationships emerge from diverse programs, but so can tensions. If you’re a native English speaker, for example, a native speaker of Spanish may help you advance your communication skills, but they may also seem intimidating. But you might find that you have a unique, strong set of skills, especially when it comes to teaching English-speaking undergraduates (highly prized among future employers). In fact, when you graduate and look for a job, some departments will consider you to be a multifaceted candidate who deserves extra merit for making your way to an advanced degree in your second language (your L2), Spanish. In terms of overall department diversity, you may find that departments are heavily Mexican or Peninsular Spanish, or heavily something else. In any case, embrace the diversity you find in Spanish departments.
  • How do I find a program? This website has a comprehensive list of Hispanic/Spanish Linguistic Graduate Programs, as well as a list of top graduate programs in Hispanic Literatures and Cultures. Examine each program using the suggestions on this page to guide you.

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