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Colin Phillips

May 21, 2015

Colin Phillips

Colin Phillips, Professor in the Department of Linguistics, is also Director of the Maryland Language Science Center (LSC), an umbrella organization that serves language scientists in 17 units across the university. In addition, he is Associate Director of the Neuroscience and Cognitive Science (NACS) Program, and he was part of the team that built the Maryland Neuroimaging Center. 

Phillips is originally from the flat fen country of eastern England, and studied medieval German literature in Oxford. He came to the US as a temporary exchange student in 1990 and has been here ever since. During studies for his PhD in linguistics at MIT, he became involved in the emerging field of cognitive neuroscience. Since arriving at UMD in 2000, he has been at the center of efforts to build a broad community of language scientists.

Phillips's research explores how the rich structure of human language is mentally encoded, in linguistic, psychological, and neuro-scientific terms. His former students now hold faculty positions in many leading programs in his field. 

UMD has received two NSF interdisciplinary graduate training awards in the past 15 years, and Phillips directs them both: an IGERT award (2008-2015), and one of the first cohort of NSF Research Traineeship awards (2015-2020). Both of these programs involve research that spans more than 10 departments. Phillips’s own research has covered 15 languages. In his LSC role, he is working to build worldwide collaborations in language science. He also directs langscape.umd.edu, a web portal that brings together resources on 6400 languages worldwide through an intuitive map interface. And he is developing a global language science network, based around the 25-university Universitas 21 alliance, in collaboration with International Affairs, the Division of Research, and the Graduate School. 

Learn more about Colin Phillips through the interview summarized below:

Why is graduate education important?
I take "graduate education" to mean much more than just “writing a dissertation” or taking advanced courses. It’s about preparing young scientists and scholars for the many demands of future careers, not just training them to write the next paper. It’s something that the US has generally done better than many other countries.

How would you describe your experience at the University of Maryland?
The 15 years have gone by very quickly. I’ve been lucky to work with a fantastic group of graduate students: smart, energetic, creative, and just wonderful people. And I’ve really enjoyed the ever-expanding group of colleagues that I’ve been able to work with. The university has been very supportive. The biggest frustrations have often come from the Balkanization of UMD’s many divisions.

What key elements have shaped your life and career?
My first degree was in a small, isolating field, in an environment where intellectual enthusiasm is frowned upon, and cachet and tradition are treasured. One of the best things that happened to me was coming to the US in 1990 for a year at the University of Rochester. I discovered a new interdisciplinary field, intellectual energy, a lack of academic walls, and a disregard for tradition or prestige. I was hooked.

How has the graduate school and your graduate program supported your efforts?
I have benefited a lot from both. The Graduate School’s aggressive fellowship programs have helped to support many of the amazing PhD students that I’ve been able to work with here. The Linguistics graduate program creates a collaborative and supportive community, and it has not been afraid to overturn convention in finding the best ways to train students. Beyond my home department, the Neuroscience and Cognitive Science (NACS) program and interdisciplinary graduate programs in language science have expanded horizons for my students.

Why did you choose Maryland?
That’s an odd question to ask a modern academic. You go where you’re sent . . . if you’re lucky. I’ve had a number of opportunities to leave Maryland. I’m still here because I believe in what we’re trying to do in building the diverse language science community, and because I love the atmosphere that my colleagues and my students provide.

Why should others choose Maryland?
Because it has the environment that you want or will allow you to create. UMD has allowed my colleagues and I to build the house that we wanted to live in. The same is true for our graduate students. Some parts of UMD are more constraining, so people should come here only if they’ll be landing in a good place.

What is graduate education at UMD all about?
Seriously? I’m not sure that you’ll print this answer. Graduate Education at UMD is at its best when it follows best practices, or explores new ideas, and is honest about what is and isn’t working. The notion that there’s a slogan that captures what is distinctive about UMD graduate education in general is the kind of thing that makes students and faculty roll their eyes.