Career Paths for linguists

Margaret “Peggy” Szymanski

Career Profile: Corporate Research at IBM

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.

Image result for peggy szymanskiMargaret “Peggy” Szymanski, is a conversation analyst and ethnographer doing research at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, CA. Before that she spent 16 years at Xerox PARC and her resume is an impressive amalgam of different projects exploring human interaction and technology. This includes work on channel blending (e.g. organizing coherent conversations over different media/channels) and integrating conversation analysis in the iterative design process. Although she sees her journey as 50% good timing, it’s clear she believes that creating the kind of opportunity you want is often a better choice than searching for one to which you can conform.  Her most important piece of advice: “Be what you are. Don’t sell yourself as something else.” Her experiences using conversation analysis in the tech industry and working in cross-disciplinary teams is a testament to this mantra.

Conversation Analysis and design

Just as ethnography and design anthropology has picked up momentum, Peggy has found that there is a growing need for conversation analysis as more technology companies look to developing conversational interfaces (e.g. Siri, Cortana).  Despite the fact that many companies involved in the development of conversational interfaces are looking for speech software engineers and computational linguists, she believes that conversation analytic principles play an important role in how humans interact with machines. In her own work with IBM she uses a natural conversational framework to design agent-based dialog and to create systems to analyze multi-party interaction. As she explains, the way that specific sequences or episodes unfold can be pivotal in understanding which actions are relevant.  This, in turn, informs how developers can make system improvements.

Finding the Right Fit

Finding the right fit to do this sort of work is not always easy. In Peggy’s experience there will be plenty of people who find the method too work intensive, but having a productive cross-disciplinary team requires people who have a broader interest in creating for real people and are open to understanding a conversation analytic perspective. Once you are working with the “right” people, it is your responsibility to be intentional about what pieces of data you share and to create a common focus to provide inspiration for the design process. When Dr. Szymanski works in cross-disciplinary teams she carefully chooses episodes that illustrate how people produce dialogue in specific “scenarios” and closely works with a design team to abstract the conversational mechanisms in those scenarios to make very precise improvements to tech products.

Strategies for Creating Opportunities

Opportunities to be a part of the design process as a conversation analyst are not easy to come by. As mentioned earlier, most companies who have a need for conversation analysts are looking for speech software engineers. As such, Peggy finds that traditional avenues (e.g. finding a job posting and conforming your application materials to the job posting) are oftentimes less fruitful than job search approaches that require a lot of initiative (e.g. applying to positions that don’t exist yet).  She mentions a number of ways to build your network and strengthen your clout as you work toward creating an opportunity to directly apply your linguistic training.

Grow & Strengthen Your Network One of the best ways to find jobs in the hidden job market is to meet (and stay connected to) people making decisions and innovating in the industry you are interested in. Don’t treat your contacts as “one and done.” Rather, nurture those relationships and use them to help you know where there are opportunities to use your skills.
  • Informational Interviews
  • Follow up with contacts
  • “Get to know you” talks (e.g. invited talks)
  • Participation in industry conferences and groups (AnthroDesign, Epic, CHI, IEEE)
Create ways for people to find examples of your interests and work It’s hard to communicate all that you want about your skills and abilities in a single page (e.g. resume, cover letter), but creating a body of work that people can access gives potential employers a deeper way of getting to you and your work.
  • Published work
  • Contributions to blogs
  • Maintaining your own blog
  • LinkedIn Profile


Revising your professional documents These may be the traditional ways of communicating with potential employers, but approaching them differently can go a long way in creating the opportunity you want. Traditionally, job seekers look for key descriptions in job announcements and align their documents with those descriptions. If you don’t match those descriptions, your job is to communicate how the skills you do have (that they did not mention) are better suited to accomplish their institutional objectives.
  • Resume
  • Cover letter
  • Curriculum Vitae
  • Professional Profiles

All of these strategies are emblematic of Peggy’s advice, “Be what you are. Don’t sell yourself as something else.” It may be tempting (and a whole lot easier) to try to conform your skills and abilities to match a potential employer’s exact idea of the perfect candidate, but practicing your discipline and exercising your theoretical perspective requires a more creative approach to your job search and a lot more elbow grease.

More about the guest blogger:

Holly Lopez Long is a sociolinguist and conversation analyst based out of Denver, Colorado. She has a love and interest in the application sociolinguistic principles in the world of technology and new media. Currently, she is working in the field of educational research and helps the Title I department at Jeffco Public Schools to develop programs for at-risk students.

Sectors profiled in the “Profiles in Linguistics” series: Corporate Social Responsibility, Healthcare Communications, Library Science, Knowledge Management, Program Evaluation, Publishing, Social Media Marketing, Naming, Tech, User Experience Research.

Career Paths for linguists, Ethnography

Tamara Hale

Tamara Hale, Lead User Experience Researcher at EffectiveUI, is a laidback, reflective woman who is driven by her convictions about diversity in the tech industry and has approached her own career with an ethnographer’s ethos: Building from the ground up and not the top down. Her professional story is one that shows her not following a clear and well-worn path, but rather is one where she forges her own path and is influenced by immersion in new contexts, belief in the power of empathy, and driven by service.

Immersion in New Contexts

Tamara’s career journey demonstrates how she used her experiences and intuition to guide her career decisions. Although she was originally interested in industrial design, when the opportunity to spend a year on an anthropological project in Peru presented itself she jumped at the chance. This choice shaped her future steps:  changing the focus of her undergraduate studies from industrial design to anthropology. Later when she was faced with another big decision to join a start-up ethnography consulting agency or pursing a doctorate, she trusted her intuition and chose working in a consulting agency (despite others urging her to pursue a doctorate). At this time the use of ethnography in private industry was new, uncharted territory and yet the chance to find out how ethnography could be applied to real world problems was too enticing to pass up. From there she went on to work for 10+ years in the tech industry; working with tech juggernauts like Microsoft and national financial institutions like Wells Fargo. Her work has also taken her all over the world from work in North and South America to Europe. She also finished her Ph.D. along the way. Dr. Hale’s path is demonstrative of her willingness to explore and be immersed in an industry that was not familiar to her. In doing so she has been able to make space for the kind of work she is interested in, rather than trying to fit into a pre-existing mold.


Belief in Empathy

She believes that the biggest edge her training has given her is a deep sense of empathy. Although empathy may be a popular buzzword, it is uncommon for many to have a thorough understanding of how operationalize it in private industry. This is not the case for Tamara. She exercises her empathy on a regular basis as lead user experience researcher by taking individual stories and “expos[ing] the [underlying] assumptions” and translating individual stories “through multiple perspectives.” Her empathic nature gives her a knack for finding small insights that have a big impact (like changing referring terms from “customer” to “member”). Moreover, her experience in narrative writing (no doubt honed through writing extensive field notes) gives her tools to communicate insights from individual stories to larger audiences with diverse backgrounds in the tech industry. In this way empathy has given her an extra layer of rigor compared to many of her counterparts from more traditionally tech oriented fields and is her most valuable tool.

Driven by Service

Probably the most remarkable way her ethnographer’s perspective emerges is in her deep seated belief in service to others. When Dr. Hale approaches her work her focus is service to real people using digital products in their everyday lives. She uses her research to give people a voice and represent their experiences and perspectives in an honest and well-rounded way. This approach contributes to shaping deliverables that are richly descriptive and insightful. Beyond Tamara’s work at EffectiveUI, she contributes back to her field by advocating for diversity in the tech industry and shepherding others who want to dive into the world of user experience research. In letting her professional life be driven by service she builds strong relationships in her industry and the people for whom EffectiveUI is designing.

Tamara’s experiences in user experience research are emblematic of how an ethnographer’s training can be an asset that goes beyond specific methodologies. It is a perspective that is beneficial in multiple aspects of your professional journey. Her journey is marked with openness to new experiences and exploration, the use of empathy to inform her work, and a desire to serve others all of which is reflective of building from the ground up, in this case choosing to build a career path that suits her strengths, interests, and values; rather than the top down, choosing a pre-determined path.

Career Paths for linguists

Michael Chapman

Career Profile: Design Research

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.


Guest Blogger Holly Lopez Long is an analyst based in Colorado. She currently conducts qualitative research, program evaluation, and creates actionable reports that drive program improvement at Jeffco Public Schools.

Find her on LinkedIn.

For Michael Chapman, lead design researcher at IDEO, his training in anthropology isn’t just a nice, neat list of skills and credentials. It is a conduit for innovation. During his time outside of academia he has used his training to help organizations find inventive solutions to their biggest challenges. One such example is IDEO’s work with public libraries where they created a design thinking toolkit to help libraries reimagine their spaces to be more interactive experiences. I am constantly thinking about how I apply my own linguistic training to help create more tangible products. So, my question for Michael was: how do I translate my training as a linguist into something that can be used by others?

What I learned from Michael is: being able to turn research findings into solutions has a lot more do with perspective than a specific skill set.When you are doing research in an environment like IDEO the application of findings will always be central, which means the details are never going to be more important than the big picture. For that reason you will have to be able to quickly sift through the minutia in your data to find what is intrinsically interesting, actionable, and can change an outcome. To do this you have to be able to view your research like a designer not an academic. This means asking the following questions:

What is intrinsically interesting?

Design thinking is about always wanting to improve the daily lives of real people. That includes having a genuine curiosity about people’s lives and behavior and empathy for their experiences. So, finding what is intrinsically interesting is about looking at your findings and being able to identify what is going to be accessible and understood by an audience beyond your specific discipline. For a linguist, you may find a specific linguistic form and its function interesting, but if it’s something that is not relevant to a larger audience then it may not be the most important. A design perspective or design thinking involves caring about your participants more than pursuit of your specific discipline.

What is actionable?

After you’ve figured out what findings are most interesting, ask yourself whether or not your findings can be turned into something useful for your participants. A large part of that is being able to communicate your findings in a way that involves creation of a product or an experience. While in a traditional research setting, you may write a report that details your approach, participant group, findings, and a list of implications. In a design setting it is important to be able to frame your findings so that they are accessible to others. This begins with creating a bridge between insight and application for an audience of coders, engineers, and industrial designers. One way to re-frame those findings is by turning your insight statements into action statements.

Here are some examples:

Qualitative research findings  How might we…
Families think that our program is for “low performing students” and are unaware of the type of services we provide . How might we bring attention to the support services we provide for at-risk students?
Our organization experiences a lot of staff turnover, because of limited understanding on how employees develop and advance their careers in the organization. How might we create tools that help staff develop their careers?
Our target audience has limited knowledge about retirement, savings, and investment. How might we improve our target audience’s knowledge of retirement, savings, and investment opportunities?

(For more practice: “How might we”, create insight statements)

Can your research change an outcome?

Through your research findings you were able to define a real challenge/need that people are experiencing, but now you have to also figure out whether something can be feasibly done about that. In the examples above, the current outcomes are things like: low attendance/participation in your program, difficulty retaining staff, limited awareness and interest in a product/service being provided. None of these are optimal, but you’re hoping that the creation of a product or experience will improve the final outcome. If the current (non-optimal) outcome is something that a product/experience cannot address, then the research finding may not be valuable for the people you are creating for.

So what?

If you want to work in design research at IDEO (or any organization that is in the business of creating something that can be experienced) being a design thinker is more valuable than a list of specific skills (however useful those skills may be).

Here are a couple of Michael’s ideas on how to exercise those design-thinking muscles:

  1. Put together a design research portfolio: Take past and present work and re-frame it to ask “how can we…”
  2. Do your own research into a topic area that you are interested in: It doesn’t have to formal, but it should be human-centered. The final deliverable should highlight what is intrinsically interesting, actionable, and has the potential to change an outcome.

If you are a little stumped check out IDEO’s awesome (and free) toolkits Field Guide to Human Centered DesignHuman-centered Design Toolkit, or examples of their work for clients PNC Bank, and Sherman-Williams

Current Openings @ IDEO

Senior Design Researcher in Chicago

Design Researcher in New York

Sectors profiled in the “Profiles in Linguistics” series: Corporate Social Responsibility, Healthcare Communications, Library Science, Knowledge Management, Program Evaluation, Publishing, Social Media Marketing, Naming,Tech, User Experience Research.