Success Starts With Planning and Purpose

Talking to your computer is the new normal. But to get a computer to answer back intelligently — that takes experts in computational linguistics, a field focused on how computers process natural language in speech and text.

Computational linguistics is in the science behind grammar checkers and predictive prompts for search engines and text messages, as well as voice user interfaces such as Alexa, Siri and Google Home. Computational linguistics also informs technologies that aid areas such as legal discovery, biomedical informatics and business intelligence.

Seattle’s high-tech job boom, and the parallel rise in smart language technologies, have meant big interest in the UW Master of Science in Computational Linguistics (CLMS), a fee-based degree developed in partnership with UW Continuum College.

The program is thriving, thanks to prescience and purpose. More than 200 students have graduated since 2005, and students are applying at record pace.

“This [success] is, in large part, ‘right place, right time,’” said Director of the CLMS program and Professor of linguistics, Emily Bender. “And then also having done some things right over the years to be able to take advantage of it.”

Options That Fit Student Needs

When the CLMS program launched in 2005, it was designed as a one-year program for students already trained in computer science. The program was quickly expanded to also serve students with a background in linguistics. In 2007, students from both backgrounds gained flexible learning options when online components were first added to the curriculum. Now, as Bender explained, fully online learners make up about one third of a typical cohort.

Students with computer science experience can complete the nine courses in this program in one year, including a capstone project or internship; a thesis option typically takes 18 months. For students who work full time or need additional classes in math or computer science, there’s the newer part-time option, which can be done in two to three years.

For those who aren’t able or ready to take the degree program, the CLMS program also includes an embedded Certificate in Natural Language Technology. This certificate begins with an overview of the interdisciplinary fields that form the foundation of computational linguistics. Credits from two of the certificate’s three courses can be applied toward earning the CLMS degree.

As specific technologies will always change, the degree is designed to give students foundational skills for the long term: “It would be hopeless to try to keep up with whatever the hottest thing is each year,” Bender said.

Applications to the CLMS program have risen steadily since 2013, and the next cohort of 45 students is expected to be a high point. According to Bender, nearly 275 applications are already complete or in progress for the coming academic year.

Efficiencies That Foster Success

Over the years, the CLMS program has discovered several efficiencies that reduce overhead and improve student services:

  • The program’s website includes a checklist of ways prospective students can start to prepare for the program, even as much as two years before they might enroll. “You don't need a full computer science degree, but here's what you need,” Bender described. “We started seeing people tick these boxes. This has been a huge benefit.”

  • Staff maximize time during a two-day orientation at the start of each session, which students can attend in person. The orientation is also broadcast online for distance learners, so staff are able to reduce advising costs by answering questions all at once.

  • The program asks students to upload real-time information about their academic progress to an internal database, which helps administrators plan for enrollments in core courses.

  • By offering the option to learn and study online or in person (or a combination of both), the program gives students flexibility in where and when they learn. “They can go back and forth between in person and online,” Bender said. “In Seattle or not in Seattle … they don't have to decide ahead of time.”

Benefits of Networking

The program measures success, in part, by tracking job placements — 187 to date — using information provided by alumni along with LinkedIn data.

“We put a big emphasis on networks that are useful for the students,” Bender said.

Bender also asks alumni about the salaries they earn after graduation. The program uses the salary information to recruit students, build alumni networks and give fellow graduates additional negotiating power.

Roles and Responsibilities

Three full-time faculty develop the CLMS curriculum and teach courses, while also fulfilling additional duties at the University. Working with a program coordinator and assistant administrator, they also maintain data servers, advise students and oversee admissions.

We didn’t have to prove ourselves with existing resources that we could get enough students so that we could then hire new faculty. That’s been a huge part of our success.

Emily Bender
But for so much of what makes the program possible — budgets, direct marketing, enrollment services, web pages and more — Bender noted that they rely on the experts at UW Continuum College.

Other universities have created similar programs by piecing together existing courses in computer science and linguistics. But at the UW, as Bender explained, five of the six core courses — and all of the electives — were designed specifically for this master’s program. With start-up support from UW Continuum College, the CLMS program was able to develop thoughtfully.

“We have something that’s purpose built,” Bender said. “We didn’t have to prove ourselves with existing resources that we could get enough students so that we could then hire new faculty. That’s been a huge part of our success, and so, thank you to UW Continuum College.”


Since 1912, University of Washington Continuum College has provided innovative learning paths that boost career success and inspire more meaningful lives. With a flexible approach to delivering the right programs for the right people at the right time, Continuum College provides over 50,000 students each year with a high-quality University of Washington education that’s relevant for today’s world and accessible to learners in Seattle and around the globe.