Barbara Clark (2/2)

Career Profiles: Consulting (Part Two)

The Career Profiles in Linguistics section regularly highlights career paths taken by linguists. If you would like to recommend someone (including yourself) for a future profile, please contact Career Linguist.

Barb Clark PicDr. Barbara Clark is a UK-based linguistic consultant with over 10 years of experience in civil aviation.

On Wednesday, we shared Part One of the interview with Dr. Clark, where she discussed her work and experiences building her consulting firm, You Say Tomato. Today we bring you Part Two, which covers Dr. Clark’s background and path from anthropology major to flight attendant to PhD in linguistics:

Here is Part Two of the interview with Dr. Barbara Clark:


“I think my life history is a bit ‘rambly.’ Nothing was very straight. Straight for me would not be as interesting. But if I look at my life and my career as continual participant observation, I guess it kind of makes sense.”


Lauren: Can you talk about your history, as far as your background in Anthropology, how you got into Linguistics, and how you got to where you are today?

Dr. Clark: I was always interested in language. I took German in high school and studied abroad in Germany for a year when I was sixteen. After high school I didn’t want to go straight to college. I moved around a bit, from Salt Lake City to Reno, Nevada before deciding to get my bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from Wayne State University. I chose Anthropology because I was under the fallacy that qualitative social sciences that seemed a bit squishy and fuzzy, and were easy. Ultimately I planned on going to law school and opening a practice with a friend.

I took some time off after undergrad—what started off being a bit of a break turned into several years. After working at Kohl’s while in school, I switched gears and thought, “I have an Anthropology degree, maybe I’ll work in a Greek Orthodox Church. That’s culture, right?” So I managed their office, learning about Greek American culture and the Greek Alphabet, typing up Greek sermons. The whole time, there’s this underlying theme of language.

After I left my job at the church, I started working in a coffee house in metro Detroit, where flight attendants would come in and talk about their trips. Their lives seemed so glamorous to me, as an outsider. Plus, at the time I was writing a fanzine for a band, racking up a lot of debt traveling to different shows, and I thought traveling for free would be cool. Northwest Airlines was hiring at the time, and a friend convinced me to apply. They hired me, and I was very happy doing that job.

The whole time I was flying I would try to guess where people were from based on their accents and I observed different groups talking to each other: pilots with pilots, cabin crew with cabin crew, and pilots and cabin crew with each other. But after doing the job for nearly 10 years, it became increasingly clear to me that I was not seen as an individual, which makes sense because as cabin crew you’re part of a larger occupational community, you’re a team on the aircraft.

Then a lot of things happened at once: I went through a divorce, decided to move to the UK, met and fell in love with my other half, plus at work there were increasing problems with labor management relations and outsourcing. I thought again about my original plans to go into law, but since I didn’t want the last ten years of my life going to waste I decided to do a PhD, but I knew I didn’t want to go into academia. I took a leave of absence from my job and started to look for existing research on cabin crew discourse. There was a lot less research on cabin crew communication compared to pilot communication, and nothing really on cabin crew language, discourse, and identity and occupational community construction.

After looking into schools in the UK, and who would be good to work with, I decided to go to Queen Mary. I had originally hoped to keep flying while working on my Master’s but it wouldn’t have been feasible. What I didn’t realize is that once I left that closed community [of cabin crew], it was almost impossible to have access to the speech event I wanted to study: the preflight safety briefing between pilots and flight attendants.

Dr. Clark ultimately wrote her dissertation using publically available textual data in the form of safety reports submitted voluntarily by flight attendants to the Aviation Safety Reporting System  and discussion threads from an openly available forum comprised mostly of working flight attendants. You can read her dissertation here.


All next week we’ll be presenting Part Three of our interview with Dr. Clark, where she shares her thoughts and suggestions on entrepreneurship: choosing to pursue a PhD, being a consultant, how to be memorable, finding clients, and what failure can teach you.

  • Find out more about Dr. Clark’s consulting firm, You Say Tomato on her website.
  • Follow her on Twitter:
    • @infoYST (more aviation oriented)
    • @drjavafox (more linguistic, anthropological, and informal tweeting)
  • If you’re a professional looking for help with making your Twitter presence more effective, check out her course: Twitter for Professionals
  • If you’re a current, potential, or future PhD student looking for advice, Dr. Clark welcomes you to contact her at!

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Lauren Johnson is a linguist and theater artist, based in upstate NY. She currently works as a consulting researcher examining humanitarian intervention and violence against women in Darfur, Sudan. A highly accomplished binge reader and trivia buff, she is always accepting recommendations for what to read next.

You can read more about her here:

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