The Unofficial Guide

Linguistics Ph.D. at Penn:
The Unofficial Guide

This page is an informal collection of advice that began before anyone currently in the program now remembers. While much of it remains useful, some of it has fallen out of date, and must be taken with a grain of salt.

The department's official rules are linked from the top left of the Graduate Program page on the main department website. Get to know them!

Joining the Department and Penn Web

Approximate sequence of administrative events after arriving at Penn:

  • Get acquainted with Amy Forsyth, the department's administrator extraordinaire. She will help you, guide you, and nurture you, as she is the best!
  • If you haven't already got one, because you're international, apply for a Social Security number at the Soc.Sec. office in The Market, 40th and Market Sts (still there??). They will give you a letter proving that you have applied for one. Keep it.
  • Get a load of admin forms from Amy and fill them in promptly. You will need your passport and immigration documents (internationals) or other proof of ID (Americans) for this; Amy will need photocopies of relevant pages from them.
  • Get a bank account, if you haven't already got one in this (part of the) country. Though, with direct deposit of stipends, you really may not need a local branch.
  • Apply for health insurance in the University's system (I think details are sent out by their office) --- your fellowship will pay for it, and the University requires it.
  • International students: When all the relevant admin forms come back to Amy they will have an emergency Soc.Sec. no. on them, which you will use until you get your real one. Note it or, better, take copies of all the forms anyway so that you know what has gone to whom and when. Making sure you have copies, take the forms to the Tax Office in the Franklin Building on Walnut Street and give them to them. You will need to go back there and tell them your permanent when you have one.
  • You will need to get your PennCard as soon as possible. To do this, fill out the PennCard application (sent to you in the mail) by the deadline they indicate, and then come to pick it up at the Penn Card Center, located at Room 150 Franklin Building, 3451 Walnut Street. Here is a link to their website.
  • Once you have the PennCard, you can join the Penn Web by getting a username called PennKey. This is going to be your username for Penn Web, as well as for e-mail on MAIL.SAS, and e-mail on BABEL, the linguistics server.

How to get your PennKey

  • When you get your Penn Card, you'll be issued a temporary PIN (PennKey setup code), which will be sent to your home address before you arrive to campus.
    If you haven't gotten it, or if you lost it, you can get another one: visit a PIN administration office and obtain a PIN on the spot, or call the automated PIN Request Line and have one sent to your address of record via U.S. Mail. Here's the link to locations of the office and the phone number for the Request Line.
  • Take your temporary PIN, and get your PennKey by using this website.
  • All the info about PennKey can be found at

Get an account on BABEL, the Linguistics server, ASAP.


  • Amy will need a copy of your PennCard — come to her and get the babel account, as soon as you get to Philadelphia and pick up your PennCard. This will place you automatically on several crucial listserves, so that you will get the announcements about departmental issues and such things.
  • When you're getting babel account, explicitly ask to be added to the group lnggrad - this will allow you to have the same permissions for reading, writing, and executing files on babel as the other grad students.
  • Tell the current department webmaster to add you to the roster of students and to give you access to the department wiki, which has various tips, including how to check your Penn email, etc. The current webmaster (Fall 2008) is grad student Josh Tauberer. You can find his email address on the students list page. Send him an email with: 1) your name, 2) your PennKey (that's your log-in name, often your last name plus an initial or something), 3) your webpage address if you have one, and 4) which subfields from the list here you want to be listed under (this has no official meaning; it's just for the sake of the website).
  • Certain official notices are sent to your "official registered email", including automated class lists, so you need to make sure you get those messages. Initially you will get a email address from the University, and that will be your official email. The department will give you an ( also works) address, which is where departmental things will be sent. Initially, just check both addresses using SAS Webmail (or your email program of choice). Once you get access to the department wiki, read the Using Babel-Email Tips section to get your email unified.

Apartments, shopping

  • You can live on-campus, but many people found this to be not such a great value-for-money deal.
  • For off-campus apartments, check out the listings on,, UPenn Off-Campus Services, and other such sites. One of the biggest (and best!) realtors around is Campus Apartments, so visit or call to ask them about apartments (4043 Walnut Street, 215-382-1300). If you're going to be in Philadelphia, ask around, and visit the Office of Off-Campus Living.
  • Basic and not-so-basic food-shopping needs around campus are easily fulfilled by going to Fresh Grocer - a large supermarket, 40th and Walnut.
  • Trader Joe's - a wonderfully good deal on imported, organic, or just plain good foods - check out their unbelievable frozen dinners, French truffles (yumm!), and other such. 22nd and Market, right across the bridge from 30th Street Station.
  • International Food Store - an Indian store, very good spice selection, good deals on some veggies, rice in quantities, hot samosas. 42nd and Walnut.
  • WAWA is always here - one at 36th and Chestnut, another at 38th and Spruce
  • Midori Mart - this is not on campus, but this is your source for Asian food basics: Nori, dumplings, spices, sauces, rice, and groceries. Chestnut, between 21st and 22nd Street.
  • DiBruno's - this is not on campus, and arguably not a basic shopping need, but this is the best deal in town for gourmet cheeses and meats.18th Street between Chestnut and Sansom; 9th Street between Carpenter and Hall (Italian Market).

Getting Around

  • Traveling around Philadelphia can be done on foot, in free transport (that is, free to Penn people), or by using public transport, among other means.
  • Penn Bus and Penn Escort Shuttle are free; they will take you East (up to 20th Street in Center City), North (on demand only, up to Hamilton Street in Powelton Village), West (up to 48th Street in West Philly), and to 30th Street Station (call to get the X Shuttle).
    Please consult the wonderful Penn Transit website for complete information, schedules, maps, etc.
    To ask for the North or X shuttle, call 215-898-RIDE.
  • The LUCY (Loop through University City) is a free shuttle that operates Mondays through Fridays, from 7:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m., to and from 30th Street Station. LUCY's two routes run every 15-30 minutes through University City. For schedule and route information, visit the LUCY bus web site.
  • Drexel University Shuttle is free for PennCard holders. Information is available on this website. This shuttle runs along the Blue Route from 4:15 p.m. to 11:15 p.m., and on the Gold Route from 6:15 p.m. to 1:15 a.m. The Dragon Route is an express service from 33rd and Market Streets (Nesbitt Hall) to 15th and Race Streets (Center City Campus), beginning at 5:45 a.m. and ending at 7:45 p.m.
  • SEPTA buses, trolleys, and the subway service cost $2.25 per trip if you pay cash, but only $1.80 if you buy tokens. You can get a transfer by paying an extra 1 dollar. For routes, schedules, and such info, please see their very helpful website.
    Tokens can be purchased in the vending machines in the Moravian Cafes foodcourt, in Houston Hall, on the second floor of Penn Bookstore, and in the Septa Sales offices, the nearest of which is located in the SEPTA section of the 30th Street Station.

Useful places on campus

Registering for courses

Check out course information in Timetable (class times), Room Roster (current term class locations), and Register (course descriptions)

An entry like the one below

LING-603  TOPICS IN PHONOLOGY               1 CU
301 SEM M 1-3 WILL 320                  NOYER R

means that the course number is LING 603; the section number is 301; the class will take place on Mondays from 1 till 3pm; the location is Williams Hall, Room 320. The course counts for one course unit, and is taught by Rolf Noyer. If you don't know what the building code is, you can look it up here. The most common ones are COLL for College Hall, MCNB for McNeil Building, WILL for Williams Hall, DRL for David Rittenhouse Lab.


To register for courses online, go to Penn In Touch, click on "current students", enter your PennKey and password, and click on "registration" tab.
Then you click on "add" courses button, and add the course by selecting the correct department, course number, and section number, as listed in the Timetable.

If you register for two courses that overlap time-wise, the system will look like it has allowed you to do that. In reality, it doesn't register you for either one. So, don't do this - either the time of one of the classes has to be changed officially; or you have to take one of the courses as an independent study (obviously, by arrangement with the professor); or you'll just have to not take one :(.

Which courses to take.

The requirements are clear... Which is good because this section needed to be updated for the changes in 2007 to the prelim system. Out of date information was deleted, but that doesn't leave much advice.

You are allowed (and encouraged) to take out-of-department courses, as long as they fit your overall program of study (read: ask your advisor for approval). Some of the courses various people have taken in other departments include >CIS 530:Computational Linguistics, CIS 520:Intro to AI, PHIL 006 (aka MATH 570):Formal Logic, MATH 670 (aka PHIL 416):Model Theory, PHIL 405:Philosophy of Language, PSYCH 607:Language Pro-seminar, et cetera.

You can take independent study courses (LING 505, LING 999) for credit. In any case, but especially if you're taking them more than once, you want the professor to modify the title of the course, so that your official transcript indicates what topic/material you've actually studied.

You cannot take language classes for credit (see below for stuff about language requirement). This rule has several exceptions, when the language courses are actually advanced linguistics courses (e.g., Old Norse).

As a part of your program of study, you may want to get a Masters in a related discipline (many do get one in Computer Science, a few in Psychology, some in Mathematics). The requirements for the M.A. programs will then further expand the range of courses you'd want to take.

Some people have attended classes in neighboring universities. The travel is a pain, but some have even managed to take those classes for credit, via a simple arrangement.

When to take the courses, and how fast

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences prohibits taking more than four courses per semester (you can get five via special petition process). This is actually very reasonable, and most people take exactly four classes per semester, and three classes in the semesters when they are TA-ing (see below about that).

Usually, people are done with classes by the end of their third year, or by the middle of their fourth year at latest.

2. Prelims

This section has yet to be updated for the 2007 system.

3. Language Requirements, Needs, and Limitations

The Language Requirement for our department is fulfilled by demonstrating knowledge of two languages, neither of which is English. These must be "languages of scholarship", meaning, languages in which there is a certain amount of linguistic literature (so "object-of-study" exotic and cool languages don't count for this requirement).

If any of the languages is your native one, you demonstrate the knowledge by compiling an annotated bibliography of linguistic literature in that language.

If a language is not your native one, you demonstrate the knowledge by passing a translation examination (translating a linguistic text, with a dictionary).

With very few special exceptions, you cannot take langauge courses for credit. Just learn the language(s) by auditing courses, going to relevant countries, etc. There are some summer courses especially for departmental language requirements: information is posted in the Spring some time. The courses are really good for this requirement.

4. Teacher-Assisting and Teaching

You're required to TA during your second and third year. The TA assignments always try to take your interests into account, but if you have particular desires for a particular class, you should speak to the professor early on.

It greatly improves the attendance at recitations if you take a moment to TAKE attendance; of course, this works best if the students think it is going to influence their grade (it is - they'll almost always do worse if they skip recitations).

Don't be afraid to acknowledge to the students if you don't know something — just tell them you'll find out, and follow up on your promise. They'll appreciate the effort, and they understand that you're not omniscient. :)

It really is much more comfortable for you and nicer for the students if you know their names. A wonderful tool to help you with that, and also to get in touch with particular students, is the IRQDB database where you can look up information (names, PennCard photos, e-mails) for students in your sections.

If you need the Registrar to make an official time change, or to find you a different room, you must e-mail them at Check back (call or e-mail) for results, as they're likely not to inform you when they fulfill your request.
Always coordinate this, or any other such change, with Amy. She should also be kept informed of changes in office hour, etc., as should the professor.

You can always ask for advice from one of the Learning Instructors at the Weingarten Learning Resources Center. You can also refer your students there, both for general learning advice, and for free tutoring in specific courses.

5. Earning money: Extra work and other money-matters

If you want a university job while getting funding from the university, you must e-mail the Graduate Chair with description and hours of the job, and then get the approval (subject to further approval by the Dean).

Some possibilities for earning extra money are various jobs at LDC, various research projects (annotations etc. - watch linglist for announcements), being a tutor for Tutoring and Learning Resources (this one works better if you can tutor for a popular course, not necessarily in Lingusitics), teaching KAPLAN test prep courses...

There are two main sources of travel grants: GSAC (50% of expenses, up to $300, every other year), and Graduate Art and Sciences (100% of the first $100 and 75% of the remainder, up to $300, every year) - contact their office to apply.

Tax information for graduate students

Start doing research as early as possible!

Start now! Stop never! Expand on a term paper, work hard - this is more important than classes and prelims! This is because classes and prelims are just department-internal things, while research is the way to enter and stay alive and get ahead in the academic world.

Apply to conferences, and to journals. You'll learn enormously from the reviews, and from the process itself. It lets you get a feel for what's hot in the field, how to sell your argument, and other such crucial things.



Summer Schools

Georgia Green's advice

Read Georgia Green's useful advice on writing a dissertation proposal.

Cassy's advice:

Schedule a weekly meeting with your advisor or a committee member and arrive at the meeting every week with at least something new written up (whether it is new data, a new summary of your hypotheses so far, a summary of a relevant paper, etc.) The shame of potentially arriving at the meeting without having done anything for seven days will obligate you to spend at least one night every week doing something relevant to bring to the meeting. (Of course you must not allow yourself to conveniently skip meetings because you haven't done anything!) End result--you will make at least some progress every week on your proposal thereby minimizing self-loathing and nearly guaranteeing that after not too many weeks you will have large chunks of your proposal written.

Jeff asks, Professor Ringe answers:

Q: First, I have talked to other students and looked on-line and there seems to be a lot of speculation about the following procedures, and not many agree with each other. First, is it true that a diss propsal only has to be 15 pages?


Q: Also, you have to give a presentation (up to an hour) AND turn in something in writing as well, correct?


Q: Is there a structure or formula for how a diss proposal is organized?


Q: I know there needs to be a timeline, but are there any othre requirments?


Jeff asks, Professor Ringe asnwers:

Q: Now, as far as the actual dissertation goes, according to one source, it needs to be finished and turned in by the end of March-ish in order to graduate in Spring. However, another person told me that she knew someone who turned in their final diss to the grad office (where does it actually go?) at the end of May and walked in spring graduation.


Q:Also, some people say that you don't have to defend your actual dissertation. Is this true?


Sean Crist, a year after graduation:

I'll tell you the most important thing first. The best piece of advice I got was from an older friend of mine who is a professor in another field. He said:


My friend recognized me as the kind of person who deals with his insecurities by trying to get every detail right, so that I'm in minimal danger of being criticized. Many people fall into this trap. You can never get it all right. It's impossible, and the world understands this. Your committee understands this. I taped my friend's slogan above my computer.

Another very helpful thing I heard early on from someone who had recently graduated (Krisjanis Karins, to be exact) is that writing a dissertation is like writing a series of term papers, where each chapter is a paper. Of course, those papers have to fit together into a coherent whole (you can't just tack five papers together and call it a dissertation!); but looking at it this way made the problem seem a lot more tractable. When I actually wrote the dissertation, it really did feel like writing a series of term papers. Rolf pointed out to me that some people fall into the trap of trying to make the dissertation the magnum opus of one's life; but it isn't. It differs from the term papers you've written before only in sheer size.

The biggest mistake I made along the way was trying not to go in debt. My first year after courses, I taught five classes. This was a dumb mistake because it left me no time to write. My second year, I was determined not to make this mistake again, so I cleverly proceeded to shoot myself in the foot my taking on a "part time" programming job which turned out to be anything but. (The result was Trees for Windows, which Tony and I are proud of, but we grossly misjudged how long the project was going to take.) So again, no real writing that year.

Finally, my third year, I went unemployed and took out student loans so that I could write full time. This was a smart move. I finally looked at the matter in purely financial terms. I can make more money with a PhD than without; it just didn't make sense to keep taking low-paying jobs which were preventing me from finishing.

Freeing up my time had one bad aspect to it: I no longer had any excuse for not getting some work done. I've read all kinds of horror stories about all the things that can go wrong with a dissertation (awful advisors; figuring out after two years that your idea won't work, etc.). None of these things went wrong for me; my own worst enemy was myself. I had a hundred strategies for sabotaging my own work (wouldn't it really be nicer to clean the kitchen cupboards today?). There were periods when I really got organized and made a lot of progress on the dissertation; and then there were times when it seemed such a hopeless morass that it was all I could do to make myself poke at it at all. On the whole, I think I did a pretty bad job of keeping myself to the task; I could have finished sooner.

At the end of my third year, I wasn't done, but I knew I had gotten over the highest part of the mountain range, and I could see the green plain below me. I knew what the whole dissertation was going to look like; big chunks of it were in place. My fourth year, I took a part-time secretarial job at Swarthmore which was self-contained enough that I could get some more dissertation done. So I plodded along, planning to finish in May 2001. At the beginning of April, I had gotten really close to finishing; but it looked like I was going to be maybe two weeks late for the deadline at the end of April.

I decided I'd give up; I'd graduate in August and have a big party in May to celebrate the end of the dissertation. But my partner Dennis kept telling me that my family really wanted to have the satisfaction of seeing me march in May. He was right.

So the last two weeks of April 2001 were an experience I can barely describe. You know how it feels to make a final push to get a term paper done. Now imagine that this is going on every single day, seeming without end: you get up at 7:00 and work until midnight day after day. I wanted to scream, to throw books across the room. Others who knew exactly what I was going thru told me I was holding together remarkably well, but I sure didn't feel like I was.

One of the things I heard somewhere was that you don't finish a dissertation; you stop a dissertation. This is true. You can always do more checking of your facts, chase just one more citation, write one more paragraph to properly qualify what you've said. But at some point, you just have to declare the project finished. There was a last minute rush of filling in things in much smaller ways than I had planned, and cutting out at least one whole section because I had been unable for months to track down a crucial citation. I completed my dissertation at 3:39 p.m., Sunday, 29 April 2001.

On Monday, Don gave me his autograph, and then I went for my appointment with the Margin Man. This semi-mythical personage used to be the Margin Lady; she is the one who measures your margins and gives the final approval for you to graduate. I had always pictured her holding a lantern, for some reason. But now it's the Margin Man. There were a few others in the waiting room; they were from other departments and I had never seen them before, but like me, they had all dragged themselves this far, to the Margin Man's door. The Margin Man called me into his office and made friendly conversation with me as he held the ruler up to my acid-free pages and checked the page numbers. Then it was done.


I had a big graduation party late in May and then marched the next day. I really recommend that you rent (or buy) robes and march. A lot of people skip it these days, which I think is an awful mistake. There was something very therapeutic about it. It might sound silly, but having on those special clothes and going thru the ritual of graduation really did help me to feel more comfortable being Dr. Crist. Penn does put on a good show; we had bagpipers, which gave the whole thing a suitable formal, archaic air. The faculty were seated on the stage, for once wearing the robes of their office. I felt a real connection with the whole continuity of teacher and student stretching all the way back to the medieval European universities.

One last thing: if you have a spouse or significant other who has seen you thru this whole process, make sure that you make some recognition. At my graduation party, I got everybody's attention and then publicly thanked Dennis for all he had done, and gave him a present (tickets to a show in a nice wooden box) and a hug. Everyone cheered, and Dennis blushed. I might have forgotten to do this if I hadn't previously heard of a case where someone forgot to make this crucial, unbelievably important recognition!