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 (2021). According to U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines 2021, a single-income, single-person household with an income of $12,880 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 more generous. New York University, for example, offers a TA salary of $18,480 plus a $28,145 stipend (free money), but that generosity needs to be evaluated in the context of living in New York City, one the most expensive cities in the county. 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 nobody publishes research in that area, nor do they list it as an interest, 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. For example, if you studied Spanish Linguistics at the University of California, Davis (UCD), the Linguistics department (a separate department) teaches statistics for linguistic research even if the UCD Spanish department does not.
  • 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’ll 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 open doors. Fellow graduates from the same university who found academic 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 highly problematic because it is an 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 2021 or 2022. 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. For more, see our article on Graduate Program Rankings for Spanish Literature and Linguistics.
  • Don’t rely on search results from the Internet. The algorithms that Google, Bing 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 physically located. If you use a VPN like Nord VPN to protect your privacy and diminish the chances of getting hacked (a very good idea), search results may change to reflect the random IP address you are on. The programs the show up at the top of the rankings may 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 of universities for Spanish Literature here, and for Spanish Linguistics here.
  • Complete your PhD degree in the United States…perhaps. At present (2021-2022), 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 essentially 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. This may also be unfair. The Master’s degree in both Hispanic Literature and Hispanic Linguistics at Arizona State University is three (3) years, so that degree, in some respects, may be equivalent to a PhD from abroad. It’s unfortunate because pursing a graduate degree from a Spanish-speaking country could greatly benefit graduate students whether you are a Spanish heritage speaker or Spanish is your L2. Certainly there are many benefits from living in a Spanish-speaking culture during academic training. If you 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 edited 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 will be expected to articulate three activities: (1) teaching, (2) research and publishing, and (3) service to the institution and/or community. From a purely economic viewpoint, teaching pays the university’s bills, and yours. 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 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

  • Am I good enough? It’s completely normal and very common to worry about whether you’re good enough to complete a MA or PhD program in Spanish. Even those who have completed their degrees and teach (your professors) may suffer from “imposter syndrome“, which is feeling like an intellectual phony. One thing graduate school will demonstrate is that there are a lot of smart people with extraordinary expertise in their areas of research. The more you learn in your own area of research, the more you understand how much more you have to learn. At the same time you might notice that somebody else appears to know more, or they publish more, or present more, or get recognized more. In this situation, you might get the feeling that you’re not at the same level of expertise in your field as colleagues are in their own. Taken further, you might get the feeling that you’re not the most “legitimate” intellectual in your department, and may begin to feel like an imposter. That’s imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome may get some scholars to work harder, but, for the most part, it’s a waste of emotional resources and energy, and it can make you feel alienated and anxious. Few perform their best under these circumstance. Ideally, scholars will openly admit their admiration for each other’s work, work hard with a healthy sense of humility, and collaborate on future projects to learn together. Being unsure about whether you’re good enough when you apply to graduate school could be considered a kind of pre-imposter syndrome. It’s best to eliminate those feelings immediately and boldly pursue whatever you’re truly interested in without considering how smart or accomplished or appealing other applicants or current students may be. If you apply and get into a program, you’re good enough. If you don’t get in, try elsewhere. And when you get in, seek mentors and collaboration.
  • Is there a job for me after I complete my degree? 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 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. Hispanics are gaining or regaining a sense of pride their language and cultures 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.Keep in mind that you have options outside academia. Graduates with a degree in Spanish can do more than teach, they can also work in the multi-billion dollar translation and localization industry (translator, editor, proofreader, interpreter, website and software localization, marketing, research). If you prefer academics, you could work for publishers of academic texts books and for educational testing services for example. Other jobs include international relations consultant, national security agent, UNESCO official, FBI agent, foreign diplomat, and foreign services officer, and many others. The fact is that Spanish is going to become increasingly relevant in other areas such as medicine, technology, IT, the energy sector, and travel and tourism.
  • Is a Master’s or PhD in Translation or Interpretation Studies a good option? Yes. If you have a degree in translation studies with a focus on Spanish, you will be especially attractive to translation and localization companies across the world. Very few Spanish translators have a degree in translation on their CVs, and there are a number of different positions available at large companies that provide Spanish translation and localization like Lionbridge or Transperfect, and smaller companies like Linguist Systems or ABC Translations. As an independent contractor, you could work for several. Should you specialize in interpreting, you could work as an independent state or federal Spanish/English court interpreter, at the UN, or for a company like LanguageLine Solutions. If you studied for a MA in translation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, CA, you would live by the ocean in one of the most beautiful places in California, and LanguageLine, the world’s largest provider of interpretation services, would be next door immediately after.

    You may be wondering why more people don’t discuss translation/interpretation postgraduate options. In the past, Spanish university departments were run by Spanish literature intellectuals, with maybe a single linguist in the department. Spanish literature has long been an intellectually rigorous and enlightening pursuit, think Spanish Golden Age literature. Typically, anything that could have been construed as commodification of a highly intellectual activity was viewed as less appealing. Thus, no tracks were opened for translation studies, or even linguistics. You’ll note that universities like UC Santa Barbara and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst nested translation studies under Comparative Literature, which seems to make sense given the history. Of course, translation studies can be as rigorously intellectual and enlightening as any other area of study in language. Pursuing a graduate degree in translation or interpreting studies is thus an excellent option if you enjoy it and you want a job using your Spanish the moment you’re done with your degree program. If you’re curious what the job entails, check out Proz, Translator’s Cafe to see what independent translators are doing, and GALA Global if you would like to learn about the industry.

    For places of study that offer postgraduate degrees in translation and interpreting, see our list of Master’s and PhD programs in Translation and Interpreting. As you can see from this list, there are also jobs in academia if you worked at one of the educational institutions you find in the list.

  • 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 be 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 had 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 meet-and-greets, and getting drilled during the research presentation they are often asked to do. 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, a list of top graduate programs in Hispanic Literatures and Cultures, and a list of top Translation and Interpreting programs. Examine each program using the suggestions on this page to guide you.

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