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Emily Pace is the Principal Linguist at Expert System USA. She earned her MS in Theoretical Linguistics from Georgetown University, where she also studied French and Arabic as an undergraduate. Guest blogger Anna Dausman had the pleasure of speaking with Emily, and their conversation covered a range of topics, from Emily’s path in linguistics, to her current work in the field of text analysis. Her story is a testament to the placement of a linguist with both soft skills and computational expertise.
What follows is Part II of the interview with Emily Pace – Click here for Part I of the interview.
- Part I takes us into Emily’s work in text analysis and knowledge engineering.
- Part II follows Emily’s path in linguistics, her experience in graduate school, and why she advocates taking a break before returning to advanced graduate studies.
Anna: What was your path into linguistics, and ultimately – graduate school?
Emily: I’ve always been a lover of foreign languages, from the time I started studying French in middle school. In particular, I always liked grammar – not from a prescriptivist standpoint, but as a really neat way to organize language, how it’s a system. At the start, when I was an undergrad and taking linguistics, I was much more geared toward applying my French major. I thought “Well, if I can’t figure anything else out, maybe I’ll teach French in the US or move to France and teach English.” But, ultimately I decided not to follow that trajectory.
I graduated from college knowing that I wanted to go back and do more with linguistics. But I also wasn’t ready to make the entry into graduate school; I thought it was important to get a little bit of experience in the world, and I wanted to make sure that what I thought I wanted to do was actually what I wanted to do.
In the gap between undergraduate and graduate school, I worked with two different organizations that had nothing to do with linguistics. Basically, I helped plan meetings. It was a lot of heavy administrative work: sending out materials, getting flights booked, purchasing hotel blocks, ordering food, and making sure that everything ran smoothly. This job had nothing to do with anything I had studied. But it was a good experience, and I loved the people I worked with. It also gave me time to decompress from undergrad so that I was really ready to take on the challenge of graduate school.
Ultimately, I really appreciate that I took time off between academic programs. I could get to the office at 9 or 10am and I’d work for 8 hours and go home. No one would call me after hours, and if I didn’t do something, it was OK. When I was coming out of grad school, I wanted more responsibility. I have that now. It’s very rewarding, but it can also be stressful. It was nice to have a couple of years that weren’t demanding in that way.
It also turned out to be important because my work environment during those three years was really, really good. It set a positive example for management of both junior and senior employees. And as I’ve taken on management duties, I’m really happy that I had this experience.
Anna: What’s the connection between your degree in Theoretical Linguistics and the applied work you do in the field of ‘knowledge management?’
Emily: I definitely wanted a degree and coursework that was technical and scientifically focused; it was something I could take out into the world and say, “I’m a linguist and academically trained, and I have these skills that I can apply elsewhere.” In fact, the connection between my degree in theoretical linguistics and the work I do now was always there – but that’s because I went into grad school knowing that I specifically wanted to get a job working in industry. Every time I’d be in a heavy theoretical setting in school, I’d be thinking of possible ways it could apply outside the class. If I was in a seminar on syntax and found a cool piece of information that illustrates something about language, I’d ‘put it in my back pocket,’ so to speak.
The piece that’s been the most readily carried over from graduate school to now is actually finding or integrating my own data – which is something I did a lot in graduate school. You may be reading someone else’s work, and you have to be able to say, “Here’s a counter-example,” or come up with examples to extend their proposals. Coming up with my own test data is something I did a lot in my own project development, and it’s something I help the knowledge engineers with now. When we’re customizing a project for a client, we think about examples that might be problematic and we test those.
Anna: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Emily: It’s important to lay out an alternative path for students. When I was going for my master’s degree, I felt sometimes like there wasn’t a lot of support in the department for people like me, who wanted to get out of school as fast as possible and work in industry. Now that I’ve been out for a while, and have talked to other students, I realize how lucky I was in many ways. I had access to a lot of the programming from the Masters in Language & Communication, which is a professionally-oriented program within the linguistics department at Georgetown University. I was also lucky to not have advisors who assumed that the only path forward for a linguist was to keep going with school and then try to find a job in academia. I told one of my computational linguistics professors, “I want my master’s research paper to be somewhat applicable to the outside world, and be something that non-linguists can understand.” That was not remotely a problem for him. He helped me to find a great topic, and never had anything but encouragement for what I wanted to do next.
If you don’t get support from your department, try to find it somewhere else, whether that be in another department, by making professional contacts outside of school, or just by starting a peer group to support each other as you venture outside of academia!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Guest Blogger Anna Dausman is a linguist and storyteller based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Anna earned her BA in English and Linguistics from the College of William & Mary, and is pursuing an MS in Public Administration from Fels Institute of Government. You can reach Anna at firstname.lastname@example.org.