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, Ethnography

Julie Solomon

Career Profile: Program Evaluation

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.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Julie Solomon, Ph.D., the Founder and Principal of J. Solomon Consulting, LLC, a program evaluation consulting firm that focuses primarily on the health sector.

Screenshot 2015-03-03 09.08.45Her path: According to her bio: Prior to founding the company in 2008, she was a Senior Research Associate at an applied social science research firm in Los Altos, California that specialized in health and social issues.

While this context makes her leap to start her own business seem very linear and logical, this way of storying her experience doesn’t quite capture some of the really fascinating twists and turns. I think Julie must have been reading Katharine Brooks, because the professional journey map that she shared with me  looks very much like a “wise wanderings map.

In a nutshell, Julie has spent the past 16 years directing mixed-method (quantitative/qualitative) program evaluation and applied research projects and providing program planning and evaluation consultation and training services to non-profit organizations, government agencies, coalitions, and grantmakers.

But what is program evaluation? Evaluation involves the systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of data to answer questions about programs, projects, policies, personnel, products, or organizations, including whether they are achieving their objectives.

The work of program evaluation might involve asking questions like:

  • Is the program delivering the services it intended to deliver?
  • Is the program reaching the intended target population?
  • How do program stakeholders feel about the program? What suggestions do they have for improvement?
  • Is the program achieving the intended outcomes (e.g., knowledge, skills, attitudes, behaviors, health status)
  • How do the program’s costs and benefits compare?

And you would be doing this in order to:

  • Inform program improvement
  • Provide accountability to funders, Boards, and other stakeholders
  • Secure support from new partners/stakeholders
  • Inform the field about best practices
  • Influence policy

Evaluators work in many professional sectors, and Julie’s principal topical areas of focus have included youth sexual and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health, and development of the health care workforce. She works both in the U.S. and internationally, and has conducted evaluation study fieldwork in Belize, Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and Panama in the past several years.

Can you give an example? One project that Julie recently worked on was a retrospective evaluation of the GOJoven: Youth Leadership in Sexual and Reproductive Health Program in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico ( The project included the following data collection activities:

  • Desk review
  • Online survey of program participants and their organizations
  • Fieldwork in-country
    • Focus groups
    • On-site interviews
    • Participant-observation: national program meetings
    • Most Significant Change (MSC) stories and discussions

The work culminated in a National program meeting and MSC work with GOJoven in Guatemala, 2012.

GO Joven Mas GOJoven

Could you give us one more program example? A program that Julie is currently working with is Bridge to Employment funded by Johnson & Johnson Corporate Contributions, managed by FHI 360. Julie serves as the external evaluator for several sites. Check out their website ( ) to learn more about the work that Bridge to Employment is engaged in.

What academic training do you need to get into program evaluation? According to Julie, many evaluators have backgrounds in areas such as Public Health, Education, Social Sciences, Public Policy, or Environmental Studies, and one typically must hold at least a Master’s Degree in order to be a project director.

Julie herself holds Ph.D. and A.M. degrees in linguistics from Stanford University and a B.A. in linguistic anthropology and Spanish literature from Brandeis University. Her dissertation focused on phonological and syntactic variation in the Spanish spoken in Valladolid, Yucatán, Mexico. In addition to being fluent in English and Spanish, she also speaks basic French, Portuguese, Italian, and Yucatec Maya.

What is it about your training as a linguist that makes you particularly effective as a program evaluator? Linguists bring three core competencies:

  • Effective cross-cultural communication
  • Awareness of language processing challenges
  • Emic and etic perspectives

Thinking on the macro-level, these abilities help us to shift our perspective to be aware of things like: What is salient to program implementers, participants, funders, and other stakeholders (emic)? What is salient to the evaluator (outsider), based on his or her expertise (etic)? How can both perspectives add value to the task at hand (planning, analysis, interpretation, etc.)?

Jumping to the micro interactional level, we are likely to be more aware of things like the construction of questions and how that might be interfering with comprehension, for example.

Our ability to conceptualize an analysis bottom-up to top-down (and vice-versa), also help an evaluator to think about impacts: At the level of the individual, the family, the organization, nationally, and internationally.

Interests in teaching?
Also, something that people might not be thinking about is that for people who enjoy teaching, there are opportunities to facilitate training workshops with staff of client organizations, students, and even other evaluators.  There are always opportunities to mentor or advise young or new evaluators. So, if you are an educator, you might be happily surprised to find that there are many ways to find expression of this interest in contexts outside of the traditional higher-education classroom.

What is your advice for someone trying to break into the field of program evaluation?

Conduct informational interviews!  In Julie’s case, she got started by talking with people in international development, applied social science research, evaluation, and consulting.

Join the American Evaluation Association (

Get as much experience as you can with: Participant observation, Focus groups, Survey design and analysis

Anything else?

  • Take classes in a range of research methods
  • Learn to use data analysis software
  • Take classes in topical areas of interest
  • Look for relevant internships and part-time RA positions
  • Read articles in evaluation-focused journals
  • Attend evaluation conferences and pre-conference workshops (student discounts usually available)

Thank you Julie for this edifying look at this fascinating world of work!

Return to Career Profiles in Linguistics.

Ethnography, Professional self-presentation

Noisy Not: a fun example!

One of my favorite examples of the “noisy not” comes from a website of one of my favorite authors: Tony Hawks. As it happens, his name is quite similar to the skateboarder Tony Hawk and as such, he gets a great deal of fan mail about skateboarding. To make matters worse, the skater Tony Hawk has created a franchise, almost every product of which is presented with the possessive e.g. “Tony Hawke’s Proving ground” a game for playstation, which explains why it is that someone may not notice the difference between Tony Hawke’s and Tony Howkes if one were doing a “google search” for a means to connect with one’s favorite skateboarder.
This confusion explains some strikingly unexpected deictics which greet you immediately upon landing on Tony Hawks (the author’s) official website, including a graphic of a post-it note with an arrow indicating “me” and a Polaroid picture with the label “Hello skate fans”

That Tony Hawks is a comedian becomes apparent when you click on the “skateboarding” link, where he bemoans the confusion between Tony Hawks the “startlingly good looking British male model” (joke), and Tony Hawk an “American whiz kid skateboarding champion,” going on then to present some of the ludicrous fan mail which he receives (apparently intended for Tony Hawk), to which he obligingly responds for the merriment of his fans.

This is a humorous example, but a quick glance at any website will yield compelling information not only about who they ARE, but who they are NOT which is likely to be illuminating to the jobseeker for myriad reasons.

Career Education, Ethnography

Researching the IRB

Students often ask me questions about the IRB process couched in terms of what they *have* to do or about what I want them/need them to do for a particular project, to which I usually answer “what do YOU think you need to do?” By reframing the question in this way, I am not avoiding the question. Instead, what I am hoping to accomplish is to help them see the IRB in a new way. In a way that shows a sense of responsibility for the work and respect for the process. But the piece that I think I have been missing is the perspective of the research participant. Instead of saying: “what do YOU think you need to do?” I realize that I should instead be saying “what would YOUR PARTICIPANTS want for you to do?” I am starting to think about this in terms of becoming the kind of a researcher that I would to come do participant observation with me.

What kind of a researcher would I want to explore my community?
The research that we do is fundamentally about gaining an appreciation for and understanding of people, but sometimes we forget to think about ourselves in this way. As ethnographers, we are of course aware of feeling anxious and awkward at times, but for every ounce of emotion that we experience, we should remember that many of these are (perceived) reactions to the emotional responses to our very presence as researchers, which in turn engenders new responses, which are then refracted through and experienced by our participants, who also, lest we forgot, have their own emotions, not to mention reactions to being studied. Okay, so this is starting to get kinda complicated….

But really, it is quite simple: If someone announced themselves to me as my ethnographer, what kind of person would I want for them to be?

A good listener
Our training in linguistics cultivates heightened awareness of language and communication. I think we should take every opportunity to showcase this skill. Really hear it when someone offers “the one thing that you need to know about our community is…” To the extent possible, remain silent and wait to understand how your words and actions will be understood before you speak and act. When you perceive that you have crossed a line, seek to understand how rather than getting defensive and retreating. Use this as an opportunity to go more deeply in. Begin to share some of the things that you are observing. If you have gotten it wrong, seek humbly to understand how. When your community understands that you understand them, it fosters respect and the research will go easier.

Someone who is excited about their own work
As a research participant, if I am going to get something out of this experience, it will be a chance to understand myself in a new way – to see my actions through a new lens. This will happen if this person is a careful observer, which they likely are (see above), but how I am going to feel about it will be shaped by how this person orients to their work. If they seem apologetic or defensive, how am I going to feel about this? If they seem to enjoy what they do, I will get more out of the experience of being researched.
There are many moments of frustration over the course of an ethnography – at times it may be necessary to demonstrate enthusiasm even when you are not connected to experiencing that just at that very moment.

Someone who will treat the project and me (and themselves) with compassion
Finally, as a research participant, I need to feel reassured that this person is smart and empassioned (see above), but also that their intentions are good. I have opened myself up to them and allowed them access to my life world, I need to understand that this was not a bad decision.

And here is where it comes back to the IRB. The IRB is essentially an exercise in articulating your values as a researcher. It makes you list all the ways you are smart and prepared for this research, and then you sign something with your participants that says that you will treat them with respect. It is a lot of work, and of course is an imperfect system, but if it can come to be something that just helps us talk about what we do and why we do it, then it is not wasted.

Ethnography, Storytelling

Ethnography, Narrative and the job search

Bring the energy and devotion that you bring to your classes to your job search!

You have been trained to analyze cultures and to learn something about who they are by how they talk. In this same way that you are trained to look at cultures as ethnographers, look at the organization(s) to which you are interested in applying. For the pursposes of this blog post, we will be thinking of narratives, so let’s begin by attempting to identify the “occaisions for remembering” as highlighted by Charlotte Linde in her brilliant 2009 study: Working the Past: Narrative and Institutional Memory

Even as an outsider to the organization, using virtual ethnography, informational interviews, and any opportunities that have enabled you to set foot inside the walls of the organization you will be able to identify key organizations & individuals / professional organizations / conferences / meetings / trade publications / blogs / listservs as part of this field’s community of practice. Also, you will have gained access to myriad narratives that appear on websites, newsletters, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, commericals and any other public-facing documents that this organization designs to communicatw with the public.

Given that “Narration is one very important way that institutions construct their presentation of who they are and what they have done in the past and they use these pasts in the present as an attempt to shape their future” and that “Narrative is also the link between the was an institution represents its past and the ways its members use, alter, or contest that past, in order to understand the institution as a whole as well as their own place within or apart from that institution,” think about things like How does the text position you? Does it resonate with your values? Do you see yourself in this narrative?

As linguists, we can approach the job search by analyzing the organization we want to work for in terms of the stories it tells about itself as part of “occaisions for remembering.” As a linguist, you have a unique perspective into how the company is presenting itself. Think about how this may become a way to carve out a space for yourself in your chosen field. Where are the skills and training that you bring to the table valued in this industry?


Agar on culture

When I think about raising awareness of sociolinguistics, one of the biggest contributions I feel compelled to make is in helping people become more aware of their culture and of themselves in intercultural interactions.

As Agar (2007) observes “Culture is something those people ‘have,’ but it’s more than that. It’s also something that happens to you when you encounter them. As long as they’re just out there, a different group of folks, you won’t have to deal with them. When you deal with them, culture turns personal. Culture is no longer just what some group has; it’s what happens to you when you encounter differences, become aware of something in yourself, and work to figure out why the differences appeared. Culture is an awareness, a consciousness, one that reveals the hidden self and opens paths to other ways of being.” (18)