linguistics, animals, and writing – Linda Lombardi

“Linguistics + zoo”
During career education workshops that I give as Career Linguist, I often ask the assembled group of students to think widely when considering what field they might might bring linguistics to professionally. We then open up LinkedIn and plug the two terms: linguistics + X into the search bar (read below for more about Gretchen McCulloch’s excellent post Linguistics + X for more on this theme).  Invariably, the search returns a list of people who have found really interesting ways to combine these two things professionally, and after seeing her name return in the “linguistics + zoo” search a number of times, I recently decided to reach out to Linda Lombardi to learn how she went from being a professor of Phonology to being a Zookeeper and eventually an author.  As it turns out, we have a friend in common, so I was able to use the “get introduced” function on LinkedIn to reach out and we had a great chat!!

Linda Lombardi
Linda Lombardi
Linda was first introduced to linguistics though a series of lectures that Leonard Bernstein did about music and linguistics.  As a kid growing up in NYC, when she discovered William Labov’s work, she was very inspired by the idea of doing science on something that surrounded her in daily life.  She did her dissertation work at UMass Amherst, followed by a one-year temp faculty position in Toronto, culminating in a tenured position in Phonology at University of Maryland.

Over her career, she had done work in phonology, syntax, and psycholinguistics.  After about a decade in academia, she quit her tenured job to become an animal keeper at the National Zoo.

Making the leap
Linda had been volunteering at the zoo for many years. Because of the flexibility that being an academic afforded (and the knowledge that she would be working though the weekend every weekend anyways), she was able to commit to a regular schedule and had been giving the zoo one day a week for many years at that point.  Turned out that this time commitment was essential not only for building trust and credibility with her colleagues at the zoo, it was also critical for being in the right place at the right time to recognize an opportunity.

When a temp job in the small mammal house opened up, she realized that she had found herself thinking recently “wow, this work is really interesting, maybe I ought to do this for a living” and so, she took an unpaid leave from MD for a semester. This three-month job eventually got extended, but the job was still temporary.  She knew that she wanted a permanent job, and her experience with this work environment was teaching her that temporary positions were very common in the zoo world, and that it would be extremely challenging to get a permanent job.

Thinking creatively
At the time, Linda’s friend was working as an editor at the Associated Press, and they were looking for someone to do a pets column.  Her friend reached out to Linda because she would be able to write about more than the usual cats and dogs because of what she’d learned at the zoo. She found that she was also able to draw on her academic background as a researcher and writer.  As she shared with me, there are ways that this training might make her err on the side of digging too deeply as a researcher in this new endeavor, at this same time, this is something that makes her style unique.

After establishing this beat, Linda branched out a bit with her writing, doing features like personal profiles and articles for the Northwest current (a local DC paper), and she also started writing a book, based on an idea that came about as part of a conversation with a friend who said “you really should write a mystery set at the zoo!” realizing that Linda had access to details because of her job at the zoo that just about no one else would!

Pursuing uncertainty
While certainly much less structured than the career path she had been on as a tenured academic, she started to see a way forward for herself with these writing projects and Linda took the leap!  She quit her academic job and has been writing about animals ever since. Even now, many years later and with three books under her belt, she acknowledges that she still sits with the realities of uncertainty which accompany this path. As she shared: “when you’re in a creative field it always a hustle and you’re only as good as your next project.”  But while what she is going to be working on tomorrow is much less knowable, she continues to see the possible routes as much more varied than you might think.    For example: based on the hands-on experience she has acquired working with animals for many years – she is now teaching dog training classes in addition to her various freelance writing projects for the web and print.

Her advice for would-be (journalistic) writers: “find your beat” your area of specialty. Once you have a beat you know stuff, including what questions to ask, what issues you need to be addressing, and who you need to be talking to.  Then, once you have established your beat, branch out!!

I asked her about additional training to do this kind of writing
Linda’s training was as a linguist and not as a journalist.  And while she acknowledges that training as a journalist would have been faster – after all, it is more efficient to go to school and have someone point things out to you – in her case, being a writer was something that she didn’t need to go back to school for after having been an academic.   As she put it “our academic training teaches us to do research.” And what she was able to do was research about research.  Her awareness of the structures of language enabled her to quickly identify the differences in stylistic expectations – which helped her not only with how to do a journalistic interview, how to incorporate quotes in writing – but how to recognize her own voice.  When people tell her “You’re a natural academic” she understands that as something that gets expressed in the amount of research she does for her writing.

To learn more about Linda
read about her work in linguistics at her old website
about her books and more recent work at her new website
listen to this interview she did for WAMU’s The Animal House
follow her on Twitter: @wombatarama

Linguistics + X
Linguist Gretchen McCulloch (also a professional writer), uses Linguistics + X  as a formula to talk about pursuing career ideas.  Thank you for this wonderful idea Gretchen and thank you for everything that you do to inspire students to think broadly and creatively about careers!!!


What are some of your varied interests?  Can you think about creative ways that they might be combined?  Open up the search bar in LinkedIn, plug in “linguistics” and some keywords of choice to begin exploring how others may have found ways to combine them.   Your career exploration need not be linear, because people’s professional paths are seldom linear.  Think creatively!  Explore widely!  And then reach out!

Sectors profiled in the “Profiles in Linguistics” series: Corporate Social Responsibility, Healthcare Communications, Library Science, Knowledge ManagementNaming, Program Evaluation, Publishing, Social Media Marketing,Tech, User Experience Research, Training and Facilitation and many more!

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