Have you ever wondered about how to use linguistic skills and concepts to make a difference in the world? Have you ever thought about what might come next after getting your degree? Three GU Linguists, Cally Alessi, Anne Butler, and Stacy Petersen sit down and tell us about how they exchanged books for briefcases and took linguistics to work this summer (and are still working!).
Cally Alessi, Nielsen Company
I’m a second year MLC student interested in identity, intertextuality, discourse analysis, gender, and digital media. I describe myself as the embodiment of all things nerdy, spending my time outside of linguistics reading comic books, playing video games, and hanging out with Lillian, the cat (who is also my daughter).
After networking with fellow MLC alum, Casey Tesfaye, at an MLC speaker series, I saw Nielsen as a place where I could contribute my skills as a linguist. Shortly after, I found myself with an interview. To land the job, I introduced myself professionally as a qualitative researcher, and offered concrete examples about things like audience design and explaining it in palatable terms. It just so happened that audience design aligned with Nielson’s broader initiative: achieving a friendly, non-corporate voice! At the end of summer, I was invited to stay at Nielsen, but this time as an analyst, rather than an intern!
My typical day is spent attending meetings, working with data in Excel, and analyzing qualitative data from telephone, online, and Google consumer surveys. After coding the data, I identify insights and problems in order to help Nielsen streamline and address them for the big goal: combining two participant recruitment websites into one. This is where audience design comes in! I use this linguistic theory to help Nielsen to talk to two different audiences at the same time, but with one unified voice. The job has also taken me to New York City to help conduct usability testing in a lab, but my favorite project so far was participating in a branding study that surprisingly allowed me to use one of my favorite linguistic concepts: positioning!
Reflecting back on my time at Nielsen so far, my advice for any linguist hoping to make linguistics ‘work’ outside academia is to convince yourself that you are an asset first and carve out your own space. Do some projects that are less thrilling to put yourself in positions to participate in the awesome ones, and don’t be afraid to say, “I can do that,” even if you’re an intern. Finally, for anyone who might be nervous about the potential closed-mindedness of corporate America, don’t count it out. I’m continually pleasantly surprised and heartened by Nielsen’s openness to localization, representation, and inter-discipline approaches to best serve their diverse customer base.
Anne Butler, Ascension
As a second year MLC student, my research interests center around institutional discourse and cross-cultural communication. My goal is to find really practical ways of putting linguistics to work in large organizations, especially those that have stakeholders with diverse needs.
Starting last semester and continuing over the summer and into this semester, I began interning at Ascension, the country’s largest nonprofit healthcare organization. As a member of Ascension’s communications and marketing research team, I help design and conduct qualitative research projects. My research team’s primary responsibility is to figure out how Ascension, as a large national organization with hundreds of local subsidiaries, can best communicate with its internal (doctor/nurse) and external (patient) audiences. Most of our research happens through focus groups and one-on-one interviews, though we also do some survey work. Since my team’s goal is always to discover the best way to talk about X (whether X is how to meet patient expectations, or roll out a rebranding plan), linguistics is immensely useful. Within a single day, I might find myself analyzing a focus group conversation, writing survey questions for an internal poll, and interviewing a nurse in Oklahoma about the communicative strategies she uses when giving discharge instructions to her patients. The underlying purpose of all this research is to help Ascension, which is a relatively new organization, build a nationally recognizable brand.
We all know lots of interesting things as Georgetown linguists: that language is never a neutral conduit of information; that how you say what you say matters; that conversational style influences the ways people interact, just as cultural expectations shape the way conversations unfold and meaning is made. It’s all so real, and I’m finding that an understanding of how these things work on an analytical level is very useful in the market research world.
Before moving to D.C. last year, I lived in Buffalo, NY, where I spent three years managing an English teaching program for a multinational nonprofit, working with non-native English speakers in several South Asian and South American countries. Most of the people I worked with at this nonprofit were linguists—it was here, actually, that I started thinking about doing a master’s in linguistics. Before that job, I got my bachelor’s from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA, where I majored in English and violin performance. Outside of school and work, I like to spend my time exploring D.C.’s fantastic restaurant scene with my husband, Brad, traveling, and playing my violin.
Stacy Petersen, Mitre Corporation
I’m a sixth year Ph.D. student in the Theoretical Linguistics department. I’m here from my home state of California, where I studied French and Linguistics as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. The vigorous linguistics program at Cal is what led me to pursue a linguistics graduate degree, as it married my love of all languages and science/technology! Within theoretical linguistics, I’m most interested in phonetics, phonology, and phonological acquisition (L1). Outside the classroom, I am (along with some other linguists here) an avid crafter/quilter/painter, and also enjoy cooking and baking. Other free time is devoted to my awesome cat, Watson. On a completely unrelated note, I just got back from my dissertation field work trip where I spent two weeks in the Faroe Islands and it was so amazing! I recommend travelling/fieldwork to everyone, it’s totally worth the work and effort and money.
I’ve been working at the Mitre Corporation since the beginning of last summer (May 2015). I began as an intern for the summer, contributing to a natural language processing project. When the summer was over, I stayed on in the department as a part-time contractor. A few weeks ago, I was offered a full position in the natural language processing/human language technologies department. At Mitre, there is a lot of freedom for me to explore my interests in linguistics and programming. I spent the first few weeks teaching myself Java in order to contribute to the project. Now, I work with a team of people who make technology solutions for the federal judiciary centers (courts, probation services, etc.). A typical day will involve coordination with team members, code writing, data analysis, document annotation, and many other things. There are many linguists at Mitre, so it’s nice to know that people know what linguists do and we get the recognition we deserve.
The initial internship job opening was circulated on the gu-linguist email list, and fortunately I have a friend at Mitre (another GU linguistics alum!) who helped me get the job by circulating my resume. I was attracted to the job because of how technical it was and how great of a company I know Mitre is. To get the job, I talked a lot about my theoretical background knowledge of the NLP algorithms that were being put to use in the project and expressed my desire to know how they work in an actual project. When getting the job, they’re always especially interested in things you have built yourself or projects that you have done (which could be for classes), which shows your ability to get work done and your interest in the field.
At GU we’ve had a lot of training in all areas of linguistics, and I’ve found that I’ve made use of my knowledge in almost every area! For instance, I used syntax to write code that found objects in Spec IP position. I use phonetics in a speech recognition project. I use NLP for most of my code writing/data extraction work. I find that the more breadth the better, because then you can contribute to more parts of a project. Linguists think both in terms of the minute and the big picture, which is very helpful. Other things that make linguists good workers: we’re scientists, so we go about things in a certain way; we’re good communicators; we’re amazing writers.
Most of my coworkers are familiar with linguistics! If not, you can generally say, “I work in language AI (artificial intelligence),” and they’re very impressed! Most people are generally interested in what a linguist does, even if they don’t know. In these cases, I might say something like, “we help computers understand and use human language, and to do it efficiently.”
Being a working linguist, I’ve learned that balancing working life and academic life can be really hard. There will be times when you get NO academic work done, or vice-versa, and you just have to make it work; people are generally very understanding. It’s also really satisfying to be able to apply your skills to a project and have it work!
To those who are thinking of pursuing career options outside of academia: have confidence in your experience at GU and feel proud of the hard work you’ve put in over all these years, it definitely counts out there in the non-academic world. Basically don’t sell yourself short. Also, it helps to have something you’ve done/written/made that you can show to potential employers so they can see your level of work. Also, if you’re interested in getting an NLP job but have no experience or can’t program, etc., start building your skill set now! Begin to apply it to your final research projects…having a goal to work toward is so much more motivating to learn it. There are a bunch of resources at GU and outside GU to help you with these skills. My favorites were the GU women who code group, Codecademy, and Lynda courses (free for GU students! seriously, check this out!).
When looking for jobs, don’t feel like you have to turn your back completely on academia. A lot of jobs still will allow you do to academic-type research and to publish, too!. Mitre offers perks ($$$) for every paper that you publish, so there’s often even more incentive other than the fun of it. You can also try to find some part-time teaching gigs at universities if you miss that. Don’t be afraid to ask future employers about these types of opportunities.
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