Science in general

From codas to coding: how to make the move from linguistics into experimental research.

I was testing a participant the other day when I had a moment. I had electrode gel all over my hands, I was saying something about measuring action potentials, and I just thought, wait, what? How did I end up here?

See, I dropped science at sixteen. I have A-levels in French, Latin, History, and Maths. Even at degree level, I did Japanese and Linguistics, and yet here I am, programming and running my own EEG experiments looking at cross-modal integration in language. Academia is funny like that.

It’s great that you can start specialising at sixteen and still end up doing things that are almost completely unrelated; there’s something reassuring about having the freedom to drift. But, the downside is that you’re always trying to catch up with things that you should have learned much, much earlier. I get asked about how to transition from a languages/linguistics degree towards the experimental side of things quite often; this blog is part answer, part letter to my younger self (who should have learned this stuff, and got a proper haircut, much earlier). If you don’t fancy reading through it all, there are four main points:

  1. Take a two year long Master’s course, so that you have time to develop a) your knowledge, and b) your interests.
  2. Take a more general cognitive neuroscience Master’s course rather than anything that sounds really specific.
  3. Read around about things like how approaches to the neuroscience of language have developed and what sort of questions we should be asking.
  4. Learn statistics. Learn R. Learn programming too, if you can.

…and don’t forget about the cost of it. I can’t speak for many countries, but the Netherlands is much cheaper than the UK, and just as good, if not better.

Okay. Here it is in detail.

I’m a linguistics student, and it’s great! …but that one lecture I had about Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area was really interesting, and I want to do this kind of thing in my Master’s, but I don’t know where to start.

It ultimately depends on what you want to get out of a Master’s. Do you want to go on and do a PhD and research? Or do you want to explore something you find interesting? Because my advice is different depending on whether or not you want to stay in academia.

I’m interested, but I don’t know if a PhD is for me. I’d quite like to have a job where I’m not blogging about my own job at 11pm on a Thursday night…

Fair point. In that case, it’s relatively straightforward – pick something that interests you and meets all your criteria about location, cost, etc, and just make sure you enjoy it! If you know you want to have a non-academic job, then a Master’s is about self-fulfilment / self-development / self-whatever. Transferable skills too, of course, and so a lot of what I’m about to say will also apply, but isn’t quite as crucial.

Then again, staying in school does kind of appeal… you get paid to start work at 1pm, eat nothing but pot noodles, and still get to call yourself Dr. Lockwood afterwards? Sign me up!

That’s not how it is at all (honestly, mum, it isn’t).

Oh. Well, it still sounds good. I find a one year Master’s course and race through it so I can quickly get settled into the life of luxury you’re living as a PhD student, right?

I wouldn’t recommend that, actually. The Master’s course I did was one year long, and at the time I thought that was fine – I’d spent four years doing my undergrad degree, I had itchy feet and I wanted to move on, I liked the idea of quick progress. However, it’s just not possible to learn all the things you need to be prepared for a PhD in one year. It’s too rushed, both in terms of the amount you can learn, and also in terms of the development of your own thinking and interests. If you already have a specific idea of what you want to specialise in, then that’s great; but if you’re generally interested in psycholinguistics / cognitive neuroscience of language, then a year is not enough time. During my Master’s (and presumably in most one-year Master’s courses), I started in late September and had to have a clear idea of what I wanted to write my thesis about by December. This means that you’ve basically got to have worked out exactly what you’re interested in researching within two months of being there, and that’s still while you’re learning the basics of a new field! A lot of people on my course ended up doing a thesis project about something that they were only generally interested in. This isn’t a problem if you don’t want to go on and do a PhD, but it is a problem if you do – if your Master’s thesis is about X, then you will have to base your PhD application on X, which limits your PhD research to things related to X. Luckily, I enjoy my research area, but I do sometimes think I’d be researching something slightly different, or researching the same thing but in a slightly different way, if I’d had more time.

But I found this Master’s course which really interests me and the title is something like MSc cognitive neuroscience of language and communication with an experimental focus on acquisition and development and and and… surely it only takes a year to do something so specific?

It probably does… but I would also recommend taking a more general Master’s (e.g. cognitive neuroscience or logic, like you suggest), rather than one that focuses on one particular thing. You’re doing a linguistics BA, so I can guarantee you that you know more about the theoretical structure of language than most computational or psycholinguistics / neuroscience of language researchers do. Neuroscience of language generally works at a far more general level of linguistic analysis than you’re used to. Instead, you’ll find that you need a lot more general neuroscience information, so you should rely on your BA having provided you with enough strictly linguistic information; do a Master’s in general cognitive neuroscience in order to get as much knowledge about the brain as you possibly can. Then, you can go back to a more language-focused PhD, but with a much better set of skills and a much wider knowledge than I did.

You keep talking about developing your “set of skills” and it sounds horribly corporate. What are you on about?

The first one is doing as much reading about the neuroscience of language as you can. That’s a big field, and I don’t know what your main interests are – let me know, and I can send you some more specific things. A good place to start is Poeppel and Embick (2005) “Defining the Relation between Linguistics and Neuroscience.”, which is a book chapter about what the field is and what it should be doing when looking at the brain and language. Another good one is Hagoort (2014) “Nodes and networks in the neural architecture for language: Broca’s area and beyond”, which is a summary of how the traditional view of language in the brain is defunct and outlines the recent developments (the traditional view is probably what you learned in that one lecture on language and the brain, where Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area play separate roles for syntax and semantics).

That’s just reading! I can do that already.

Sorry, I don’t mean to be patronising, but sometimes it’s useful to have a place to start.

The next thing is to start reading about statistics. If you do any kind of experimental linguistics, you will spend far more time working with numbers than with phonemes or words or sentences. Understanding the methods of analysis is as important, if not more important, than understanding the concepts you’re researching. It’s difficult to recommend something for this, as nothing works the same for everybody – just read as many things as you can, and see what works for you. I find that for any given concept, I could read three different explanations and not understand a thing, another person’s explanation and kind of get it, and one magic way of phrasing things which makes it completely clear what’s going on. For me, that phrasing magician is Daniel Lakens, who writes an interesting and readable blog on statistics as applied to psychology (but which is easily transferable to language research). Just read through it; it’s surprising how much you’ll pick up from blogs rather than textbooks. The main thing to remember is that statistics is complicated, but it isn’t inherently difficult.

Well, reading about statistics is one thing, but how do I actually do statistics?

There are a ton of statistics programmes out there (as well as MS Excel, which I often forget about). The best thing I’ve found for mucking about with data is R… and it’s also completely free to download. R involves a steep learning curve, but it’s also almost instantly rewarding – it’s clear what you’re doing, and it’s easy to see how you can apply it to whatever you’re interested in.

Like with statistics, learning data manipulation and statistical programming can be impossible from one person and easy from another depending on how you find their instruction style. I recommend an excellent set of free courses hosted by Johns Hopkins University about data science. The first two courses on there are a great introduction to data analysis and to R, and you can take it at your own pace. Also, if you have twitter, you should follow Hadley Wickham, the guru of all things R. He writes packages which make grappling with R code much easier (such as dplyr, for which there’s a great tutorial video here), and frequently tweets useful links and resources. I’ve figured out all kinds of things in my scripts just from procrastinating on twitter. When it’s not just an echo chamber for outrage and hatred, social media can actually be pretty great.

Oh, and finally, if you’re not already using referencing software, start now. Again, there are loads out there, but I recommend Zotero. It’s free, it’s really simple to use once you’ve installed it, and it’s brilliantly intuitive.

That sounds like a lot of work! I’m in my final year of my undergrad, and I’ve got these three essays, and…

You will never have as much spare time as you do right now. In my final year, I worked three jobs (as a proofreader, a translator, and best of all, a dog food seller), took an evening course in Russian, played the piano in a musical, did some stand-up comedy gigs… and still had the time to binge watch all ten series of Friends in about six weeks. I don’t have anywhere near that much spare time to waste anymore; it’s hard enough to find the time to improve my statistics and my R skills, and that’s part of my job. I wish I’d put that time a few years ago into working on some useful skills rather than watching improbably affluent fictional twentysomethings drink coffee.

You mean, watching Friends hasn’t prepared you for PhD life?

Only for the amount of coffee that’s required.


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