PhD Training in the Language Learning Lab

My interests in language and concepts are broad. However, at the moment I am particularly looking for students who are interested in (a) how concepts are represented in the mind/brain, (b) how the structure of concepts affects the structure of language, (c) syntactic & semantic bootstrapping, and (d) cross-linguistic universals.

Don't get me wrong -- you may be able to convince me that I really want to work on something else with you. However, the list of questions above are things that I worked on a lot a few years back, haven't worked on as much in the last couple years, and really miss. So I would be excited about a student who was excited about questions in that space.

One thing to emphasize is that our lab is really committed to making scientific progress through new methods, including (but not limited to) massive citizen science projects, novel analytics, and computational models. If that's something you find exciting, too, then L3 may be a good home for you.

About the application: The application will ask you to state who you want to work with. Your application is then forwarded to the faculty you list. So if you want me to look at your application, be sure to mark my name. In contrast, it doesn't matter whether you say you want the quantitative, developmental, or cognitive tracks; your answer will tell me something about you, but won't affect whether I see your application or your likelihood of acceptance.

In your essay, it is very helpful for you to explain (a) what you want to study, and (b) why you want to study it with me. You don't have to try to convince me that I'm your #1 choice (though that's always gratifying to hear) or that you cannot imagine doing anything with your life other than studying language (it's a big world; I'm sure something else would suffice). But it's my job to figure out who, of all the applicants, will be the happiest and most productive in my lab. Help me understand why that is you.

In contrast, I don't actually care that much about a blow-by-blow description of your research experiences. It can be helpful for you to describe a project you worked on as a way of demonstrating you understood it. It can be particularly helpful if that project illustrates or otherwise motivates your reasons for wanting to work with me. But don't worry about cramming every experience, accomplishment, or honor into your essay. Your CV, transcript, and letters are usually enough to convey your qualifications as a researcher.

Life in L3: Our lab is small and likely to stay that way. While I encourage students to develop their own interests and projects, I want to have the bandwidth to be actively involved in projects as needed, and I can't do that if I have a gazillion grad students.

Our community, however, is very large. We maintain a wide network of collaborations both within and beyond Boston. We regularly attend talk series at neighboring universities and have visitors from neighboring universities to our lab. Graduate students can enroll in courses in linguistics and machine learning (etc.) at BU and Brandeis, and I support students attending LSA, ESSLII, and the like.

More broadly, there's no better place in the world to be an academic than Boston. I encourage and support students making the most of the opportunities.

About the program: The graduate program at BC is 5 years. There is guaranteed departmental funding for 9 months of the year (currently $27,100), with an additional $7,500 in summer funding from your advisor(s). Although our program is relatively young, recent graduates from our department have done extremely well on the job market, landing prestigious post-doctoral positions or faculty positions.


  • Do I need to be a psych major? No. Language research is highly interdisciplinary. I've known excellent language researchers who had majored in psych or linguistics but also in math, computer science, philosophy, and physics. I wasn't a psych major myself.
  • Do I need research experience? That would be typical. I'd want a really compelling explanation of why you don't have any and why you are nonetheless ready for grad school.
  • Do I need a strong math & computer science background? It certainly helps, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient. We are, however, a tech-heavy lab, so if you really dislike math and computers, we're probably not the right place.
  • Can I apply to work with both you and another professor in the department? Absolutely! Be sure to explain in your essay why you think this combination of advisors would make sense, given your research interests.
  • Do you collaborate with other researchers? Yes, both at BC and elsewhere. See our mostly up-to-date list of collaborators here. I believe the best work comes from collaborations.
  • Could I collaborate with other researchers? Yes. I think that is an important part of graduate education.
  • Do you only do research on English? Heck, no. I've published work on Korean, Spanish, Russian, French, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, and possibly some other languages I've forgotten about. I'm particularly interested in doing some work on sign languages or American languages, though that would require a student who had expertise in them.
  • What if I'm not sure I want to stay in academia? There's lots of good jobs in industry for PhDs from cognitive science. I support students in whatever career trajectory makes sense for them. This also means that I would support students who wanted to try a summer internship in industry.
  • Do I need to be Catholic to attend BC? No. It is a Jesuit institution, but many of the students and faculty are not Catholic, including me.
  • Can I contact you prior to applying? Yes, particularly if you feel it would be helpful in putting together your application. Keep in mind that I get a lot more email than I can reply to, so don't necessarily read too much in if I don't reply to you immediately (or at all).

If you would like to discuss admission to our PhD program with Prof. Hartshorne, please use this form.