My new answer to “what can you do with a degree in linguistics?” is BRIGHTEN! This works both as a command to gloomy would-be nay sayers, but it is also the “world of work” acronym that I am trotting out these days. BRIGHTEN stands for: Business, Research, Innovation, Government, Healthcare, Technology, Education, and Non-Profits. These are the fields in which people in my network with skills and training in linguistics have found professional expression of their love of language and culture.
In other words: it’s where the (soico)linguists are working! 🙂
And these buckets are loose descriptors at best. As coding categories, these would not pass muster because they are not mutually exclusive, nor do they capture comparable in terms of level or scope, but they do further my goals here: those of inviting curiosity and starting a conversation around the world of work.
So, beginning with Business. This category is probably the least descriptive, and at the same time, the most in need of elucidation. In my experience, most people who have not worked in “business” have only the fuzziest of ideas of what the word itself entails, when the truth is really that all of us who work conduct business of one sort or another. Business can involve hiring, firing, managing and training people, paying attention to workflows and dissemination of resources, or keeping track of finances and accounting, but for our purposes here, I will call attention to work in business that attends primarily to work systems and flows. So this would include Management Consulting firms like Booz Allen Hamilton (as of right now the #1 employer of alum of the MLC), Gap International (founded by a linguist) or Corporate Executive Board. Business also includes the worlds of PR, Marketing, Branding and Naming, the latter being a type of agency who are very aware of linguists, and who almost always have at least one on their payroll. Catchword, for example, was founded by two linguists! And don’t forget Entrpreneurship, inspiring linguists who have set up their own shops and work as consultants (for just one example, take a peek at Barbara Clark’s You Say Tomato).
Research and Innovation can be treated together for now because the all the linguists in my network who are doing research are innovative, and innovation does not happen without research. When I think about this exciting world of work, I think about firms like IDEO, Sapient Nitro, or Practica Group and linguists who do work in Usability Research like Nancy Frishburg, who blogs at Fish Bird. Also tremendously inspiring is the work done by research organizations like The FrameWorks Institute, Cultural Logic LLC, Nielson and Pew Research. Many of the folks who I know employed as researchers work for government (as I will profile in the next section), and there are also research firms which could be classified as “business” for example Fors Marsh Group.
Government The Census Bureau always has a number of linguists working as researchers in the Statistical Research Division, but government also encomapsses military organizations like the Army Research Institute, DARPA and the Naval Research Labaratory. There are also firms that work primarily with government contracts like the Center for the Advanced Study of Language (CASL), The Department of Veterans Affairs, Veteran’s Health Administration has a division of Research and Development that does important research into issues facing today’s veterans. Also, the FBI employs many linguists in varied capacities from language assessment to threat assessment and field agent trainers. Linguists are also happily employed at NSF, the Smithsonian, even NASA.
Healthcare The primary sector employing (socio)linguistics in my network is healthcare communication, and this includes research firms like Verilogue and Ogilvy Common Health, or social media research firms for healthcare clients, firms like Marketeching, or Kaiser Permanente’s forward-thinking Garfield Innovation center, changing the way that medicine is practiced. Also, firms specializing in healthcare software like ElationEMR hire lateral thinkers.
Technology Google is probably the most famous creation of linguists, but organizations like Microsoft, Nuance Communications, and Mindsnacks also hire linguists. I have been heartened lately by the hiring done by Social Media platforms like Twitter’s recent posting for a Market Researcher: “You are a master storyteller and believe data is more inspiring when it connects back to the lives of real people. You have a strong, working understanding of a wide range of qualitative and quantitative research methodologies. You know exactly when to engage with teams across Design, Product, Engineering, and Marketing, what questions to ask, where to probe, and how to implement the most effective research strategies.”
Also just about every business nowadays hires social media strategists, to which linguists bring a new perspective, as just one example Rosetta Stone.
Education many of the organizations that I would wish to profile in this section could also be described as research firms or non-profits, the best known of these organizations being CAL (the Center for Applied Linguistics), but also organizations like the Center for Inspired Teaching, or Reading Partners also employe linguists. Also, lest we overlook something that is hiding in plain sight, let’s begin by thinking about some of the perhaps lesser-known work that is done in educational contexts. My job for example, that of program director of the MLC. Such positions exist in academic departments, but also as directors of research institutes that exist on campus (for example Institute for the Study of International Migration), or centers for teaching and research application like the Center for Social Justice, student services like UNH’s Center for Academic Resources or faculty support like CNDLS on Georgetown’s campus. Also, many of the initiatives at an organization like the World Bank are education focused, which might involve education at two levels: first, designing and implementing training and facilitation modules, but second these modules are focused on education reform in developing countries.
Nonprofits merit their own category not because the tasks performed by individuals in this sector are qualitatively different from those done by employees in other sectors (or even in business), and indeed, many of the nonprofts have already been profiled in other sections of this discussion, but because there are great career resources like Idealist.org for people who are drawn to mission and values-driven non-profit organizations. That being said, I would also encourage people who are driven by social justice to consider that there are ways to find such work in other sectors, even in business. Just about every company now has an initiative called Corporate Social Responsibility, and this could involve anything from grants to development outreach, cultivating entrepreneurship in developing countries or just figuring out how to be better employers to your employees and better citizens on the planet. Many non-profits are funded by government grants or business initiatives, so one way to be the change that you wish to see in the world might be to be on the side of the table of the folks looking for funding opportunities.
You will notice that some major sectors are entirely missing here like Language and Law, Translation/Interpretation, Language Teaching and last but certainly not least: academia. I do not focus on those here only because they are well treated elsewhere, not because they are not doing interesting and important work.
Have a work story to share? Join the conversation! Are you a linguist doing interesting work utilizing your linguistic skills and training? I would love to hear about it!