Career Profile: Cara Shousterman – Part III
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Cara is the Partnerships and Engagement Manager at Harmony Institute. She earned her PhD in Linguistics from New York University.
Recently, we posted Parts I and II of our conversation with Cara, where she spoke to her work in media impact, and provided a useful tool for the job search process. Here, Cara sheds light on the transition from her PhD research to the non-academic workplace, and which skills from linguistics have been the most transferable.
Below is Part III of the interview with Cara Shousterman.
Anna: In your dissertation abstract you offered “new perspectives on negotiating sensitive community spaces in which the fieldworker is not a member.” How have these skills translated into your current work at Harmony Institute?
Cara: I did my research in a Puerto Rican community in East Harlem in New York. I’m not Puerto Rican; I’m white Jewish Canadian. So I was entering into that community as a total outsider at the beginning. Also, things become more complicated when you’re entering into a neighborhood that’s gentrifying and you basically look like a gentrifier. But I had a great advisor, and her advice was: take your time. Spend time in the community before you start trying to record people.
So I spent about a year in the community just volunteering, getting to know people, making friends. I was earning people’s trust, and they were earning mine. Over the next year, I did recorded sociolinguistics interviews, and a year after that I conducted follow-up surveys.. I wanted to be really thoughtful when writing my dissertation about what it meant to be a white woman working in a community of color, and I dedicated a portion of my dissertation to figuring out the implications of that.
How does that apply to my job now? Coming into this office culture was really, really different for me. I spent the first couple of months basically just doing ethnography and figuring out, “What are the appropriate behaviors in office culture? What are people doing? Are they on Facebook during the workday, or not?” I currently keep a list of common phrases in the business world – just things I’d never heard of in academia. (For example, one of them is “If we’re going to get granular…” and it took me a while to figure out that this meant ‘very specific.’)
In this new environment, it’s like learning a new language and a new set of behavior, and I don’t want to make cultural mistakes. A lot of the skills I was using in ethnographic field work I’m also using in the office to be well-received in what I do.
Anna: What advice do you have for other linguists transitioning out of academia but wanting to apply their background in linguistics?
Cara: The search for a job is the most challenging part. Truthfully, the skills you have as a linguist are still very applicable. But right now, there aren’t the resources out there to help linguists find work outside of academia. A lot of professors want the best for their students and just aren’t necessarily trained to help with every aspect of the non-academic job search. Even in university ‘career centers,’ all the advice is for students in undergrad, and ours is a specialized need. Add onto that – most companies don’t know what to do with someone who has a PhD.
The point being – we need these kinds of special interest groups, we need community, and we need linguistics networks. Linguists are making some of this up as we go along, but we’re getting better! At the last LSA (Linguistic Society of America) annual meeting they had a mixer, and all of the linguists working outside of academia had buttons that said, “I’m a Career Linguist!” This mixer was organized by the LSA special interest group Linguists Beyond Academia. It provided this amazing space for people to ask questions, and it affirmed that the possibilities to apply linguistics outside of academia are so huge. There are people who are doing it! Creating that kind of visibility (like Career Linguist and Linguists Beyond Academia does) is a huge contribution.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Anna Dausman is a linguist and storyteller based in Washington, DC., with a background in training and curriculum development for service learning programs. She loves the W&OD trail, and the National Parks. You can reach Anna at email@example.com.
Sectors profiled in the “Profiles in Linguistics” series: Corporate Social Responsibility, Healthcare Communications, Library Science, Knowledge Management, Naming, Program Evaluation, Publishing, Social Media Marketing,Tech, User Experience Research, Training and Facilitation and many more!