kkaon1

2016 Graduate Applicatons

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Hi, I was inspired by reading last year's grad app posts that I thought I would start one for this year~

I was a linguistics undergrad major and in my senior year I applied to PhD programs in linguistics. At the time, I wasn't ready for a PhD program; I took two years off after college to improve my Chinese skills but also get real world experience. I am in the process of looking into Masters linguistics programs. The linguistics department in my undergrad was very small and it was a mix of linguistic anthropology and east Asian linguistics. Even though I spent my time working abroad teaching, I was more interested in how English is used outside of the classroom and how the community embraces English.

I want to pursue the PhD but I also want a stronger linguistics background. So I want to get a Masters and then decide where to go from there. I looked into applying to Masters programs that will fund me. I prefer to stay in the US, specifically NYC but funding is limited in Masters programs. Most of the funded programs in the US I found focused on Applied linguistics. So I started looking at schools in NYC and some schools in Hong Kong. I also would prefer to do a 1 year masters program but those seem very rare. I appear to have a lot of caveats but I trying to narrow the pool down. I don't want to apply to many schools. Do any of you who are in graduate school have recommendations for sociolinguistic programs? 

My choices as of right now are: University of Pittsburgh, York University, National Tsinghua University (Taiwan), and the CUNY Graduate Center.

On average how many programs do people apply for within linguistics? How many schools should I be aiming for?

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On June 23, 2016 at 11:28 PM, kkaon1 said:

 I took two years off after college to improve my Chinese skills but also get real world experience

Based on my personal experience, practical skills in a specific language are unfortunately neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to get in to a funded linguistics program in the U.S. or elsewhere, except the case that you are applying to a language-specific linguistics program located within East Asian Studies (or Oriental Studies) rather than a theoretical linguistics program located within a linguistics department. If you do want to study in a language-specific linguistics (in your case, I assume it is Chinese and/or English), then generally there are a large amount of components that are about translation of both linguistic texts and other texts between the non-English target language and the English language, and about language use rather than about linguistic theories. In this case, you may have to sacrifice some opportunities of studying linguistic theories so as to focus on the sociolinguistic of a specific language and the sociolignuistic interaction between this specific language and another specific language.

On June 23, 2016 at 11:28 PM, kkaon1 said:

some schools in Hong Kong

There are actually not many options of schools in Hong Kong. Doing a Master in Hong Kong, I am afraid, is not a particularly good idea. The issue at stake here is the quota some professors in some Hong Kong universities impose to determine how many students can get good grades and distinction. I have been told that distinction is granted so rarely that in many cases a whole faculty (or department) does not have even one student graduating with distinction and has 1 or 2 students graduating with distinction. This means that, if you apply for a  Ph.D. in the field, the efforts you made for your coursework in the Master's program in Hong Kong being equal, the grades you obtained there could potentially do you a disservice. Besides the issue of tough grading associated with pre-determined quota, a typical Master's program in Hong Kong would have much less hand-holding compared with those in the U.S., and I would expect that you would get less attention from your professors if you study in Hong Kong, because the class size there is generally much larger than that of a typical graduate level class in the U.S.. 

That said, there is one advantage of studying in Hong Kong. Tuition is much cheaper in Hong Kong. But the lower tuition may come with a cost of quality. Finally, I would say that the chance to get full funding (if they grant full funding at all) in Hong Kong is much lower than getting one in the U.S.

On June 23, 2016 at 11:28 PM, kkaon1 said:

1 year masters program

U.K. has plenty of them. But the aforementioned issues I said about Hong Kong universities are also applicable to many of the British Universities, probably with the exception that British universities are not going to set a quota to determine your final classification. They even have 9 month masters programs. You could certainly try to apply. The likely scenario when you apply to a UK university for financial aid is that you will have some small grants but a main chunk of tuition and maintenance fees will have to be paid on your own. 

 

On June 23, 2016 at 11:28 PM, kkaon1 said:

On average how many programs do people apply for within linguistics? How many schools should I be aiming for?

 

For the first question, I would say at least 6-7. For the second question, there is no answer, because whether you get into a program will depend on not only your own merits but also the candidate pool of that year for that school, which no one knows for now.

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Just a head's up: I was told by CUNY that they cannot offer funding to their master's students, because they don't have TA positions (PhD students get funding by being sole/joint instructors of undergrad courses) nor really any RA positions. The funding situation there is tough, but it's a really wonderful program! and based on your research interests that you stated sounds like it would be a good place for you. Living in NYC is very expensive, however CUNY tuition is pretty inexpensive. 

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10 hours ago, vonham said:

Just a head's up: I was told by CUNY that they cannot offer funding to their master's students, because they don't have TA positions (PhD students get funding by being sole/joint instructors of undergrad courses) nor really any RA positions. The funding situation there is tough, but it's a really wonderful program! and based on your research interests that you stated sounds like it would be a good place for you. Living in NYC is very expensive, however CUNY tuition is pretty inexpensive. 

I concur. In particular, housing in NYC is VERY VERY VERY expensive! 

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On 6/25/2016 at 4:30 PM, historicallinguist said:

In this case, you may have to sacrifice some opportunities of studying linguistic theories so as to focus on the sociolinguistic of a specific language and the sociolignuistic interaction between this specific language and another specific language.

Thanks for your input historicallinguist! I actually do want to focus on that aspect of linguistics that observes the interaction between English and Chinese. This past year I did a Fulbright ETA in Taiwan. My daily interactions with people and in the Taiwan, I noted a lot of English everywhere. It seems to be highly regarded to speak both English and Chinese. It became almost normal to see both languages throughout Taiwan even though English is not the native language. Traveling in Singapore, and Malaysia I have noticed a similar pattern. To be quite honest, I don't know if I want to study purely theoretical linguistics.

On 6/25/2016 at 4:30 PM, historicallinguist said:

U.K. has plenty of them. But the aforementioned issues I said about Hong Kong universities are also applicable to many of the British Universities, probably with the exception that British universities are not going to set a quota to determine your final classification. They even have 9 month masters programs. You could certainly try to apply. The likely scenario when you apply to a UK university for financial aid is that you will have some small grants but a main chunk of tuition and maintenance fees will have to be paid on your own. 

Are there any Universities that focus on sociolinguistics? Does the UK government provide scholarships for American students? Is it expensive to study in the UK? I have not looked into schools there so any help would be greatly appreciated.

On 6/26/2016 at 9:36 AM, historicallinguist said:

I concur. In particular, housing in NYC is VERY VERY VERY expensive! 

I am from NYC, so I want to be closer to home while I am pursing my degree. 

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On July 6, 2016 at 1:46 AM, kkaon1 said:

Thanks for your input historicallinguist! I actually do want to focus on that aspect of linguistics that observes the interaction between English and Chinese. This past year I did a Fulbright ETA in Taiwan. My daily interactions with people and in the Taiwan, I noted a lot of English everywhere. It seems to be highly regarded to speak both English and Chinese. It became almost normal to see both languages throughout Taiwan even though English is not the native language. Traveling in Singapore, and Malaysia I have noticed a similar pattern. To be quite honest, I don't know if I want to study purely theoretical linguistics.

Are there any Universities that focus on sociolinguistics? Does the UK government provide scholarships for American students? Is it expensive to study in the UK? I have not looked into schools there so any help would be greatly appreciated.

I am from NYC, so I want to be closer to home while I am pursing my degree. 

Depending on what kind of sociolinguistics you want to do in graduate school, your options in the UK may vary. If you want to do variationist sociolinguistics, U of Edinburgh is likely to be your place. For your second question, a quick answer would be "No, very unlikely". UK government generally provides financial support (more specifically, generally in the form of governmental loans) for UK/EU student, while overseas students including American students would be expected to pay higher tuition and fees (under the category of overseas student) by their own means, unless the school that accepted you somehow is willing to fund you in one form or another (partial scholarship, bursary that covers fees but not tuition, small travel grants in support of your fieldwork related to your research project, etc). Full funding to study in a UK university generally not comes from the UK university where you will study. Rather, it is generally from external funding organizations, and in order to get that, you will have to file separate applications (just like you applied for Fulbright.)

Depending on how you compare a UK program with a US program. First, UK program is much shorter. A UK master generally takes about 9-12 months to get. So, if you compare what you pay for a master program of 9-12 months in the UK with what you pay for a master program of two years in the US, UK program is much cheaper. However, you will also need to notice that this comparison is based on the assumption that Program X in the UK and Program Y in the US are both unwilling to fund you. This assumption could be wrong. A U.S. program could possibly give a tuition waiver, or stipend for TAship, or both. So, I would recommend that you apply to UK schools as your safe schools. They are generally unable to fund you, but able to offer you admission without funding, or with partial funding, say, a scholarship of 3000 GBP.

Second, be cautious who will be your tutor, before you accept an offer from a UK university. If not specified, do email the department and ask. Your tutor is likely to be the only person who will be able to write LOR if you applied to PHD programs somewhere else. Lecturers in the UK just lecture, and they won't grade your works. Your works will be marked anonymously by both internal and external examiners. Your tutor will probably be the only person who looked at your practice works and provide you feedbacks throughout the academic year, and he/she will likely to serve as your thesis supervisor (but again your thesis will not be marked by your tutor, and will be anonymously marked by both internal and external examiners). But at least, your tutor will have some ideas of your work, and therefore be in a position to write your LOR. 

So, when you receive an offer from a UK university, ask yourself whether you will likely to continue to work with this person beyond the master thesis and do your PHD dissertation work with this person. If not, could you have two other LORS from your undergraduate institution to support your planned Ph.D. application after another, say, half year, in addition to the previous gap years you had? I guess the issue of LoR is a very important thing you need to consider for now, if you do want to go to the U.K. to do your master.

 

Finally, your description of your interests sounds like East Asian studies departments could better serve your interests. In particular, your interests sound a good fit for University of Southern California. So, do check out their website, and see how you feel about their department. Funding in USC is generous, if you could get into it. So, don't miss this opportunity!

 

 

 

 

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Is this the thread for fall 2017 applications? I hope so because I'm about to tl;dr here...

I have a degree in language studies from UC Santa Cruz (though the bulk of my classes were pure linguistics classes - I should've switched majors but didn't). Over a year after graduating in 2010, I stumbled into a position where I ended up learning how to program - specifically, the company I was working for was implementing Salesforce, and I first learned everything point-and-click about it. But I wasn't satisfied with just knowing that, so I started to teach myself how to program using their proprietary languages. Eventually I branched out to learn other languages as well - I've dabbled in web dev (HTML/CSS/Javascript), PHP, Java and Python as well.

I was in this position for a few years before I quit due to mental health reasons back in 2014. I haven't had a programming job since then - only data entry jobs. However, I really did love learning how to program, and I loved my linguistics degree - and after reading the Natural Language Processing with Python book, I really think comp ling is a fascinating field that I'd love to explore further.

Thus I am hoping to apply to master's programs starting next year. I'm not looking at PhD programs because I don't believe I'm capable of doing a dissertation haha. While I've looked at a lot of programs, I've only settled on 5 at the moment - those being the programs with Erasmus Mundus (Language and Communication Technologies), City University of New York, University of Arizona, University of Washington and Brandeis University. Is this a good selection of schools or should I consider some more? Also, just based on my background, do you think I have a decent chance of getting accepted to any of these programs? Or should I wait and do more to boost my appeal?

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16 hours ago, ergative said:

Is this the thread for fall 2017 applications? I hope so because I'm about to tl;dr here...

I have a degree in language studies from UC Santa Cruz (though the bulk of my classes were pure linguistics classes - I should've switched majors but didn't). Over a year after graduating in 2010, I stumbled into a position where I ended up learning how to program - specifically, the company I was working for was implementing Salesforce, and I first learned everything point-and-click about it. But I wasn't satisfied with just knowing that, so I started to teach myself how to program using their proprietary languages. Eventually I branched out to learn other languages as well - I've dabbled in web dev (HTML/CSS/Javascript), PHP, Java and Python as well.

I was in this position for a few years before I quit due to mental health reasons back in 2014. I haven't had a programming job since then - only data entry jobs. However, I really did love learning how to program, and I loved my linguistics degree - and after reading the Natural Language Processing with Python book, I really think comp ling is a fascinating field that I'd love to explore further.

Thus I am hoping to apply to master's programs starting next year. I'm not looking at PhD programs because I don't believe I'm capable of doing a dissertation haha. While I've looked at a lot of programs, I've only settled on 5 at the moment - those being the programs with Erasmus Mundus (Language and Communication Technologies), City University of New York, University of Arizona, University of Washington and Brandeis University. Is this a good selection of schools or should I consider some more? Also, just based on my background, do you think I have a decent chance of getting accepted to any of these programs? Or should I wait and do more to boost my appeal?

Good to see this thread getting some life. I don't know too much about comp ling, but I can highly recommend U of Arizona's department as a whole. That's where I am now, and everyone here is fantastic; it's a really great place to study. What's good too is we have a lot of people that are into comp ling, not just people who are in the HLT master's program. I don't think there's anything in your background that would be a red flag; plenty of people take breaks between degrees. Obviously it depends on your GPA and GRE scores and such. One thing to keep in mind is that it is not a funded program. 

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10 hours ago, vonham said:

Good to see this thread getting some life. I don't know too much about comp ling, but I can highly recommend U of Arizona's department as a whole. That's where I am now, and everyone here is fantastic; it's a really great place to study. What's good too is we have a lot of people that are into comp ling, not just people who are in the HLT master's program. I don't think there's anything in your background that would be a red flag; plenty of people take breaks between degrees. Obviously it depends on your GPA and GRE scores and such. One thing to keep in mind is that it is not a funded program. 

That's awesome to hear! I'm really excited about this program, not only because of how good it is but also because of how cheap Tucson is lol. I am aware that it's not funded - none of the programs I'm applying to are, as master's degrees generally aren't. I considered PhDs for a long time because of the funding alone, but it just didn't feel right to claim to be interested in a PhD only because of the money and not because of the desire to do a dissertation you know? So I've resigned myself to taking out a considerable amount in loans (and working part-time while in school). 

That's good to know! I'm still not sure how to explain why I'm not currently working as a programmer; at the moment I'm glossing it over in my statement of purpose by saying something like "I'm focusing on improving my skills first" which is technically true but not sure if that's an adequate explanation. As for my GPA, it's pretty decent for when I was at UCSC - about a 3.71. But I went to community college before then and my GPA there was more around 3.5. I also haven't taken the GRE yet, I scheduled to take it early November, but I'm dedicating a lot of time to studying for it because I'm sure I'm going to need all 3 scores to be solid to be taken seriously as an applicant.

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3 hours ago, ergative said:

That's awesome to hear! I'm really excited about this program, not only because of how good it is but also because of how cheap Tucson is lol. I am aware that it's not funded - none of the programs I'm applying to are, as master's degrees generally aren't. I considered PhDs for a long time because of the funding alone, but it just didn't feel right to claim to be interested in a PhD only because of the money and not because of the desire to do a dissertation you know? So I've resigned myself to taking out a considerable amount in loans (and working part-time while in school). 

That's good to know! I'm still not sure how to explain why I'm not currently working as a programmer; at the moment I'm glossing it over in my statement of purpose by saying something like "I'm focusing on improving my skills first" which is technically true but not sure if that's an adequate explanation. As for my GPA, it's pretty decent for when I was at UCSC - about a 3.71. But I went to community college before then and my GPA there was more around 3.5. I also haven't taken the GRE yet, I scheduled to take it early November, but I'm dedicating a lot of time to studying for it because I'm sure I'm going to need all 3 scores to be solid to be taken seriously as an applicant.

GPA is not that a big deal when it comes to linguistics application. This is weird but true. I think the real deal lies in SOP, specifically how well you can formulate your interests to show that your interests match with those of the faculty members in the department. For GRE, this may be the least important thing you need to worry. In fact, many top departments do not require GRE at all. If it is required, it is more likely a formality or for the purpose of nominating you for university/college-wide scholarship/fellowship which generally has some sort of threshold for GRE score. 

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12 hours ago, historicallinguist said:

GPA is not that a big deal when it comes to linguistics application. This is weird but true. I think the real deal lies in SOP, specifically how well you can formulate your interests to show that your interests match with those of the faculty members in the department. For GRE, this may be the least important thing you need to worry. In fact, many top departments do not require GRE at all. If it is required, it is more likely a formality or for the purpose of nominating you for university/college-wide scholarship/fellowship which generally has some sort of threshold for GRE score. 

That's really good to hear! I'll still keep studying for it, but I won't worry too much about it anymore, thanks for the clarification!

I can't say I'm surprised that the SOP is the most important. It's also the part I'm actually the most worried about. I have a really rough draft of the one for CUNY (the earliest deadline) but I hate it, even though I did include a section talking about my interest in a specific faculty members' research - do you think I should highlight the research of multiple faculty members?

I also have another question. Two of the programs I'm applying to require a writing sample. I lost most of my college work due to hard drive problems, but some survived. However only short assignments survived - my 20 page Spanish phonology research paper did not. So I think I will have to write a new sample from scratch which is intimidating. I was thinking that maybe in this new paper I could research something comp ling related? My specific idea is to read about a few different approaches to part-of-speech tagging and compare them (and possibly test them on already-tagged corpora to compare accuracy rates). Would something along these lines be a good idea for a writing sample? (I could also talk about it in my SOP for all the programs I'm applying to) Or should I try hunting down my old phonology paper?

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4 hours ago, ergative said:

do you think I should highlight the research of multiple faculty members?

Definitely you should do this. Overall fit with the department as a whole is one important factor, if not the most important, that will determine whether you get admitted or not.

 

4 hours ago, ergative said:

CUNY

This school is fairly easy to get in, if you tell them in advance that you are going to pay everything on your own.Well, actually, a better way to say it is something like "even if there is no funding available, I still want to be considered for admission." 

 

5 hours ago, ergative said:
I also have another question. Two of the programs I'm applying to require a writing sample. I lost most of my college work due to hard drive problems, but some survived. However only short assignments survived - my 20 page Spanish phonology research paper did not. So I think I will have to write a new sample from scratch which is intimidating. I was thinking that maybe in this new paper I could research something comp ling related? My specific idea is to read about a few different approaches to part-of-speech tagging and compare them (and possibly test them on already-tagged corpora to compare accuracy rates). Would something along these lines be a good idea for a writing sample? (I could also talk about it in my SOP for all the programs I'm applying to) Or should I try hunting down my old phonology paper?

Alternatively, why don't you try to find a problem to solve and submit the solution as your writing sample. If you are trying to do computational ling, the emphasis should be placed on ling, not Spanish. It sounds like you are planning to do something in computational phonology with emphasis on applying computational methods to build (or extend) corpora. If that is the case, definitely you should focus on linguistic theories and computational methods, and avoid saying too much about your interests in Spanish or any other specific natural language. Also, if you had backgrounds in computer science, definitely emphasize this background in your SOP. This background is very valuable and may make you stand out above many other applicants who have humanities (i.e. BA) degree for their undergrad. 

Finally, I do not think using one SOP for all programs is a good idea. The better approach would be adjust your SOP for each department so that your interests could well align to those of the POIs in each department you mentioned in your SOP. 

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2 hours ago, historicallinguist said:

Definitely you should do this. Overall fit with the department as a whole is one important factor, if not the most important, that will determine whether you get admitted or not.

I will definitely revise my SOP to show my interest in multiple professors' research then! Thanks for the advice!

2 hours ago, historicallinguist said:

This school is fairly easy to get in, if you tell them in advance that you are going to pay everything on your own.Well, actually, a better way to say it is something like "even if there is no funding available, I still want to be considered for admission." 

This is actually very good to know, thank you! Is this just for CUNY, or do you think this would be effective for any program I'm applying to?

2 hours ago, historicallinguist said:

Alternatively, why don't you try to find a problem to solve and submit the solution as your writing sample. If you are trying to do computational ling, the emphasis should be placed on ling, not Spanish. It sounds like you are planning to do something in computational phonology with emphasis on applying computational methods to build (or extend) corpora. If that is the case, definitely you should focus on linguistic theories and computational methods, and avoid saying too much about your interests in Spanish or any other specific natural language. Also, if you had backgrounds in computer science, definitely emphasize this background in your SOP. This background is very valuable and may make you stand out above many other applicants who have humanities (i.e. BA) degree for their undergrad. 

Finally, I do not think using one SOP for all programs is a good idea. The better approach would be adjust your SOP for each department so that your interests could well align to those of the POIs in each department you mentioned in your SOP. 

You make that sound so easy haha. My first instinct is to think that if there are problems out there that people with PhDs can't solve, then how would I, a person without any grad degree, be able to solve it? At least not without the training of a grad program? You're definitely right in that that's a better approach to take - I'm just very intimidated by trying to find the right problem to tackle (especially since I only have a couple months and I have to juggle it with other things). Though I suppose it must be possible, or I should try to make it possible. Guess I'll start researching now!

I definitely don't intend on emphasizing my knowledge of any particular language (not that I really have any deep knowledge of any other than English at this point) - I just brought that paper up because it was the only paper of a decent length (over 10 pages) that I wrote as an undergrad. Since Spanish phonology is quite a different field from comp ling, I'm probably better off writing another paper anyway.

I have work experience as a programmer, not any formal background in computer science (other than a couple classes). I do currently emphasize this in my SOP so I'm glad I'm in the right direction. My approach to the SOP was to have a common base explaining my background - and I also figured that if I'm going to put the effort into writing a new research paper in comp ling for 2 programs, I should be able to at least mention this to the ones that don't require a writing sample so I can get the most value out of that effort? Unless you think I shouldn't? Each SOP would still be different however as I would tailor it to mention the specific research of each department I'm applying to. Since my background isn't going to change, I thought it was ok to at least use the same base for all of them. Is this approach frowned upon?

Edited by ergative

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1 hour ago, ergative said:

Is this just for CUNY, or do you think this would be effective for any program I'm applying to?

Not every program. But given that you are planning to pay out of packet, here is the deal. Most Australian universities will very likely to be within your reach as long as your past GPA is above 2.7..   U Arizona, Carnegie mellon, u washington seattle, maybe. UIUC, maybe more difficult. McGill, very difficult, good luck with this one.  

 

1 hour ago, ergative said:
You make that sound so easy haha. My first instinct is to think that if there are problems out there that people with PhDs can't solve, then how would I, a person without any grad degree, be able to solve it? At least not without the training of a grad program? You're definitely right in that that's a better approach to take - I'm just very intimidated by trying to find the right problem to tackle (especially since I only have a couple months and I have to juggle it with other things). Though I suppose it must be possible, or I should try to make it possible. Guess I'll start researching now!

Why don't you go to the Cambridge textbook in linguistics series, and find one book in the series that interests you? Read the book you pick, and do some of the exercises in the book. And submit the solutions of some of the exercises you do in the book as writing sample. In this way, you at least are dealing with the right problems, regardless of how well your solutions are. If you formulate some problems on your own, chances are either you may formulate some problems you cannot solve or you may formulate some problems that are not well formulated. 

 

1 hour ago, ergative said:
My approach to the SOP was to have a common base explaining my background - and I also figured that if I'm going to put the effort into writing a new research paper in comp ling for 2 programs, I should be able to at least mention this to the ones that don't require a writing sample so I can get the most value out of that effort? Unless you think I shouldn't? Each SOP would still be different however as I would tailor it to mention the specific research of each department I'm applying to. Since my background isn't going to change, I thought it was ok to at least use the same base for all of them. Is this approach frowned upon?

Disclaimer first: I could be wrong. 

I think you should not spend too much time detailing your background in your SOP. After all, the Adcom could tell your background from your CV, transcript, and LORs, and you should not repeat the informations that are already there. Second, I  think you should very briefly mention your background as it is relevant to the research project you plan to undertake in the department you are applying to. Then, say something about your idea about your plan of research. Outline the project with some jargons (for example, lambda conversion, conservativity, scope ambiguity, operator, opacity, etc). At least some profs in the adcom (based on my experience) will take your use of jargons as a sign that you have a lot of backgrounds in your proposed subfield. Also, should there be a Skype interview, be prepared to explain the jargons, and if you could explain well the jargons during the interview, you should be on the right track of being admitted. After outlining the project, then name each prof and say something about how each prof's specialization could support certain aspect of your overall interest in subfield X. Then, summarize and say something about the department as a whole and show that the department as a whole could support your interests. Rule of thumb, find at least 3 three profs to say something about in the SOP. 

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15 hours ago, historicallinguist said:

Not every program. But given that you are planning to pay out of packet, here is the deal. Most Australian universities will very likely to be within your reach as long as your past GPA is above 2.7..   U Arizona, Carnegie mellon, u washington seattle, maybe. UIUC, maybe more difficult. McGill, very difficult, good luck with this one.  

I hadn't thought to look at Australian universities, but that's good to know! Also I'm glad the approach might work for U Arizona, Carnegie Mellon and U Washington since those are all programs I'm very interested in as well. I'll be sure to add a little note about funding in the SOP for all those schools just in case it helps!

15 hours ago, historicallinguist said:

Why don't you go to the Cambridge textbook in linguistics series, and find one book in the series that interests you? Read the book you pick, and do some of the exercises in the book. And submit the solutions of some of the exercises you do in the book as writing sample. In this way, you at least are dealing with the right problems, regardless of how well your solutions are. If you formulate some problems on your own, chances are either you may formulate some problems you cannot solve or you may formulate some problems that are not well formulated. 

Wow this is an excellent idea, thanks so much! I didn't know this was something I could do for a writing sample. The only book in the series I could find that would be applicable to what I want to do is Corpus Linguistics - which is something I'm very interested in, but from what I can tell so far U Arizona doesn't do research in this field, though U Washington does. (These are the 2 programs that require the writing sample). Should I try to find a different topic that would align with both universities? If so, I imagine I could take this same approach but with a different textbook right? 

15 hours ago, historicallinguist said:

Disclaimer first: I could be wrong. 

I think you should not spend too much time detailing your background in your SOP. After all, the Adcom could tell your background from your CV, transcript, and LORs, and you should not repeat the informations that are already there. Second, I  think you should very briefly mention your background as it is relevant to the research project you plan to undertake in the department you are applying to. Then, say something about your idea about your plan of research. Outline the project with some jargons (for example, lambda conversion, conservativity, scope ambiguity, operator, opacity, etc). At least some profs in the adcom (based on my experience) will take your use of jargons as a sign that you have a lot of backgrounds in your proposed subfield. Also, should there be a Skype interview, be prepared to explain the jargons, and if you could explain well the jargons during the interview, you should be on the right track of being admitted. After outlining the project, then name each prof and say something about how each prof's specialization could support certain aspect of your overall interest in subfield X. Then, summarize and say something about the department as a whole and show that the department as a whole could support your interests. Rule of thumb, find at least 3 three profs to say something about in the SOP. 

You're probably right in that this is the best approach for the SOP, however I don't have one distinct plan of research in mind yet. There are so many interesting subfields in the world of comp ling that at the moment I don't know how to narrow it down. I was hoping I would just be able to talk about my interest in their research without having a defined research project of my own in mind yet. Should I just try to come up with something anyway? I feel like it will end up being something different for every school just because my interests are so varied at the moment haha.

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