Master’s Alum Pursues a Passion for Language at Stony Brook
Research opportunities helped a Linguistics master’s graduate move on to a Ph.D. in a discipline he loves.
Just a few months after graduating, alumnus William Oliver (M.A. ’22, Linguistics) is on his way to a Ph.D. in linguistics at Stony Brook University.
With the help of the Graduate Center, he has fashioned a love for languages into an academic path and, ultimately, he expects, a career.
Oliver studied Spanish and Latin in high school and then Italian as an undergraduate at SUNY Binghamton. It wasn’t until he taught English as a second language, however, that he grew fascinated with how languages work.
At the high school in Tuscon, Arizona, where he taught, Oliver says, “My students would always ask me about really basic language components, and I would start getting confused. Like, why is it that you can say, ‘can’t you understand?’ but you can’t say ‘cannot you understand?’ And I'd be like, ‘Huh. I don’t know.’ That got me interested in syntax and word order.”
Oliver, who holds a master’s degree in education from Harvard University, wanted to learn more. He started studying the deeper structures of language on his own, and two years later he applied to the master’s program in Linguistics at the Graduate Center.
“I just wanted to learn as much about language as I could,” he says.
At the Graduate Center, Oliver focused on syntax. He specialized in computational linguistics, applying the tools of logic to the rules of language. One reason for his fascination with such structures, he says, is the ways they can reflect and describe the categories and processes of thought.
“In no language, when the adjective is before the noun, can the order be objective to subjective,” he explains. “It always has to be more-subjective to more-objective. For instance, in English, you would never say ‘the blue, big house,’ you would always say, ‘the big, blue house,’ because ‘big’ is more subjective than the color blue. So when you’re studying word order, it kind of gets us into the mind and lets us see how humans process information.”
At the Graduate Center, he was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to join a research project. He was able to do so the summer before he started as a student.
“There was so much cool research going on,” Oliver says, “and so much available to get involved in. When you do these research projects, you learn so many skills, in addition to building your CV.”
Getting involved in research projects also often means working directly with professors. Such connections, Oliver says, can make the difference between a good educational experience and an extraordinary one. For those just beginning an undergraduate, a master’s, or a Ph.D. program, he recommends a direct approach.
“As soon as you get to school,” Oliver says, “look at the webpage and just familiarize yourself briefly with the research the different professors are doing. You’re probably not going to understand it all because you haven’t started yet, but see what you can get from the intros and the abstracts. And then just pick one or two and send them an email saying, ‘Hi, I'm interested in your work. Do you have any research that I could get involved in?’”
For Oliver, such an approach paid dividends. As he started the second year of his master’s program, the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, he hadn’t yet found an adviser, and he needed an idea for his thesis. After visiting several faculty web pages, he sent an email to Professor Christina Tortora (Linguistics) expressing interest in her work on Appalachian English. The two met, and Tortora became Oliver’s adviser. He has continued to work with her as he has begun his Ph.D. program.
“She was so supportive the whole way,” Oliver says of Tortora. “And actually, another thing that I would suggest to new students is, look for an adviser who isn’t already advising 1,000 people. I got super lucky with Tortora, because it was just me and a Ph.D. student that she was advising, so every week, I’d meet up with her, and we would talk for two or three hours. She was just so generous with her time and her ideas.”
When he started the process of applying to Ph.D. programs, Oliver had a similar experience at the Graduate Center’s Writing Center.
“I can’t thank them enough,” Oliver says. “They were so critical for me in getting into a Ph.D. program. They looked over my application, the writing sample, my CV, my statement of purpose. They were so patient throughout the whole process. They were just unbelievably helpful.”
Oliver hopes one day to be the coordinator of a second-language program at a university, to teach, and to help train teachers. For now, though, as he pursues his Ph.D., he is content to focus on syntax and its role in the matrix of language.
“According to Aristotle,” Oliver says, “the difference between humans and animals is that humans have language. In studying word order and how humans process information, you’re kind of getting at the core of what it means to be human.”
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