Applying to the Linguistics Graduate Program at UC Santa Cruz

The Graduate Admissions process is a daunting process for nearly everyone.  And, in our experience, many parts of the process can appear like a black box to prospective applicants. We’ve compiled some guidelines to help you understand the exact process by which we assemble a new incoming class.

Although we’ve tailored our information to the UCSC program, much of it will be applicable to all graduate admissions; at least to comparable programs. Graduate student application forums are great support resources, but we’ve found that they can sometimes inadvertently propagate misleading information or irrelevant scuttlebutt about applying to graduate school in Linguistics.

Here we’ve tried to be as open and as frank as possible about what happens in our admissions and funding process. We want you have enough information to decide whether or not to apply; and to put your best foot forward in the process. In particular, you should read the section What do the most complete and persuasive applications contain?.

What is the UCSC Linguistics Program looking for?

Do you admit students to work with individual faculty members?

Do you admit international students?

What do the most complete and persuasive applications contain?

What is the admissions timeline?

How is funding determined?

What is the UCSC Linguistics Program looking for?

Our goal is to create a community of scholars and, each year, we seek to add around 5 new members to that community. We are looking for students whose research interests fit well with our research strengths and aspirations; who are interested in the program and have taken some time to learn about it; and who have demonstrated ability to do original research.

Research in Linguistics is focused, collaborative, and theoretically ecumenical. While the traditional theoretical subdisciplines of phonology, semantics, and syntax remain dominant loci in the department, a long-standing commitment to empirically-rich investigations has led to a broadening in its research—to include other core areas of inquiry (morphology, phonetics, pragmatics, and psycholinguistics) as well as diverse methodologies for investigating language (e.g., computational and experimental methodologies)—without sacrificing theoretical rigor or a focus on whole-language investigation.

Researchers in our program construct and analyze formal theories, do fieldwork, conduct experiments, and build computational tools. The department has a long tradition and continuing commitment to research on particular languages, especially understudied ones.

Because of the broad array of research interests represented in the department, the best way for prospective applicants to get a sense of the department is to look at its recent research, which can be found:

Do you admit students to work with individual faculty members?

Faculty members do not separately admit individual students to work with them nor are they allocated control over a certain number of ‘slots’ in the admission process. The recommended admittees are selected both on the promise and achievements of individual applicants, and also on the faculty’s judgment of what would constitute a cohesive incoming cohort.

The faculty officially make a joint recommendation to the Graduate Division about who to admit. Barring some highly unusual circumstances, the Graduate Division accepts the faculty’s recommendation.

That being said, an important component of fit is envisioning which faculty members could effectively and productively advise which students.


Ultimately it is a balancing act: we don’t wish to admit strong students whose scope of interests are not conceivably well served by the scope and structure of our program and our advising. But we also want to admit those students with potential to grow (both themselves, and us).

Do you admit international students?

Yes. International students are treated on par with domestic students in the admissions process. And, as of 2016, they are funded on par with domestic students (historically, this has not always been possible because of how UC treats non-residents of California). There is a special constraint that requires international students to pass their qualifying exam within 3 years time, however, so that they can avoid onerous non-resident tuition fees in Years 4 and 5.

What do the most complete and persuasive applications contain?

It is important that your research file contain both a Statement of Purpose and Personal History statement. These two documents are read holistically as we consider evidence along three dimensions:

The statement of purpose should be forward looking and indicate the sort of research pathways you envision. But it should also provide evidence to demonstrate your ability to reach and set goals, i.e., what sort of research activities you’ve already completed.

You should include a writing sample. The best samples are written in connected prose, as in the style of an essay, research report or article; not a problem set, and in your area of proposed specialization. If you have a thesis, submit that even if it is only partially complete. Although problem sets can provide valuable information about your ability, we cannot use them to effectively compete for University-sponsored fellowship.

In order for us to effectively nominate your application to compete for certain University-internal fellowships, it is important to fill out every part of the application. In particular, do not neglect to fill out the Societal Obstacles and Benefits to Society sections. If you leave these sections blank, it will not materially jeopardize the admissions decision, but it does close certain funding pathways to us. Be sure to reflect on this part of the application. While you should not bluster and oversell your answers here, you should also not undersell yourself. Evidence in either category can come in the form of aspects of your personal history, activities you’ve done that indicate your intentions (such as volunteer work), or in the nature of the research interests and questions you’ve written about – roughly in that order, descending.

What is the admissions timeline?

The Linguistics Program deadline is December 15. Here’s the step-by-step of what happens next.

  1. Late December to early January: Application Triage. Faculty begin their review of complete applications in late December and early January. Each application is first read by three faculty members, from a group of readers put together that includes faculty representatives from each of the various traditions and subdisciplines of our department. Applications are triaged into several categories and the readers put together a report that is circulated and presented to the faculty.
  2. Early to mid January: Initial Faculty Review. With the triage report in hand, faculty meet to discuss the general tenor of the applicant pool and contribute any insight or perspective they may have on particular applications. At this stage, one or two callers are assigned to each applicant who initially seem to merit consideration or warrant further investigation. All faculty participate in this process. In Winter 2017, we spoke with 23 applicants directly.
  3. Mid to late January: Initial Faculty Contact. Faculty members contact designated applicants. We use a common set of written guidelines and questions to structure these calls and a uniform report form to document them. To the best of our ability, we want to make them fair and equal opportunities for the applicant. You can find our questions at the bottom of this document.
  4. Late January - Early February. Faculty meet to discuss their calls and decide on who they wish to recommend for admission (‘recommendees’). Around this time, the University-internal funding processes begin, and we submit some of the recommendees to competitive fellowships.
  5. Early February. The Graduate Director contacts the recommendees and invites them to an Open House which takes place in early March. The Department covers travel, accommodation and some meals.
  6. Mid-to-Late February. We learn the results of some competitive fellowships (and notify the students affected). At this point, we do not have the full funding packages ready for anyone. This is a good point for students invited to the Open House to be in contact with any faculty or graduate students whose research you are interested in, or whose perspective you would like to learn (for example, you went to the same institution).
  7. Early-Mid March. We hold our two-day open house, usually on a Friday and Saturday. On Friday, recommendees can attend classes, meet with individual faculty members, go to lab meetings or reading groups, tour the campus, etc. On Saturday, we have an event called Linguistics at Santa Cruz (LASC). This is an old tradition at Santa Cruz, at which graduate students present their qualifying paper research and we have a Distinguished Alumni address. In the evening, there is a party. Past schedules can be found here.
  8. Mid March. Shortly after the Open House, we finalize financial offers and submit our slate to the Graduate Division, who then extend official offers.
  9. Mid April. The deadline for accepting our offer is on or around April 15 (this is true across most US programs).

How is funding determined?

We commit to fully funding all Ph.D. students for five years. We meet that commitment through a combination of fellowships, Graduate Student Research-ships (GSRs; =RA-ships) and TAships.

Below we explain how we meet our funding commitment. But there are two important things to keep in mind:

(i) we’ve tried to give recent figures where we can, so you have some historical data; but these amounts should not be construed as guarantees.

(ii) the funding process, like some aspects of linguistic competence, is a system of ranked, defeasible constraints :) It is hard to predict any individual student’s assignments because we are trying to optimize the allocation over the entire program. The blend of resources changes from year to year, which is part of the reality of how a public university’s funding streams are managed.

In Year 1, most students are funded via a fellowship for the entire year[1]. We attempt to fund all students to approximately the same level, although there is some slight variation. In the 2016-2017 cycle, we extended 11 offers of admission. The median fellowship/salary in Year 1 was $25,000, with a range of $24,000-$26,000.

In Years 2-5, we use a combination of resources to fund each student. The following principles apply:

Excerpt from our Faculty Call Protocol

Here is an excerpt from the protocol faculty members use to structure their contact with applicants. We usually prefer telephone calls to video calls.

Helpful questions or topics

  1. “What attracts you to UC Santa Cruz?”
  2. “What issues or topics in linguistics have excited you the most?” Or, if they can talk about their research: “What is your research on?”
  3. “What are some of the key things you’re looking for in a graduate program?”
  4. “Do you have any concerns or worries about the UC Santa Cruz program?” Even if it is not phrased so directly, giving them some chance to voice their worries and concerns is important. We learn more about them and the likelihood that they would come. We may also be able to respond to their concerns with information.
  5. If at all possible, try to find out where else they have applied. Direct phrasing: “Do you mind my asking where else you’ve applied or are considering?” More indirectly: “What other programs do you consider a good match for your interests?”

Updated November 17, 2017.


[1] The one exception is students who enter the program with an M.A. in Linguistics (or closely related field). Because of their more extensive research and/or classroom experience, we will occasionally fund 1 quarter of their first year with either a TA-ship or a GSR-ship.