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.
Kathryn Ticknor is an interactive sociolinguist and human centered design specialist. As she shares in this interview, her work entails drawing from her background in communication, ethnography and social network analysis to develop key insights and actionable recommendations for a variety of clients in the medical marketing sector.
Part I of the interview with Kathryn (below) features details about Kathryn’s work in pharmaceutical/medical market research and Part II: Kathryn’s background and advice for the next generation of linguists.
Current Role: Senior Research Manager, Inspire
How do you understand your background in linguistics as shaping what you do / how you do what you do?
First, I draw a distinction between my job title and my professional identity. I am a linguist through and through, regardless of where I may work. This sense of identity helps guide my career choices, but it remains constant even if I have chosen to take a position that doesn’t appear as closely related to linguistics in terms of my day to day life. That said, I am very happy to work in a field where I can directly leverage much of my linguistic background: the field of medical market research. I am currently a Senior Research Manager at Inspire, which is a social network of online health and wellness support communities. In this role, I am responsible for designing and executing qualitative research projects for a variety of clients across the healthcare space. Our clients are usually most interested in more deeply understanding the experiences of those living with chronic health conditions, and identifying ways to address their unmet needs. Whether via interviewing, content analysis, or ethnography, I rely heavily on my background in linguistic field methods, conversation analysis, and digital ethnography to analyze how patients think about, talk about, and live with a given condition, symptom, or treatment. Importantly, I am also responsible for translating those findings into recommendations (the “so whats?”) for how our clients develop their products, clinical trials, and patient-facing communications.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
The best part of my job is that I can DO LINGUISTICS on a daily basis. I’ve also loved developing a sub-specialty within the world of pharmaceutical/medical market research over time, learning the nuances of patient-provider and patient-patient interaction. The hardest aspect of my job has been learning to know when I am ‘butterfly collecting.’ ‘Butterfly collecting’ refers to insights that are fascinating to us as linguists, but are unlikely to be actionable to a client. Yes, I get a little excited when a participant in my research study employs creaky voice at regular intervals, but unless I can explain to a client what the implications of vocal fry are for their business objectives, it’s likely to distract from my report. In academia, we might spend a semester analyzing 20 turns of speech. In medical market research, I might analyze 20 transcripts in a fraction of that time. Learning how to quickly surface communication patterns that are meaningful to various audiences is a challenge – but an incredibly valuable skill.
Can you give an example of a recent project?
I just wrapped up a project to concept test educational materials for a very rare disease. Our goal was to assess how well the language in the brochure resonated with the way patients naturally describe their condition. For example, we discovered that respondents identified a phrase in the brochure as potentially face-threatening, because it implied that their disease had left them socially isolated. Together, we reframed this passage to avoid such an implication.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to create opportunities for themselves in your sector?
1. Have confidence in your expertise. Having heard the question, “What are you going to do with that?” enough times throughout school, we don’t always flaunt our credentials when we leave academia. But linguistics is a unique and valuable skillset – and we should sell it as one. 2. Different organizations use different language to describe what we do. It can take time to recognize when a job description is talking about skills you actually have. Examples from my time in consulting include “analyzing unstructured data”, “human-centered design”, “analytics”, and to a lesser degree “gathering user requirements.” Although the approaches were often similar to ethnographic and qualitative research, the consulting world shied away from social-science-related terminology which they tended to associate with long timelines, big budgets, and “butterfly collecting.”
Read Part II for more about Kathryn’s background and advice for the next generation of linguists. And if you would like to reach out, you can find Kathryn on LinkedIn.
Sectors profiled in the “Profiles in Linguistics” series: Corporate Social Responsibility, Healthcare Communications, Library Science, Knowledge Management, Naming, Non-Profit Communications, Program Evaluation, Publishing, Social Media Marketing, Tech, User Experience Research, Training and Facilitation and many more!
If you would like to recommend someone (including yourself) for a future profile, please contact Career Linguist.