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Linguistics Program

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Doctoral Program

The mission of the Ph.D. Program in Linguistics is to train students to pursue research and teach in the areas of general linguistics and a chosen subfield. The Ph.D. in Linguistics at USC typically involves a much broader range of coursework than what is found at more traditional Linguistics Departments and Programs in the United States.

An Interdisciplinary Approach to Linguistics

The Ph.D. program in Linguistics at USC does not focus on the training of theoretical linguists, but instead sees its mission as that of training historical linguists, language acquisition specialists, sociolinguists, and others, who can apply linguistic theory to the pursuit of their research. The interdisciplinary nature of our program affords our students the opportunity to investigate the intersections of multiple sub-disciplines such as sociolinguistics and phonetics, historical linguistics and phonology, language acquisition and syntax, and psycholinguistics and semantics.

Students who do not already hold an M.A. or M.S. degree in linguistics are encouraged to consult with the Graduate Director before submitting their application online to discuss the option of concurrent enrollment in the M.A. and Ph.D. programs.

Timetable to Completion

The Graduate School requires at least 60 post baccalaureate credit hours for a doctoral degree. All requirements for the Ph.D. must be completed within eight years of first enrolling, but the coursework can typically be completed in four to five years. 

Degree Requirements

Doctoral students choose a special field to guide their studies from different areas of concentrationApproved special fields are the following:

  • English/French/German/Spanish linguistics
  • Historical linguistics
  • Linguistic anthropology
  • Philosophy of language
  • Phonological theory
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Second/foreign language acquisition
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Syntactic theory
  • Teaching English as a second/foreign language

Other course requirements, such as foreign language requirements, comprehensive examination details, and subfield guidelines, can be found in the graduate bulletin.


Coursework (course information):

6 courses (18 credit hours)

  • LING 710 Introduction to Phonology
  • LING 720 Introduction to Syntax
  • LING 711 Phonological Theory and/or LING 721 Syntactic Theory
  • Three additional graduate level core linguistic courses in phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics or pragmatics.


  • Primary Field:  4 courses (12 credit hours) in an area of study approved by the student's Ph.D. committee. 
  • Secondary Field: 3-4 courses (9-12 credit hours) in another area of study. A secondary field is optional. If students do not wish to declare a secondary field, they will take at least 9 credit hours of Linguistics outside of their primary field.
    • A secondary field might be chosen for a number of reasons: (1) because it directly complements the primary field and will be important to the student's dissertation research, (2) because it will broaden the student's background in linguistics and make him/her a more versatile teacher, and/or (3) it will enhance the student's employment prospects by making him/her a more attractive candidate for a linguistics position in a targeted department (such as anthropology).
1-2 courses (3-6 credit hours)

2 courses (6 credit hours)

The purpose of this requirement is to insure that each student has a respectable background in the field of Linguistics as a whole. This is especially important for those students who enter the Linguistics Ph.D. program with no prior degree in Linguistics.

12-30 credit hours

Foreign Language Requirement:

Candidates must demonstrate knowledge of two approved languages other than their native language. For the second language, a student may, with the approval of the student’s advisor and the graduate director, substitute a research methods, statistics, or computer science course.

Exams and Progress toward Dissertation:

Full-time students must take the Qualifying Exam by their third, regular semester in Ph.D. Program if they are new to the Program. If a (full-time) student has an M.A. from our Program, then they can take it in their first year of admission to the Ph.D. program, if they qualify for candidacy status. This exam is normally given once each year in January.

All students interested in being considered for candidacy in the Ph.D. program should complete the Application for Doctoral Candidacy Status form obtainable from the administrative assistant. This form is normally submitted to the administrative secretaty by November 1 of the student's third, regular semester. The Program's faculty will review applications, and report back to applicants by December 1. Students whose applications are successful will be expected to take the examination at the beginning of the following semester. Students whose applications are not successful may still take the qualifying exam, but they will need to reapply for candidacy status before they can be considered for Candidacy. Reapplications would need to successfully address weaknesses that are pointed out in the initial application review before the Program will recommend their admission to candidacy.

  • Students should determine as soon as possible, if not already done, their primary and (optional) secondary fields of specialization in the program. 

  • Students should decide in which area they would like to write a dissertation and do a preliminary research/literature review to narrow down a general topic within that area. 

  • Students should choose a dissertation director who can help them successfully complete a dissertation in the selected area. The dissertation director becomes the student's advisor for the remainder of their time in the program. In consultation with the advisor/director, student determines the remainder of the dissertation committee. A doctoral committee consists of a dissertation director/chair (drawn from Linguistics Program core faculty), two internal readers/members (drawn from Linguistics Program core or consulting faculty), and one outside reader/member (drawn from Linguistics Program consulting faculty or from faculty outside the program altogether). Students are strongly encouraged to approach potential committee members prepared to discuss the probable topic of the dissertation and schedule for its completion before requesting their participation.

  • Students should continue doing background reading and preparation for dissertation.

  • Student prepares a formal dissertation proposal. The specific requirements of the dissertation proposal are determined by the dissertation director, so students must consult with their director as often as necessary to understand what is expected.

  • Student submits full draft of proposal to dissertation director and revises as suggested. Director must approve proposal draft before student distributes it to other committee members.

  • Student and director decide upon time frame within which the entire Comprehensive Exam is to be completed. The exam may be spread over several days or over a semester, depending on the actual format being used and availability of the parties involved. The director advises committee members of the planned format for their approval.

  • Student reports to the Linguistics Program office the dates set for these exams.

  • Student prepares a bibliography for each of the three written exams and circulates them to the committee members for comments. The committee may suggest additions and/or subtractions to this list of readings in each area. Bibliographies must be circulated at least six weeks before the date on which the student intends to take the particular exam. 

  • Students must receive final approval of their bibliographies from the advisor/director four weeks prior to that date.

  • Student is encouraged to discuss possible content of the exams and expectations with each of their committee members.

  • Student must submit their dissertation proposal (approved by the director) to committee members at least two weeks prior to the oral exam, the final part of the Comprehensive Exam. (Note: Timeline may vary by director. Check with your director.)