Saturday, April 23, 2022

Failure in Linguistics: A Case Study

In an earlier blog post, I talked about “failure” in linguistics and gave some strategies for dealing with it. 

Embracing Failure in Linguistics

In this blog post I talk about one of my personal failures. The only purpose of this post is to convey a personal anecdote. I do not mean to make any general statements about the field of syntax and the direction it is going in. Nor do I intend to elicit any sympathy. I realize I am an extremely fortunate person in many ways. Rather, this post is meant to be biographical, sketching some events in my life and my reaction to them. Nothing else is intended, so please do not read anything else between the lines, or calculate any far-fetched implicatures.

For the past few years (since around 2015), I have been planning to finish the last third of my career in a different department. I spent the first third of my career in idyllic Ithaca at Cornell University (think fall colors, the finger lakes, waterfalls, ravines, wine country, fresh air, etc.). The second third of my career I have served in the concrete jungle of NYC at New York University. I have wanted to get out of the stress and strain of New York City life and to retire somewhere with a slower pace. I have vaguely yearned to move out west to a warmer climate. I honestly did not foresee any roadblocks in realizing these goals. My plan was to find a new school, work roughly another 15 years and then to retire (around the age of 70). 

At one point in my career (roughly late 1990s early 2000s), I seemed to have a magic wand that got me any job I wanted. I would just wave the wand, and a written offer would appear in my hand. Around that time, I got three offers in quick succession, all from highly prestigious schools. In fact, one of the positions was created specifically for me. The school asked me to apply, and only had a search because regulations demanded it. Each of these offers had a much higher salary than my Cornell salary and a fresh set of smart exciting colleagues eager for intellectual interchange. I ultimately chose to come to NYU, which is where I have been since 2005. But I never quite shook off that early confidence, naively thinking that at any time I wanted, I could just direct my thoughts towards a new place, and get a job there. I even said so to myself on several occasions “I could always get a job elsewhere.” But my confidence was entirely misplaced. My early career experience gave me a false impression of how the job market works. Now, there does not seem to be any magic wand, and if there is, I am not its owner anymore. I leave it for another blog post, or maybe my autobiography, to discuss why I ever had a magic wand in the first place.

In the last few years, I have been applying to open rank syntax positions. I have prepared all my materials, including CV, teaching statement, research statement, diversity statement, course evaluations, letters of evaluation and cover letter. I have enjoyed getting these materials together. Whether or not one is looking for a job, writing up a research statement helps to clarify research goals, and connections between different strands of research. With these materials in my back pocket, I have kept my eye on the LinguistList job postings. In addition, I have made a number of inquiries with departments that interest me, sometimes writing to friends and former students and sometimes writing the Chair out of the blue, thinking naively and arrogantly that just my expression of interest might make something materialize out of nowhere. 

Every single one of these attempts has been completely unsuccessful. 

From my efforts, I have come to a number of important realizations:

First, I am thankful that I have a good job, a good salary, solid healthcare, a shirt on my back, a roof over my head at night and food to eat during the day. My family is safe and well-provided for. I don’t have cancer or any other life-threatening illness, although I have already had several close colleagues die from cancer. I have lived in different parts of the world where these necessities are definitely not taken for granted. I have lived amongst poor hungry children begging for food and clothing. I have seen these children begging with my own eyes. I have given them food and clothing when I could. If I have the basics, then that is quite a lot already to be thankful for. From this perspective, my not finding a new job is completely insignificant.

Second, it is very difficult (approaching impossible) for a senior person in linguistics to change departments. There are not that many syntax positions advertised, and the number of open rank searches is vanishingly small. The basic reason for this is that departments try to save money, and the best way to save money is to hire a junior person to replace a senior person. I have also learned that if a position is advertised as Assistant/Associate, it is Assistant/Associated by agreement with the Dean, and that agreement is firm.

In other fields (e.g., nursing) there are literally hundreds of jobs available (on, and the possibility of moving is tangible. In those fields, people regularly switch positions for all kinds of reasons: in order to be in different locations, to work with different institutions and to develop different skill sets. Such mobility does not characterize linguistics generally, nor syntax specifically, especially at the full professor level. In our field, once you settle in, you have very little chance to move around. That is something to keep in mind if you are still debating about whether to go into academics.

Third, I now understand that people may not perceive my work as I perceive it. I suspect this is at least part of the reason I have not had much luck finding a new job. Although I believe such papers as Collins 2005 (passive), Collins and Postal 2012 (imposters) and Collins and Stabler 2016 (formalization) to be groundbreaking and important, other syntacticians might have a different point of view. 

I am not faking humility here. I am very proud of these works. Consider Collins and Stabler 2016 (CS2016). This paper required great sacrifice and determination to write. The whole process from the original idea to the published paper took roughly six years of collaboration with a computational linguist. I felt CS2016 would open up new horizons of research for anybody interested in minimalist syntax. For the first time, precise and interesting questions could be posed about a wide range of foundational topics (e.g., copies versus repetitions, multi-dominance, chains, occurrences, spell-out, workspaces, derivations, etc.). Crucially, I believed and still believe that increasing clarity about foundational issues will lead to the investigation of hitherto uncharted empirical waters. 

But in retrospect, I can see how others might not share my intoxicating vision of the significance of CS2016. They might write it off as useless formalism or “minimalist mechanics” (to use a term I have actually heard before). To be realistic, I need to accept that we can agree that we are working in an interesting field, striving to understand human language and the human mind, without agreeing on what the most important paths forward are. If anything, I need to learn patience and to think of ways to demonstrate to the field that my results are important.

Fourth, what is failure anyway? If it is raining, but the rain is blocked from hitting a patch of ground by a tree, did it fail to hit that patch of ground? The rain is subject to gravity, the direction of the wind and other physical laws. So wherever it falls, that is the way it has to fall. Given my interests, background and personality, my path is what it is. The alternative paths I did not follow are not failures. They just were not meant for me.

A Few Letters of Rejection:

Here are a few of the rejection letters that I have received, in reverse chronological order. In each case, I also include the link with the job search, to show it was open search. In no case were these letters marked as confidential when they were sent to me. Rather, they seem to be standard pro forma rejection letters. I have eliminated any specific names from the letters for purposes of anonymity. Some of the other letters I received, I have deleted, wanting to get them off my computer. For other positions that I applied to, I don’t think I ever got an actual rejection letter.

UC Santa Cruz

Jobs: Syntax: Linguistics: Assistant, Associate, or Professor, Syntactic Theory, University of California, Santa Cruz


[I did not make the short-list for this position, nor was I interviewed.]

Rejection Letter Received: March 28, 2022

Dear Christopher Collins,

I want to begin by thanking you for your interest in our position # JPF1141 within the Linguistics Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz and for your patience while the search committee deliberated on the applications. In my capacity as the chair of the search committee, I am writing to provide you with an update on our search. 

The search committee received applications from many highly qualified individuals, and we have now settled on a small number of candidates for the position. I regret to tell you that you are not on the final candidate list recommended by the search committee.

Choosing the list has been extremely difficult. We have a very strong pool, and although your application was among those seriously considered, in the end we decided that we needed a somewhat different combination of skills and experience.

I thank you for your interest in our position and in UC Santa Cruz, and I wish you well in your future endeavors.


XXX, Chair


Jobs: Syntax: Rank Open, University of Connecticut


[I made the short-list for this position.]

Rejection Letter Received: April 1, 2020

[As far as I know, no official e-mail was sent to me, just an informal one from a collegue.]

Harvard University

Jobs: Syntax: Full Professor, Harvard University


[I did not make the short-list for this position, nor was I interviewed.]

Rejection Letter Received: January 24, 2017

Dear Chris,

The search committee, in consultation with our chair and the Dean of Humanities, has now arrived at a slate of candidates to be invited for campus interviews.  I very much regret to have to tell you that you are no longer under consideration for our position.  As you know, the pool of applicants, and even more so the long list in which you were included, was quite remarkable.  Almost everyone had an impressive profile and was a leader in the field.  So, hard choices had to be made.

I thank you for having given us an opportunity to consider you for our position, and sincerely wish you all the best in the future.



Chair search committee

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