Reasons Not to Take On UCL’s MA in Linguistics

I’m writing one of those listicle articles I fucking hate. I have struggled for months, for a year, to put into words how bad my MA has been. This is unlikely to be the only article about it, but I have waited long enough. Our results are in a month. I should do well. I should get a high 2nd, or a first.

I. Don’t. Care.

The experience of doing a master’s in Linguistics at University College London was so overpoweringly disappointing that I don’t care anymore. It was enough to push me away from ever doing a PhD, from ever being a professor…the career path I chose for myself when I was about 17 in the housewares department of Dillard’s (another story). I wanted more than anything to teach university courses, to shape minds, to give a voice to the voiceless…and I am 26 and past those things. I work in a goddamn bar. I work my arse off. My job is physical, not intellectual. I have to commute 90 minutes (at best) home in the dead of night to be able to make a meagre living in a job I love.

I don’t know where I went wrong exactly, but something is certainly wrong.

Surely many people have just entered the MA Linguistics at UCL. Indeed, this week, a year ago, I was them. I’ve been too afraid to write about what really happened on the programme; I’ve been too afraid to give voice to the concerns I had. I am at the mercy of the UKBA and of UCL, my visa sponsor….I have been living in fear that my voice of dissent might make me a target for deportation or make it so that I couldn’t continue living in the UK. I’m over it.

I need to be brave.

This article is a warning; don’t go to UCL in the Linguistics department. Don’t go if you happen to have had a different undergraduate degree than Linguistics, English, or Languages. Don’t go if you are a high-acheiving international student. Don’t. Go. Reasons follow.

1. No One Will Help You With the Tier 4 Visa

I emailed the UCL International Student Co-ordinator at least four times in the summer of 2013. No response. Not. One.

Getting a Tier 4 Visa is stressful. Don’t expect UCL to ever help you. They don’t know what to do, and even if they did they wouldn’t tell you because lawsuits or something.

Odd, for a sponsoring university. If I breached my Tier 4 visa, they could pay the price. But fuck that. It’s my sole responsibility. They won’t try to keep you in status. Good luck with that…UCL could easily end up like London Metropolitan University.  I will be writing a ‘Things No One Told Me About My Tier 4 Visa’ post soon to help out with those pesky little oversights that could send a person to prison.

2. Expensive as

The programme, when I enrolled, was 16,500 GBP for the year in tuition (This year’s students are paying £17,920, a one-year increase of slightly more than 8%, but they wouldn’t know that…UCL doesn’t show them the numbers from my year on the website.) In addition, I “needed” 1000 GBP per month to maintain myself, and to be able to apply for my Tier 4 visa. This is the most expensive thing I have ever purchased in my life; I came out of undergraduate with a BA in Anthropology (and Evolutionary Biology) and no student debt. I took out huge loans (around $54,000 USD) to finance my MA at UCL.

For all the money we paid, it was a paltry education. In the first term, I had one assignment. ONE.

The exams were in the second term, at the same time I was trying to keep up in my second term classes. The results of the first term didn’t come until it was far too late to back out of another term financially. This felt insidious.

I couldn’t quit when I wanted to because I’d already paid for another semester in debt. Another 10,000 GBP, another $16,000. I didn’t know my results until it was too late (my results for first term at the time were a single mark: 59% on my Foundations of Linguistics essay).

By the middle of the first term, I’d been selected by my professors as the Student Representative of the MA Linguistics course.  I was appointed at 9AM by my professor. There was no election. If he thought he was getting a high-acheiving, quiet, unobtrusive rep…he was wrong.

3. Lack of Quality Teaching

At UCL, you’ll deal directly with the people furthest along in the field. You’ll have classes with people doing the research that makes a difference in Linguistics. You’ll be on the cutting edge.


No disrespect to PhD students intended…but they taught almost all of our classes. They are overworked, overburdened, and unable to prepare for the class. More than often the PhD students who were ‘teaching’ our classes would look at the problems in Semantics or Pragmatics and obviously have never seen them before. They would spend 30 minutes or more arguing over what the ‘right’ answer was.

I did better preparation as a 1st grade teacher. In a high risk school, in Chilean Patagonia. With NO resources. Not even paper. There is simply no excuse.

Our course convocator went AWOL at the end of the first term, and a PhD student took his place in the Foundations of Linguistics course (an utter waste of time overall). She struggled through *his* lectures, and struggled to make sense in tutorials. This was only the beginning.

The bulk of the teaching on this MA Linguistics course was done by PhD students. Most of the professors, with a few exceptions, didn’t do a lot of their own teaching. They didn’t make their own lesson plans. In one case, a professor appeared to have plagiarised the course of a prominent US colleague without any shame, word for word. This, when we would be punished for citing the same sources we cited in a previous body of work on the course through

Many of the professors delegated to their PhD students the obligations of dealing with an MA dissertation. We did not work directly with those who work in the field, on average (although my supervisor was fantastic; working with her was easily the best part of the course).

4. Asking Questions Will Be Encouraged, But You Will Feel Stupid

When I am a teacher, I often answer questions with questions.

“Where is Afghanistan?” “Well, where do you think it is?” “I don’t know, is it here?”

This is one of the best ways to teach that I know of. Students learn to question and to find their own testable hypotheses.

This was not how it was on UCL’s MA Linguistics course, for all their insistence that it was. In the course, the lecturers (be they full, adjunct, or PhD) encouraged us to ask questions. I did. Frequently. This may have earned me my role as student representative. I spoke up, as I always have done. In high school, I used to know the answer and let my friends speak for me (“Coleen knows the answer, Mr. Mainland!”). I’ve long since grown out of that.

But finding my voice was traumatic. In class after class, tutorial after tutorial…I asked questions and was received with hostility. In my introductory Semantics class, my poor PhD student teacher tried to convince me that Lemarckism is accurate, more than 200 years after Charles Darwin postulated that it simply is not, because otherwise the paradigm they taught us made no sense. This approach flagrantly ignores more than 200 years of empirical evidence to the contrary.

For all the focus on the scientific and empirical evidence, the lecturers didn’t seem to have much background in actual experimental projects…perhaps a symptom of the fact that Linguistics itself walks on the borderlands that demarcate science and non-science academic endeavours. The Demarcation Problem is real; Linguistics is in transition. But time and time again, when I dared to bring in any scrap of my undergraduate degree (in Anthropology and Evolutionary Biology, remember?), I was met with criticism.

Once: “That’s great that you know what the Hyoid Bone is, but I don’t see how it relates to the anatomy of the pharynx….”

“Well, the hyoid bone is unique to the human pharynx and has been argued to be essential to speech production…”

Again: “It’s interesting that you chose to write about human evolution from a biological standpoint, when we were clearly asking for you to write about human evolution from a biological standpoint.”

I paraphrase, but essentially that’s what happened. When I asked or pointed out that the relevant literature was directly focused on comparative biology and human biology (i.e. this famous paper ), I was reminded that this was not a biology course.

I never came across a teacher who told me I was stupid for asking a question until I went on this course. My questions were ridiculed. The lecturers asked if I’d done the reading. I had. They implied I must be somehow mentally deficient. I’m not (as far as I know). They told me that the answer was ‘obvious.’ They told me that I was ‘uncharitable’ for speaking up; they told me that I was asking a question no one else would ask. They told me that I should have memorised every line of the textbook…clearly I wasn’t keeping up. Clearly, () means ‘optional.’ Clearly the IPA is ‘iu sək,’ not ‘u suk.’ Duh.

Don’t you know how to write every single IPA letter that we purposefully didn’t teach you in the first term?

Oh yeah…you thought you spoke a language so well that you forgot English when you studied abroad. You are deluded. You couldn’t have possibly changed the crystallised nature of your American English language faculty. Fuck. That. My family and friends know that I struggled with English after living in Italian…conjugating the English past tense (an admittedly annoying enterprise) as ‘catched’ instead of ‘caught’ and other *alingual* moments.

5. You’ll Have to Pay for Your Own Experiment

You want to do the right thing and try to advance the science of Linguistics instead of the incredible bullshittery of trusting ‘intuition’ as empirical data. You want to run a simply-ass experiment. You want fewer than 10 participants.

Get ready to shell out at least 300 GBP. Sure, we’ll reimburse you. But you have to front the money.

You paid a shitload to be at UCL? No one cares. You have to pay out of pocket to get your own data, despite the many thousands of pounds spent on tuition. You need to pay more. You need to find 300 GBP  from the 20 hours per week you are allotted to pay your subjects to make the trek to Chandler House. Less than 6GBP? No one will bother. It’s not even worth the transport costs.

Remember how I needed 1000 GBP per month to live in London? I managed to get my experimental costs down to 150 GBP, but that was still 15% of my monthly income. A full week’s worth of working in the bar, my full allotted 20 hours. In fact, a week and one additional shift.

Why isn’t this made clear beforehand? Shouldn’t they list the price of the programme with this expense included?

6. It’s a ‘Conversion Degree’

According to the UCL website:

“The programme is particularly suitable for students whose undergraduate degree included a minority of linguistic course units, or who have studied linguistics of a more traditional type elsewhere. It is also suitable for good graduates who have encountered linguistics only indirectly, for instance through psychology, philosophy, or foreign language teaching.”

This description is not accurate.

I am the precisely formed candidate for the UCL MA Linguistics according to this description. I had a few (a ‘minority,’ even) of Linguistics credits in my BA. I studied more traditional linguistics at my alma mater. I encountered linguistics indirectly throughout living in Italy, Chile, France, and Korea, and through teaching English…as well as a number of linguistically-inclined psychology and philosophy courses in my undergraduate degree.

This description is not accurate. They don’t tell you that you need a high level in Maths, (A* is the best predictor of a first in the BA programme) and that you need to be good at statistics to succeed on the programme. I am good at stats, thank god. But my mind doesn’t work in a particularly quantitative way. My intuitions, those flimsy things used as ‘data’ in so many of our courses, are almost always ‘wrong.’ Semantic formulae might as well be Cantonese to me (actually, that might be easier).

I brought into my first works on the course a bit of evolutionary biology. This was dismissed, despite asking explicitly about the biological origins of human language. Postulations of when/why human language evolved? Don’t try to bring biology into this, despite being explicitly asked to do so. All hail the holy Hauser. And the holy Chomsky. Who incidentally asked for exactly the kind of thing you are writing.

I just…I learned not to mention human evolution and human species. I learned to write how they wanted.

7. They Will Break Your Writing

One of the reasons I haven’t been writing much since last September is that they explicitly told me that my writing sucks. They told me that I’d been coddled since elementary school; my writing is shit. Other people ‘are writing better’ than me. Not much constructive criticism, beyond the formulaic. I was told time and time again to write essentially the following:

 “This essay will make three claims, X, Y, and Z.”

“As mentioned in the paragraph above, this essay will make three claims. The first of these claims is X. Blah blah blahs Blah blah blahsBlah blah blahsBlah blah blahsBlah blah blahsBlah blah blahsBlah blah blahsBlah blah blahsBlah blah blahsBlah blah blahsBlah blah blahs. This is the claim, X, with which this paragraph dealt. Next, this essay will deal with the second of the three claims (X, Y, and Z)…Y.” 

And then, when I wrote my dissertation, my supervisor was disappointed…why would you write “this dissertation will deal with the role of phonetics in L2 learning” when we all know that’s what you are writing about? I tried to explain that I’d been told over and over again to write in boring-ass formulae. I eventually changed it, but await the comments on my dissertation to say, “You should have organised this better and used more transition words.”

As if I were a fifth grader writing my very first five-paragraph essay. Don’t forget to use your favourite concluding words, “All in all!”

8. Your Entire Self-Worth Will Suffer

Did I ever speak Italian? I felt like I did, but maybe I was just an idiot. Maybe all my experiences with language up to this point have been illusions. Maybe I am a narcissistic idiot who thinks she once spoke fluent Italian.

Not to mention Spanish. Or French. Surely you never spoke well at all. You never had a point. You never held conversations on the bus or the train…you thought you were better at speaking than you are. No no no…you don’t speak those languages in the Brewdog Bar you work in; you are deluded into thinking that people understand you or that you could approximate the phonetic and phonological in any language but your own.

I don’t know if they were right. My Italian, Spanish, and French were never very good…I guess. I’m certainly not quadrilingual. This makes no difference at all.

9. It’s Not Worth It

When I contacted my old hagwon in Korea about getting re-hired, they told me that they’d pay me about $90 more per month for a MA in Linguistics that before. They offered me more than $400 a month to stay.

Enough said.

I have finished my MA in Linguistics at UCL. I am working in a bar. I am a certified beer server. I get 7.31 GBP per hour for working. I hope to be a Cicerone at the end of this year. But my MA in Linguistics did fuck all for me…personally, professionally…

I hated it. I’m still recovering. They took all of the good student in me, all of the one who knew things without trying, the one who loved school above everything else…and they dashed it. I can never be what I wanted to be. I can never be a professor. It’s just as well, because I probably couldn’t earn a living trying anyway.

I feel lied to. I feel that everyone thought I’d be a PhD student at this point in my life, including me. That will never happen, not now. I feel that I was never what the educational establishment was looking for.

I hope…I hope that my next career has little to do with intellectual ability. I hope that the physical punishment of my bar job is forever. I hope that I am sore, every day of my adult life. I will never earn what I was promised. I will have to clean the cellar and gag at the buildup of yeast and bacteria under the mats (but hey, I’ll know their scientific names! Thanks, undergraduate degree!). I will get home at 5AM after a crazy shift where I took a grand (1000 GBP) and try as hard as I can not to cry over how shit we as a species tend to be.

I will continue exploring the ends of the Earth. Lately…lately I’ve been thinking that if space flight is available when I’m an old lady I will do it.

This MA from UCL didn’t break me completely, but it did make me realise I can’t hack it in the academic world. I wrote this in the beat up blue journal I carry around, more than six months ago:

“Yesterday after the 10th week in a row of having no clue what I’m doing in Phonology I was frozen in my explosion of supplies…scattered around me as I everyone in my tutorial left the room. I thought I would write down everything while my brain still held alternating stress patterns in some tangible form. Instead, I slowly crumbled toward the table, closer and closer as I struggled to write the IPA.

The open window called me. I imagined the shock, the aftermath. I appraised the width of the window, the width of my shoulders. I put my coat on and walked away.”

I am $50,000 in debt over a degree I didn’t need, and that didn’t help me. Maybe that’s my own mistake. Maybe I shouldn’t have been duped by the online description of the course. Maybe..maybe higher education is completely falling apart…and I am just collateral damage.

I am Coleen Monroe (Knight), M.A. Linguistics. And I wish I’d never done this programme. I’ll let you know my results in October.

UPDATE (10 March 2015): My results are below. I am currently being emailed repeatedly by UCL to attend picture sessions and graduation ceremonies this June. I am no longer legally allowed in England unless I get a family visa, and my Tier 4 permission expired long before the ceremonies. I got my degree in the mail, with little ceremony. I’ll not even get the pretty MA hood I always wanted. One more reason not to take UCL’s MA Linguistics programme. 

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  1. Coleen: I am sorry to hear how disappointing the program turned out to be. I definitely see you in a different role from Academia, though I know you are smart enough to do it if you wanted to. You are a tremendous writer, and would be a great journalist. You seem to have many books in you, and could probably write all kinds of cool stuff, travel, novels, children’s books. And let’s not forget that you are a fantastic photographer. And a very very good person with a great soul, who uplifts people all around you. If I can ever help you with a reference, or contact, please let me know. Maybe you should just drop in at the BBC and let them bask in your talent. If you got your foot in the door with a small job, or even an short internship, I believe you would get offered a job. Love you.

  2. reverseanterograde 19 January 2015 — 4:26 AM

    This comment has been removed for trolling. Some people just like to hear the sound of their own voice, especially when they use a thesaurus to sound smart.

  3. After taking a class there as a visitor which was meant to be Advanced and taught by a Professor, I was sorely mistaken in my expectations. Needless to say it’s become a cash cow of a school – but I’d recommend having a look elsewhere in London. Take a break in any case. (Also, copying lectures from UCLA is always a mistake.)

  4. Coleen, I came across your blog because I was looking for further information about a Linguistics MA at UCL. I am Chilean (glad to read you’ve been at Chilean Patagonia!) and I recently got my BA in English Linguistics and Literature at a Chilean University. After reading this, I honestly feel very scared about applying to UCL and I don’t know if I want to do it anymore. I’m very sorry for what you had to go through. However, if it makes you feel any better, I must say that I admire you for your perseverance and strength to complete the MA. I think many people would have decided to just quit after such a disappointing experience. I think the bright side of all this is that it proved to you how strong you are! I’m also sure sooner than later your MA will bring better opportunities to you and all the sacrifice and effort will be worth it.

    Regards from Santiago, Chile

    • Thank you so much for the kind words. I think that UCL can work for some people, and certainly did for a few of those I went on the programme with.

      If you have any questions about the experience feel free to use my ‘About’ page to contact me directly.

      Good luck!

  5. Carrie Collonge 12 March 2016 — 9:24 PM

    Coleen – this blog post was fun to read. I’m sorry you had such a disheartening experience. I can imagine that it is quite a culture shock for American students to adapt to the grading system in the UK (which I have heard is undeniably harsh in comparison.) I hope you don’t let this experience bring you down forever – grades aren’t everything, positive instructor feedback isn’t everything – and you have only one short life to make the world a better place! Best of luck.

  6. I found your blog while looking for some info on MA in English Linguistics at UCL. I’m actually feeling rather nervous about this whole experience of yours as I’m planning to go to UCL this Sept for my MA. I know MA English Linguistics and MA Linguistics are taught in two different faculties but I’m just hoping everything will turn out okay in the end. I’m really sorry to hear that you had to go through such a horrible experience.

    – from Malaysia –

    • It was bad for me, but many on my course had a good time and are not as angry about it. The English Linguistics degree is completely different, and I cannot even begin to guess what it would be like (MALinguistics in the PALS group is much more science-focused). Mine is only one opinion among many.

  7. I wanted to apply for a Ph.D. programme in Education (TEFL maybe), but now I feel utterly discouraged. Thanks for this article!

    PS. I’m Chilean. It was a nice surprise to notice you taught English in Patagonia.

    • The article is only my experience, and many of those on the programme had a great and/or ok time with the degree. I ended up with the MA and a merit, after all that struggle. Feel free to ask me questions about it, and know that I don’t necessarily think these issues are unique to UCL. Higher education in general is a tricky space at the moment, and this is one small example.

  8. Graduated from UCL in 2007. I did MA in Film studies. From what I cant tell things have got much worse. I had some arguments here and there with my teachers and professors. 2 subjects were graded lower just because of it.

    At least back in the days they helped with Visas a lot and it wasn’t expensive. I paid 3000 pound a year just like any other guy.

  9. PhD in Linguistics here (not from your school though). I was annoyed beyond description trying to revise my journal manuscript, and googled “I hate linguistics”, and came upon this blog article.

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