I've heard from some people (working in computational linguistics) that today the area of formal semantics is on the decline. On the other hand, I can see many new papers from formal semanticists on their webpages. So I was wondering whether this field is "alive enough" today and whether there is a demand in formal semanticists today.

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    By "demand", do you mean "prospects for employment"? – user6726 Mar 10 '19 at 15:59
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    Prospects for employment are fairly poor unless you're a superstar at it. At least in academia, and I don't think there is much demand for them outside it. – jlawler Mar 10 '19 at 23:00
  • @user6726 Yes, I mean that. Probably even "prospects for employment in academia". – user22577 Mar 11 '19 at 16:27
  • @jlawler Do you mean that the linguistics departments don't need formal semanticists specifically (as opposed to, say, phonologists)? How come? – user22577 Mar 11 '19 at 16:29
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    No. What I mean is that (a) formal semantics is not taught in all linguistics (or even philosophy) departments and (b) generally one formal semanticist (at most two) per department is enough. There's not a whole lot of student demand, and there's an enormous amount of linguistics to learn. When you add in normal professional lifetimes you find that vacancies occur pretty rarely, and attract dozens or hundreds of applications each. So be a star, if you can. – jlawler Mar 11 '19 at 17:24

There are fewer academic jobs now compared to the 70's and 80's (in general), and the wave of "baby boom" retirements is just starting. Formal semantics is a "later" field and scholars in that field are comparatively young (in relationship to e.g. syntax). In one sense, there is little demand because it has already been filled. However, formal semantics is kind of a "niche" field, like phonology has been (there are typically more syntacticians than phonologists in a department), and for example Santa Cruz had multiple syntacticians and no phonologists so the syntacticians taught phonology until they finally hired a phonologist or two. In the really old days, it would be inconceivable that a linguistics department would not have an Indo-Europeanist, but the field changed and now few departments have them.

A complicating factor is that there it's not obvious what a "formal semanticist" is. The term "formal" is often taken to mean "theoretical", but IMO formal semantics means a theory of meaning where you can reduce linguistic utterances and their interpretations to a mathematical equation plus non-linguistic rules of logic. Many theoretical semanticists don't do that, or don't do that as much.

Demand for academic phonologists and semanticists is comparable, it appears to me. As Jlawler said, if you are a superstar, you might get a job. Otherwise, the odds are that you will need some number of related skills, for example computational linguistics or a language area, or both. This is because the best departments have one or two semantics classes at most, and the teaching load will need to be filled in with other stuff (remember: there are a lot of syntacticians out there).

You can browse the Linguistlist job listings and see what's on offer now (it will be a tedious manual slog). I found one "permanent" academic job in Scotland that is for a semanticist (others are non-academic or 1 year nonrenewable).

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  • Are the situations for phonology and semantics really comparable? I've met and talked to a lot of phonologists, but I've never met someone who works primarily on semantics before (in fact I thought the word was 'semantician' until just now...). It seems to me that phonology is much more common in conferences than semantics as well, and I've read a lot of phonology papers from experimental journals, but rarely come across semantics ones. – WavesWashSands Mar 12 '19 at 16:26
  • I expect that most unis would have at least one semanticist, but far fewer would explicitly seek out a formal one (in the sense of mathematical/logical formal semantics). Semantics is so much broader than that. – curiousdannii Mar 13 '19 at 2:39
  • My impression is that most schools except don't really have people working mostly on semantics (except some of the big departments, but not all - even the department I'm going to for my PhD doesn't have one). However, many will have some people who work in a related area (generally stuff like morphosyntax/documentation, sociolinguistics, corpus/computational linguistics or discourse/pragmatics) and thus have enough experience and familiarity with semantics to teach it. – WavesWashSands Mar 14 '19 at 9:49

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