The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. Click here to see previous Member Spotlights.


Kristen Syrett is an assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics and the Center for Cognitive Science (RuCCS) at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey–New Brunswick. Before joining the faculty, she was an NIH NRSA post-doctoral fellow at Rutgers in Psychology and Cognitive Science. She obtained her PhD in Linguistics from Northwestern University in 2007, with specializations in Cognitive Science and Language and Cognition. She currently serves on the LSA's Publications Committee and COSWL, and is an Associate Editor for Semantics and Kristen SyrettPragmatics.

Q: When did you first join the LSA?

I first joined as a graduate student. I remember thinking that becoming a member somehow solidified that I was really in this field and self-identifying as a linguist.  

Q. What are you currently researching?

I have three main projects for which I’m currently collecting data: experimental semantic investigations of comparatives and quantificational scope, the influence of pragmatic reasoning on early word learning, and young children’s developing understanding of numerical and measurement expressions. However, I also have a number of other projects that involve collaborations with various colleagues and my students covering an even wider range of topics. (I keep my undergraduate RAs very busy, and couldn’t do it without them!)

Q: What is your personal favorite linguistic article or study?

On the experimental side, I absolutely love the work that’s been done on infant speech perception. As an acquisitionist, I find it incredibly exciting to think about our early capacity as humans to make sense of the noisy world around us and form meaningful categories. On the theoretical side, Lewis’s classic paper Scorekeeping in a Language Game is a personal favorite. I love reading it, and I love teaching it. It’s chock full of great material.

Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the field of linguistics today?

Securing funding for our research, given a Congress that is constantly threatening to cut funding for the social sciences and humanities

Q: How has the field of linguistics changed since you first started your work?

The field of acquisition has witnessed an explosion in the topics being investigated in semantics and pragmatics, which has been really fun to witness and be a part of. There also seems to be much more of an effort to engage and educate local communities on the benefits and importance of language research.

Q: What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in linguistics?

Remember that regardless of whatever specific area of linguistics you are drawn to, you are being trained to be a linguist, and more generally a scientist. Keep an open mind about what phenomena, articles, and research projects are interesting and relevant. Some of the coolest linguistic projects have arisen out of interdisciplinary collaborations, and you never know where you will end up in 10 years, or which audience you’ll need to communicate your findings to. 

Q: How have you been involved with the LSA since you joined?

I’ve been involved in many, many roles over the years! Being selected as a Bloch fellow and serving as the student representative on the Executive Committee was truly an honor and a turning point for me. That experience was so phenomenal, and I benefitted from it so much that I felt compelled to “pay it forward.” I was a part of the first Technology/Web committee (ITAG), and helped to initially design and overhaul the LSA website. I continued in that committee when it morphed into a committee on IT and Membership Services. During that time, I also co-authored the FAQ ‘Why major in Linguistics?’ with Monica Macaulay, which we periodically update. Since then, I think I’ve probably always been a member of at least one committee: Strategic Planning, COSWL, Publications, etc. And I also currently serve as an Associate Editor for LSA’s journal Semantics and Pragmatics.

I continue to be involved in the LSA in various capacities not only because of my initial connections (and I suppose, the habit of involvement I’ve formed), but also because I genuinely feel that with the LSA, it is extremely easy to make a difference. In our usual routine, it may be easy to feel burdened by bureaucratic and administrative responsibilities, and getting things done can often require jumping through a lot of hoops. This is not my experience with the LSA: it simply takes a dedicated member who has an idea of how to improve infrastructure and make a difference. 

Q: What, in your opinion, is the most important service the LSA provides to its members? To the field?

I can’t choose just one! I think three of the most important services provided by the LSA are facilitating connections and networking among like-minded researchers, advocating for linguists in DC, and providing continuing education in the form of the summer institutes.

Q: As the incoming chair of COSWL, what do you see as the main issues affecting women in the field, especially now that women are earning more degrees in linguistics than men?

Despite the field of Linguistics appearing to be somewhat balanced with respect to gender, the numbers associated with publications, appointments, and recognition of accomplishments by women in the field tell a different story.  It’s incredibly important for our field to acknowledge this gap, and to collect and analyze data that will not only inform the source of the difference between genders, but also allow us to outline steps to effectively address it. As we move forward, this will be one of the main goals of COSWL.

Q. As a former LSA Bloch Fellow, how have the issues affecting linguistics graduate students changed since you were in that role?

I don’t think that the issues have changed. Graduate students confront the same perennial challenge: how do you build your linguistic toolbox and sharpen your skillset, navigate the job market, and situate yourself as a competitive researcher in a field that has strong footholds in both the humanities and social sciences – all the while maintaining a healthy balance in work and life?

Q. As a participant in the LSA’s recent strategic planning process, how do you think the LSA could be more effective in advancing its mission?

Communication. I think the LSA should aggressively and creatively reach out not only to current members, but also to potential members at universities and in industry to emphasize its important role in the field, and the support that it provides for linguists and the study of language in general. At the same time, the LSA should take advantage of its key position to advertise the accomplishments of its members to the broader scientific community.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to say to the LSA membership as a whole?

Please write to Congress to support funding for the social sciences.