Academic Careers in Foreign Languages

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Let’s Begin After High School

Let’s assume you’ve had the advantage of an excellent high school foreign-language program – you got a 5 on your AP exam and even spent a half a year living with a host family in a foreign country.

You apply to a great college – a four-year, accredited one with a strong liberal arts program – and are accepted.

You then take a placement test of some sort and discover that you have satisfied the foreign language requirement for all students in the College of Arts & Science – but no matter! You want to continue your study of your chosen language. You meet with an academic advisor (perhaps even one of the professors of the language you wish to study and major in). He or she may surprise you by speaking to you in that language and dealing with administrative details. This, of course, is an informal test, and you get the feeling that they are sizing you up. They are of course.

You are told that you can’t declare the major in your language until you have taken such-and-such a class or have taken a certain number of credits in that language – or are in the last part of your sophomore year or beginning of your junior year. You may be told about other general education requirements that have to be satisfied first, in addition to maintaining a certain minimum GPA. Your head may swim and you may feel disappointed that you can’t get that “stamp” of being an official major in your language. Patience. The advisor is showing you the road map. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

You do all you are told, get great grades… and are admitted to the major. Celebrate a little – but there is more to come.

You take advanced classes, literature classes, phonology and linguistics… civilization and history classes. Perhaps you study abroad (some programs require it). The main focus of this undergraduate education is to master the language and get a broad (but not deep) spectrum of its literature, civilization and so forth. You may be required to take an exit exam to measure your proficiency. There are various types, but the best is the OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview) administered by ACTFL.

And then – you GRADUATE with a B.A. in your foreign language. Perhaps you’ve double-majored. Great! It gives you options… but you have your heart set on teaching the foreign language in a university like the one you’ve just graduated from.

So you apply to graduate school – to obtain an M.A. – a Master’s Degree. And you get in. Typically, M.A. programs are of two types – a Plan A, which is designed for those intending to continue on for a Ph.D., and a Plan B – a “terminal” program, for people who intend to teach high school (watch out – you’ll need a teaching certification or some other designation, depending on your state) or junior college. You pick Plan A. The M.A., particularly the Plan A type, is designed to expose you to a wide range of literature (or, if your field is linguistics, to more in-depth study of language per se as well as the one you are studying). You will have course work to complete, and a reading list you must complete in order to pass a comprehensive exam.

An M.A. in literature focuses on literary movements, national literatures and so forth.

Most Plan A programs require a thesis – a long research paper, to be concise. Such “papers” are designed with your advisor in the department and are often 80-100 pages long. It is important to be a good writer. They are written in English – if your degree-granting school is in the USA. Some graduate programs offer a stipend in exchange for teaching lower-level classes to undergraduates – your baptism by fire into the world of foreign-language teaching. You are supervised and helped by the faculty – all great mentors.

You write a great thesis and pass your comprehensive exams. Now you apply for a Ph.D. program. You are asked to come to an exam known as a Qualifying Exam – it is oral. You are not told how or what to prepare. Not to worry – usually, if you are invited to this exam, it is because you are accepted. The purpose of the exam is to see what your weaknesses are, as well as your interests, perhaps to find a faculty member to be your doctoral advisor. The committee will decide what courses you need to take at the graduate level.

A Ph.D. requires a few years of focused, dedicated work. In many ways, your life will be the same: teaching, perhaps, doing coursework. You’ll need to pick a secondary field (history, another language, art, philosophy – and do almost as much coursework in that field as one would take to get a B.A. in it). You’ll also be required to study literary theory – schools of thought about the nature of literature and its relation to life, politics, etc. It isn’t called a “Doctor in Philosophy” for nothing. You’ll settle on a genre to specialize in, if you’re in literature: Poetry, Drama, Novel or Short Story; you’ll pick an author, perhaps or a movement, a national literature… it’s pretty wide open. Pick something not many people have written about – because part of the job is to read everything (really) that’s been written on your topic. Scary? Keep going…

After all the coursework come the doctoral comprehensive exams. Four days of written exams, based on readings, classes, seminars, whatever they want to throw at you… and one tough test on your chosen area.

You pass. Now, and only now, are you no longer taking classes. It is time to write the thesis. Finish it. There are two kinds: Perfect ones… and finished ones.

Once you finish your Ph.D., you can apply to universities for teaching positions. By then though, you’ll know what to do.


  • Author’s more than 20 years experience teaching and translating Spanish.