What skills are cultivated by studying Linguistics?

An  oldie but a goodie for the hazy days of summer!!!

In applying for jobs, it is all about skills.

  • Creating the job that you want means recognizing the skills that you possess and figuring out ways to use them in contexts that make you happy.
  • Getting the job that you want will be all about communicating this awareness (with enthusiasm) in texts like cover letters.

So what skills do we linguists have?

There are many skills that the study of linguistics cultivates, and the irony is that the longer you have been doing linguistics, the more natural each of these starts to become, and therefore, less visible.  Further, in the educational context, we can take our skills for granted because we are surrounded by people who share them, but the truth is that out there in the work world, a linguist’s way of listening is as rare as it is valuable.

We expect misunderstanding
In courses like Cross-Cultural Communication, we focus in on moments of miscommunication and misunderstanding, and not because we believe communication to be impossible, but instead to celebrate what an interactional achievement smooth communication actually is.  Adopting a stance of expecting misunderstanding informs our way of looking at interaction and our interactional behavior in many important ways.

First, it gives us a bit of critical distance from our language when we understand that miscommunication is not personal, it is not because we are ineffectual or owing to willful lack of effort or cooperation on the part of the other party.  This knowledge makes us value communication.  We know that it takes work to communicate, and we have patience for this work.  Additionally, we know how to talk about communication, so that when miscommunication does occur, not only are we more likely to recognize it, we know how to diagnose it, talk about it, unpack it – to arrive at a deeper understanding of it.  We rush in where others may fear to tread!

Expecting misunderstanding at the outset will lead you to work towards understanding (to invest in it).  We cultivate a certain comfort with misunderstanding which can help us get people through conflict, which is a rare skill indeed!

We are precise in our terminology
I am often accused of “being a linguist” in moments where I insist on clarity and precision in word choice, for example, questioning a characterization of something as “normal” or cuing into language that is particularly “othering” or unnecessarily alienating – in the style of “us” vs. “them”.   Such awareness may prevent miscommunication and it is also quite powerful because it helps me strive for clarity and precision and in turn push others to clarify their thinking and their writing.

We are not afraid of questions
In many workplace settings, questions are unconsciously avoided for many reasons. Questions are often seen as being the enemy to efficiency because they introduce complexity, they introduce ambiguity, but life is complex and ambiguous. Only by asking questions do we arrive at a closer understanding of the truth.

  • And so we ask “What does X mean?”
  • And we ask “Why?”

This exemplification of critical thinking is an application of our training.  We can complexify because we are not overwhelmed by ambiguities and myriad interpretations – because (conveniently enough) we are also trained in synthesis, analysis, & meaning-making!

We think in systems
Training in linguistics is training in making meaning, which enables us in any context to be better at systems thinking and to recognize overarching themes.  We are trained to find patterns in chaos and to make the invisible visible.  Some people describe this as connecting the dots, systems thinking, or making models, but ultimately, it comes down to the fact that most people are too busy being in the pattern to actually see the pattern – much less change it.  We can help!

We lead with listening
Because we look at communication with an eye to improving understanding and improving relationships, we listen for what people really care about.  We can take on the perspective of the other person in an interaction and we know how to peel back to get at underlying assumptions.  Additionally, because we are trained for listening to the nuances of the ways that people talk, we can use our listening to help us talk in ways that mirror and resemble those of the people we are talking to, which enables us to better hear and be heard.   This skill builds rapport.

Finally, we pick up on things.   We are sharp observers and this skill is marketable in any context!

In this post, I have discussed just a few skills that I see, and I hope that this has inspired your own thinking about your own skills.  Ping me back about the ones that most resonate and/or add ones that I have not mentioned!

“The dream job” vs. “what would you do if you could do anything?”

In seven years of working with professionally-oriented MA students, I have yet to encounter one who could not answer the question “what would you do if you could do anything?” Of course, the answer is often followed by a litany of qualifications: “well, but I really couldn’t move away from my family” or, “I couldn’t really work for such a low salary”, or “but I don’t have the required qualifications. “

But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t an answer in that initial response to this question. We just need to know how to listen for it.

Listen interpretively
When you take the Myer’s Briggs or the Strong interests and skills inventory, the facilitator will teach you how to hear the jobs that the instrument suggests for you. For example, I often get “bus driver” on this test and I do not take it to mean that I should stop what I am doing now to go work for WMATA. As the test facilitator taught me, I now know that this profession is simply one in which people who share my personality type report a great deal of job satisfaction. And there are reasons for this. I have a strong inclination to be of service, to help people get where they are going (my work as Career Linguist speaks to this calling). I also enjoy travel and variety and feeling like I am in the middle of things – in a hub of activity (so long as I can have a quiet retreat to escape to at the end of the day). So there are real qualities to the job of bus driver to attend to for me. Tasks, activities and responsibilities. And I often do use the bus metaphor when I am advising students “who is driving this bus?”

If you take a few minutes to stop to think about it (or even better yet, write about it), there are probably some things that you have always talked about doing, or have been thinking about doing, or have been dreaming about doing. Or are told by others that you should be doing. What is behind that? What deeper need is that speaking to? Conversely, what is in front of that? What skills and training do you lack in order to be able to pursue this path? Are these things that you might actually be interested in devoting time and energy to in future?

In my case, if you had asked me twenty years ago “what would you do if you could do anything?” My answer would have been “work at Disney.” And if you had asked me then what was standing in my way, I probably would have said that I only lacked the technical skills and experience that I would need to work in a film production studio. 🙂 However, in the same breath, I probably also would have told you that I didn’t care what I was doing at Disney – I could have been the person who swept the floors and I would have been happy.

However, twenty years passed and in that time I did not choose to pursue those technical skills. I have also known people who have worked at Disney and neither did I pursue networking opportunities with those individuals. Instead, I pursued training in linguistics, and the people who I network with now are those who share my passions and deeply value language, culture, and communication. What has come to motivate me professionally is the desire to put those technical skills into practice. And one day, who knows, I might end up working for a project with Disney, but I say that the initial inclination to work at Disney is more interesting to think about.

How do I hear my answer now and with the passage of time?
At the time, I was studying English literature and I think that what Disney represented to me was the place to go if you appreciated narrative, the place to be for someone who valued storytelling. What I also now understand that answer to have meant is that I knew that I would enjoy working in a creative environment and with people who are also creative and who think very innovatively. I am also drawn to the West Coast. Illuminating, no? Take the time to unpack your own “what would you do?” answer.

Which brings me to the question of “dream jobs”
I maintain that the answer to the question “what would you do if you could do anything?” is not your dream job.  For one thing “what would you do?” couches the question in terms of activities you would perform, asks you to think about the things you would do as part of performing this job. This is already a much better place to be because you are dealing with concretes rather than dreams.

Also, remember that much of the thinking about dream jobs can be informed by the strong ideas and opinions of others, not necessarily yours. I want to ask you to be a linguist for yourself by listening to the stories that you tell and attend to the patterns in the choices you have already made. And also, do listen to the input of others, but by actively listening – paying attention to how their perspective resonates with you.

Ask why
When people tell you “you know what you should be doing? X!” ask them “why?” what is it that they see in you that would seem to be suited to that thing that they are recommending? In my case, there have been two things that people have always told me that I should be:

1) a teacher
2) a storyteller

I didn’t always know how to hear this, possibly because I was hearing this advice literally and thinking that I was supposed to be out there searching for some job as a person who teaches storytelling, and I knew that this would probably not pay the bills. However, if I take a step back to look at things, I actually am doing this now, and further, I have come to no matter what I do with the next twenty years of my professional life, I know that it will touch on those two things!

Know that every job has aspects that are going to be challenging both in good ways and in bad ways. The more you know about yourself, and how you work, the better you can choose and then actively navigate a job and work environment that are most conducive to your success and happiness. This is the dream after all…

As you can perhaps tell, I do not particularly like the idea of the “dream job.” This is because I find that many of us carry some unexamined and dangerous thinking around an “ideal job,” “perfect job” or “dream job” just waiting out there that just needs to be “hunted” down sometime in the future. And maybe as you read this, you are even working in a job that looked like it was going to be a dream and in many ways is in reality very much less than ideal. For me, this is an important moment because it can help you to accept the idea that there is no perfect job out there. I hope this awareness and acceptance will help to interrupt unproductive processes of thinking that sometimes surround the idea of “the perfect job,” which can be unnecessarily demotivating and paralyzing because it seems so far away and out of reach. Maybe a place to start is “a dream job.” Standing where you stand now, what would be A DREAM JOB that you could take steps towards pursuing tomorrow? And then what steps could you do to help achieve this goal next week? And the week after that? Are there professional experiences you could start pursuing in the meantime?

and don’t forget to tell me all about it! 🙂

The connection between luck and mistakes

Recently, I have been thinking about the connection between luck and mistakes – or approaching the question another way: how something that went right could have so very easily (and probably was much more likely to have) gone wrong.  But they spring from the same source!

Mapping out this connection started last week when I was working on a story about my mother’s logical associative leaps, the kind of thinking that improvisers (and marketing strategists as I understand it) call “A to C” thinking. This means that your brain leaps right over B, and figures out “if that, then what?” to take you right to the next level. In my mom’s case, I would say that she has “A to 3” thinking – she jumps right over into another taxonomy entirely (as she might respond: no one ever said that you had to stay within the alphabet!).  Where she arrives is usually uncanny. Often, she is dead wrong, but sometimes (just sometimes) she is scarily, often hilariously, impossibly right.  Brilliant even.  As I described it in my story, her ability to leap cognitively is virtuosic, she truly is the Mozart of mental associations. But being my mother’s daughter meant that I learned to be very aware of that moment – that moment when a leap might happen. So this means that I am just the right person to be writing a blog post about the connection between luck and mistakes because I trace them both back to that moment.  The leaping off point!!

Many cultural analysts have noted a growing trend in our culture around a fear of making mistakes, and I have been feeling it as a teacher over the past few years. More and more students want to have the instructions spelled out more and more explicitly. They are having anxiety around giving oral presentations, they are afraid to take risks with assignments, lest they get a bad grade. But I would argue that these moments feel vulnerable precisely because they are opportunities to shine.  I wish for more leaping!!!

Bringing this now to career, in a recent conversation about informational interviews, Holly shared with me that she used to sometimes come away from hearing about someone’s tremendous good fortune thinking “man! How am I going to get that luck to fall into my corner? Here’s me, I am trying to be very intentional in my career, and then this person just by fate or serendipity happened to be in the exact right place at the exact right time?!??!” And I joked about how great it would be if there were such a thing as a class in “luck-having.” But in sharing how she has come to understand luck, she said something very profound. Holly explained that she now listens differently when she hears stories about luck. Instead of hearing them at face value (and with that hint of jealousy), instead she tries to look underneath to see “what were the circumstances supporting that person that made these things happen, that helped these things along?” And then the million dollar question: “ How were they stretching themselves out?”

Reid Hoffman (founded of LinkedIn), describes this in his excellent book The start-up of You as “stirring the pot.” And also as courting serendipity and good randomness. As he explains:

There’s a reason the story that inspired the word serendipity involves exploration and journeys. You won’t encounter accidental good fortune – you won’t stumble on opportunities that rocket your career forward – if you’re lying in bed. When you do something you stir the pot and introduce the possibility that seemingly random ideas, people, and places will collide and form new combinations and opportunities. By being in motion, you are spinning a web as wide and tall as possible in order to catch any interesting opportunities that come your way (152)

And yes, I think that this will also place you in a position of possibly making more mistakes than you might if you were sitting at home in bed.  You also are much unlikelier to make someone feel envious of you (and so maybe we need to add envy and jealousy to our list of things to listen to differently as well), but I also want to ask you: which life sounds to you like it is going to be likelier to be the one that you were put on this earth to lead?

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to be interviewed for NPR. Many people told me that I was lucky to sit where I sit (at the Linguistics Dept at Georgetown University) because when the phone rings, I can be there to seize the opportunity to be interviewed for NPR. What these people don’t know is that at least 5 times before the time that I said “yes” I had said “no – I’m not an expert in precisely that.” I had been in the right place at the right time for nearly 4 years at that point, but I still didn’t feel like I was prepared, that I could say yes.

So, as Career Linguist, I want you to do three things with this information

1. Ask yourself “What are the things in my life that were lucky? What oppportunities presented themselves to me?” Were there any that I couldn’t take advantage of because I was not prepared? How could I make myself better prepared to take the next one?

2. In informational interviews, ask about luck to be sure, but also ask about mistakes. Learn to hear these as the same kind of thing as luck.

3. When you hear “and so it just happened” in stories (your own or those you encounter in an informational interview). Instead ask who did what to make what happen? Things don’t “just happen.” As Holly said: “What’s populating that “it”?  A whole history of luck is getting subsumed into that pronoun.

Retrace and populate that “it” in your own life and help others see it in their own as well!! And let me know all about it – send me your stories.  I can never get enough of these!! ☺

Pocket Examples

Among the things you should have ready for the job search are:

“Pocket examples;” these are little stories that exemplify how you work, how you think, and what you are passionate about. Here I will share some of my thoughts about how to find, polish and deliver them in a job searching context.

Pocket examples

I call them pocket examples because they should be easily accessible: handy and at your fingertips, and ready to pull out at a moment’s notice. Also, they should be pocket-sized: They really do need to be short, ideally no longer than a minute (and a minute goes by quicker than you think when you are talking!). Finally, I like the metaphor of the shirt pocket because you can kind of picture that having more than a handful would really be too many and they would start to feel and look chaotic and sloppy. Three to five fill up the pocket nicely, as one might have done with a handkerchief or a pocket square – that last little flourish and that final touch to help you express yourself with style as you head into that job interview or that networking event.

Finding pocket examples

As you are going through and preparing your resume, be thinking about experiences at past jobs. For every bullet describing your skills, duties and responsibilities, there are probably moments that come to mind, example projects or interactions or situations that exemplify how you showed up at work. Jot them down. You will collect a healthy set of these stories, over the years, dozens and maybe even hundreds of them. But remember, pocket examples need to be short, so probably a typical story that you might tell about work, like say a “typical day” description, would have maybe 4 or 5 constituent pieces to it. Within each piece there are probably a handful of candidate pocket examples. Pick one. A piece of a piece of a piece of an experience that shows something about how you work. So, for example, say you want to talk about a class that you taught. You are trying to show something about the way that you teach. Do you use innovating or cutting-edge technologies? Do you have a unique way of facilitating discussions? Was there a particular interaction with a student that you handled particularly well? Was there a data set or activity that you created that was particularly successful?

I keep a folder in the professional development folder on my computer that is just pocket examples. They are grouped thematically by job, by skill, by interest, etc.  And of course, one *must have* for linguists will be the “about linguistics” pocket examples!

Anticipate the questions you will likely be asked

Every linguist can be sure to be asked “what is linguistics?” I think a great answer to that question would involve a pocket example that briefly describes a current research project or topic that you are passionate about.

Some other likely candidates:

  • How did you discover linguistics?
  • How can linguistic research be applied?
  • What can you do with a degree in linguistics?
  • What does linguistics teach?

I like to get creative in finding pocket examples. Sometimes I use free-writing exercises where I list all of the jobs I have ever had before, or all of the research projects I have ever been interested in or all of the people that I have every worked with. These always generate lots of ideas and there are always many pocket examples in there that I had not remembered or thought about in a while. Also, one of my new favorite ways of being creative about stories is to use Rory’s story cubes. There are 9 dice. You roll them and look at the 9 images. At least one of them triggers a memory of an experience that in turn exemplifies a skill or an interest or an ability.

Making them short

If you are writing them out, a minute’s worth of talking is a short paragraph. However, most of the time, these are going to be delivered orally. My advice would be to use iMovie, or whatever video software that was built into your computer and record yourself answering one of the classic interview questions “tell me about yourself” for example. How long is your answer?   If you are just starting this process, likely your answer was 3 minutes or longer. Listen to yourself, as uncomfortable as that can feel, or ask a friend, a colleague or a mentor to sit down with you as you do this.  You are looking for a 30 second to 1 minute piece of this answer that is the nugget. The best of the best. Then we can turn to polishing this nugget, to make it really shine!

Portraying agency

Pay attention to your role within this pocket example. Are you a character? You should be the main character, the hero. Often when people talk about work, they use “we” (“we exceeded or fundraising goals”) or the impersonal “you” (“you had to work under a tremendous amount of pressure”) an omniscient pov (“there were significant cognitive and mental demands of working in this high-pressure environment), but even though you worked as part of a team, this example is about you! If you are not using the pronoun “I,” you need to force yourself to do so, no matter how uncomfortable that might feel at first. Find a way to be sure that you are highlighting your contribution in this context.   Your vision. Your perspective. Your decisions.

Pay particular attention to the transition points between events in your pocket example. If it is “this thing happened, and then this other thing happened” consider whether you might show your role in making these events happen, rather than talking about things that happened to you.   “I recognized an opportunity to change the way we did things..” “I saw the miscommunication and misunderstood it and decided to take the following steps to address it…” “I chose to pursue this line of inquiry…” “I supervised the team that ..”

An example

I will end here by sharing a pocket example of my own. I used this one recently at one of my “what can you do with a degree in linguistics?” workshops.

On the plane coming out here today I did like I often do, I started chatting with my seat mate. Inevitably the question comes around to “what do you do?” and then inevitably I get asked “how many languages do you speak?” To navigate a better understanding of what I do, I usually try to lead with listening. If I can figure out where the communication puzzles might present in this person’s workplace, I can then show them where the skills and training of a linguist might be of use by way of explaining what it is that we do. Today was a bit of a gimmie because he was a pilot. Last week at Georgetown, we had Barbara Clark as a guest speaker, talking about the work that she does as founder of You Say Tomato doing communications consulting for the airline industry. He was also in the military, so I was able to chat a bit about the work that I do as a consultant on the “Good Stranger” project working with the Social Interaction Research Group (SIRG) developing more sophisticated cross-cultural training with about-to-deploy Army soldiers.

How did I do with presenting agency in this pocket example? Do you get a sense for me and how I think and how I work? I welcome your thoughts!

Honoring the ask

Last week, I had the tremendous pleasure of talking with students about career exploration at the Gallaudet Linguistics Department. Our conversation focused on honoring “the ask.”

“ask” in ASL (from ASL University) Image

If career exploration is predicated on networking (as I argue that it is), professional opportunities will occur as the result of asking and being asked for things. Thus honoring the “ask” ultimately means paying attention to opportunities to ask for and to give things as well as being mindful of how these “asks” in turn create and are created by relationships.

If we have cultivated supportive relationships, we have people in our lives who want to help us, but we need to ask.

DO ask!

Students can sometimes hold back because they are worried about being a bother. Or, if you are like I was when I first started graduate school, I wasn’t even to the holding back stage yet – I was too naïve to even realize that I should be asking for things! At Gallaudet last week, they asked me what I wish I would have asked sooner.

I responded with a story.

After I attended my first academic conference, I shared a taxi with my advisor back to the airport to head home. He was telling me all about the sessions that he had gone to and the people he had met and he kept saying “oh you should have been to that one!” and “yeah, you probably would have really gotten a lot out of meeting that researcher.” I was so frustrated! But it took me a while to wake up to the fact that advising is a two-way street. It is not his job when we are heading to a conference to be looking at the program and thinking “what talks would Anna be most interested in?” it is MY job to ask: “what talks are you going to?” and crucially “WHY?” or maybe – if I have really taken the time to invest in building a reciprocal relationship with him, making him aware of my interests, I can ask “what talks do you think I would be most interested in?” or “would you be willing to introduce me to this person?”

I came to realize over the years that there are lots of “asks” happening at conferences. People have scheduled their days with breakfast meetings weeks before they even leave home to travel to the conference. Publishers are there to ask and be asked about current trends and publication possibilities. Editors of journals are listening to the papers being presented so that they can ask people to contribute manuscripts. Researchers are looking for opportunities to ask people to collaborate.


It means having taken the time to identify what you need and who might be a good person to help you. It means having cultivated a relationship with someone so that you have earned the right to ask for things. It means breaking down your “ask” into manageable chunks, thinking about who it is that you are asking and what can reasonably be asked of them.

So for example “I don’t know what to do with my future” is a really big ask. How about:

What conferences should I be thinking about attending if I want to know more about research applications of language and gender?

I want to learn more about cross-cultural communication in the workplace. Do you have any ideas for me about resources?

Do you know anyone who works in X industry, Y organization, doing Z kind of work?

Who else should I be talking to?

Being asked

As the askee, it is your job to pay attention to what it is that you are actually being asked for. Are you willing and able to give that right now? Are you even the right person? Is this request too big? Askers need feedback. In this digital age, it is very easy to just ignore an e-mail when the request is too big or off-base, but it is tremendously valuable feedback for the asker to receive as he/she is going to be asking for things for the rest of his/her professional life. Honoring the ask is a practice that we all need to become better at, from both sides.


My ask:

Give me one hour this week on LinkedIn to think about your future

  • What is one thing you can ask for right now?
  • What is one ask that you can respond to for someone else?

My hour a week on LinkedIn

I often tell people that I schedule an hour a week on my calendar for LinkedIn. And people often assume that this is to force me to remember to spend some time on the site, but really it is because I would love to spend much MUCH more time there, and so I schedule an hour to remind myself to be mindful and really maximize the time that I can invest!

So what do I do with that hour?

Well, that depends on what I am looking for. These days, I have been traveling quite a bit to give my “Whither Linguistics?” workshop. So the research that I am doing is mainly geographical. I plug in the zipcode for the place that I am going to be and I see who is there. Often people have moved and I simply didn’t know that they now lived in Boulder, CO for example, but sometimes this is just to take stock. To remind myself who it is that I actually know in the area and how it is that I know them. If the event is open to the public, I will invite folks who I think might be interested to attend. And /or often, I will organize a happy hour or get-together of some kind for linguists, or maybe I want to get plugged in with the local storytelling scene.

So yeah, I always spend a portion of my LinkedIn hour researching. When I was first on LinkedIn, this research was about looking for model profiles on which to base my professional self-presentation. If I were in job search mode, I might be researching jobs. If I were in career education mode, I might be trying to identify organizations of interest. If I were about to go on a job interview, this time could be spent in researching an organization. LinkedIn can help me learn about, and gives me access to information given (how they present themselves in their company page) and information given off (including how they are positioned in the marketplace by looking at “people also viewed”). With a robust enough network, you can also begin to research things like where people worked at before they came to an organization and where they left to go afterwards.

That means that in order to do better and better research you want to have a robust and highly curated network.

And so I do spend a portion of my hour finding some people that I know “IRL.” I love to play the game that LinkedIn calls “people you may know.” I play this as a game of memory “hmm, where do I know this person from?”  My own little version of lumosity!

I also spend a portion of this time making requests for introductions and responding to requests for introductions. Usually there is some project that a student is working on (last week this was “are there any linguists who now work in zoos?” turns out there are) or some industry specialization that I am trying to build competency around (storytelling in science is a big one nowadays), and so typically, I will accept or make a couple “requests for introduction” in a given week. Typically, at the most, only one of those will turn into an actual conversation, which is about right for me.

I am always looking for speakers to invite to the MLC, for which, I am also always looking for great prospective students. I want to identify potential employers for my alum and then I am also always looking for folks to interview for my own research on professional self-presentation. Some people are more active networkers, or need to be in a more active networking mode for building a business etc, but for me, keeping track of about fifty new people a year seems perfect. Be mindful of what you are looking for and needing and what you can manage. LinkedIn can help of course, but you want to curate a database that will actually serve you, and when you have too many 1st degree connections such that you are connected to people who you are not actually connected to in any way, that starts to become a problem.

Pruning. I will spend a small portion of that hour doing connection maintenance by removing people that I have not actually managed to talk to, people who I thought I might meet, but didn’t, and people who I can’t remember at all much less why I invited them or agreed to connect. LinkedIn is a powerful fulcrum and it can help us do more with the network that we have, but all of this still does come back to the fact that we are human beings and as human beings our brains can only hold so much information, and maintain so many social relationships at any given time. LinkedIn is a great place to maintain a link with people who you happen to have fallen out of touch with over time, but if you have never actually connected with a “connection” in any way shape or form, take them out of your 1st degree connections.

Finally, I look for a chance to pay it forward.

I spend the last few minutes of this hour thinking about who might be looking for a connection, for an opportunity right now. Who might I share a resource or an idea with? Who can I help to stay “top of mind” for someone else? We all know that great things can happen when the right things are top of mind, so I try to meditate for a moment for some “noisy nots” – some needs or gaps that I am aware of, and I ask myself whether there might be a way that I might help to make some luck happen

Laurel Sutton

Career Profile: Naming

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.

Laurel Sutton is one of the founders of Catchword.

Laurel SuttonShe was recently profiled in this interview on 99 percent invisible, where she gives a brilliant look at how linguistics shows up in the naming world.

As she explains on her LinkedIn profile:
Founding Catchword with my partners gave me the best combination of real-world work and academic expertise that I could have wished for. Creating product names and company names satisfies my creative urges, while helping companies organize their names into a naming architecture allows me to put on my analytical thinking cap.

Read more about the applicability of linguistics to this work in this recent profile of the field of naming Mental Floss.

Laurel studied Linguistics at Rutgers and at UC Berkeley and she is also an expert blogger for Fast company.

Other sectors profiled in the “Profiles in Linguistics” series: Corporate Social Responsibility, Knowledge Management , User Experience Research.

Read more  Career Profiles in Linguistics.

The “after” of job interviews

It’s that time of year again (again)


I have noticed that for the past few years that I have been keeping this blog, I seem to feel compelled to say something about job interviews around this time of year.


Two years ago, it was about “the before” preparing for a job interview. Last May, it was about “the during.” A warning to pay attention to conversations as they are occurring lest you underestimate a meeting for a coffee and fail to recognize that you might actually be being interviewed.

This year, I want to say something about “the after” because I have been noticing that in the conversations I have with students post- interview, there seems to be little awareness of how they did. Often, the ones who think that they performed wonderfully then never get a follow-up and are bewildered. And then just as often, those who are convinced that they flubbed it are contacted with a job offer.   This reminds me of my years of teaching introductory improv courses. When we would get off the stage after their student showcase, we would do a play-by-play to go over what happened because many of the newer performers absolutely couldn’t remember what had happened!!!


So, we would do a group discussion, trying to remember what worked and what didn’t, and as a group, we could pull the pieces together and we could learn something about how we might approach similar interactions the next time. In a job interview, all of these reasons are salient (learn what you did well, what you can do better next time) but another reason to sit down to talk about and interview with someone you trust because you are often in the position of making a decision about whether or not you want to take the job. So I advocate for doing something similar with your trusted career advisors.  Host a post interview discussion session.  Some of the moments that stick out may bear further contemplation.


“they were so mean!”

It may well be that if you come away with the impression that one of your interviewers was just being unnecessarily meanspirited, it may be worth knowing that such behavior may have been their role! Stress interviewing techniques are something to be aware of, especially if you are applying to work for a high-stress job. It may be worthwhile information for both of you. They want to know how you function under stress, and if you are very thrown, it may in fact be something to ask yourself whether you have it in you to work in such a context, and/or with challenging people.


“They asked such strange questions!”

In one recent case, after taking the job, the candidate later learned that her interviewers were trying to warn her about the realities of the job. She had been asked questions like “how do you deal with challenging personalities?” or how would you function in X situation, describing a very stressful situation that seemed as through it was completely dysfunctional. In subsequent interviews, she has learned to pay attention for these kinds of questions and ask follow up questions to be sure that she is getting at the question behind the question.

“I just know that I failed that test they gave me!”

If they give you a task to complete: never doubt that it may have been designed to be impossible. You can’t know what the testis designed to measure, or what level of performance they are looking for. The best you can do is do your best.  If what they gave you was an example of the kinds of work that you would be doing as part of the job, ask yourself whether you would want to do that day in and day out.  Is it worth it to get better?


From my perspective, it really all seems to come down to managing stage fright. As a performer for many years (and someone who was drawn to improv classes precisely to manage my own stage fright), the only advice that I can give is: practice, practice, practice.  Performance anxiety doesn’t go away, but what you can do is cultivate greater awareness of what is going on in the moment, so now I guess I am bringing it full circle with the before during and after of job interviews.  Practice beforehand by doing mock interviews, practice mindfulness during so that you can be paying attention for moments of misundertanding that might lead to greater insight.  And get into the practice of hosting conversations afterwards to reflect on what you learned, what you take away and how that will shape your decision-making process.

An improvisational approach to job seeking

My ten years of experience in improv has taught me that we all can do things that on the surface may seem impossible.   Collaboratively improvising scenes and entire performances out of nothing seems like it should be impossible. How on earth can you come up with characters, contexts, relationships and on top of everything else, be funny? It shouldn’t work. Except that it does.  *Almost* every time!  and even when it doesn’t work, there is something to be learned (but more on that later).  So why does it work more times than not? Well, the simple answer is that all you have to do is yes-and. In improv this means coming up with the next turn at talk.   So too with networking (and ultimately job searching); all you really need to do is think about the next step.


E.L. Doctorow famously compared writing to driving at night in fog. There are many ways that job searching is the same.


So, if job seeking is basically a series of conversations in which all you can do is think about your next contribution….

Let stories be your “yes-and”
I suggest stories as your guides through this darkness and fog. If you are at a job fair and there is a lull in the conversation, find a story of your own to dust off and trot out. If the interaction is not going well, or is becoming too focused on you, pay attention for an opportunity to elicit a story from your interlocutor: “that seems really important to you, can you tell me more about why?” Wherever you are in the process, I suggest that paying some attention to stories will take you to the next step.

Some other rules of improv that I see as being applicable for job seekers:

One important lesson cultivated from the practice of improv is a reminder to listen to our curiosity. If something speaks to you, see whether you might try it out just to see what happens without fear and judgment. The next step is then to ask yourself…..

“if that, then what?”
So at a networking event, you might be thinking: “hmm, I might be interested in crisis communications, but I’m not sure”.  An “if that, then what?” approach might be to go up to that table and start talking to that person as if you were sure that this was something that you were passionate about and something that you knew that you wanted to pursue. So if it were true that I knew I had a passion for crisis communications, how would I talk about my background in linguistics? “yes, and I think that my skills and training XYZ are a unique fit for your organizations needs ABC….” As you are doing so, how does it resonate? Does it feel like you have found a passion for this idea? How so? How might you follow that…if that, then what?

In her book You Majorerd in What? Katharine Brooks talks about this in terms of “what would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”

As children we embrace this practice of curiosity, but as adults we learn that to be openly curious in this way is at the very least embarrassing, and at worst a dangerous way to approach important decisions, especially in the professional realm. However, I see this realm as one of the most important places to adopt such an inquisitive stance. If we do not try different things and allow for the time and space to be deeply curious (and indeed make some mistakes) how can we possibly learn?

Have the courage to follow ideas where they may lead.


There are no bad ideas
Honor the suggestions that your receive (whatever the source). You won’t possibly be able to actively pursue all of them, but can take them in and consider what they might mean. Trying to figure out “what do you want to do with your life?” is a sort of listening for your calling, a kind of listening, that requires a great deal of input and the assistance of many ears.

Pay special attention to listening when people who are close to you tell you what you should be doing with your life and gauge your own reaction to their suggestions. Do the things that they see as your gifts and strengths and weaknesses resonate? Or the converse? When I was first seriously thinking about graduate school in Linguistics, I was told by a professor (who shall remain nameless) that ours is a dying field, one which held no future for me or for anyone else. When I heard this, I knew that this person’s perception did not resonate for me. I did not know what exactly the future would look like for me or for linguistics (no one can), but I knew that I had passion and energy for it, and that I was willing to give it a go, to see where it might take me. What was supposed to have been a discouraging speech actually motivated me. And so far I have found energy for this for the past 15 years and counting.

Of course, this is not meant to say that you should never pay attention to advice from your elders, what I am asking you to do is listen more to yourself and your reactions to other people. When others whom you trust give you input, how does it resonate with you?   This is after all your life, you are the one who is going to live it, so you get to decide!


The world is your laboratory
Test things out! Your task is simply to be present to the opportunities and decisions in front of you. Try something. Katharine Brooks calls this “experiemental wandering.” As you are exploring, allow yourself to try things that you may not have tried before, have conversations with people you might not otherwise – maybe because you thought it would never be possible that you could manage to get that dream connection to that dream organization. Until suddenly you do! And so “if that then what?” One thing that I have learned after six years of working with job seekers is that even those who say that they don’t really know what they want to do after graduation can tell me what their dream job is. Have the courage to really look at that, explore what is behind it. See if there is an answer in the pieces.   How can you start moving towards that dream?

I simply adore the process of jobsearching advocated in “The Unplanned Career,” by Kathleen Mitchell, whose book shows us how one need not have a plan to begin! Get out there and begin exploring. Pick something and test it out. See where that leads you – what do you learn from that experience?

If you are able to get a temp job or an internship, so much the better! These experiences yield opportunities for learning how you respond to an environment, how you resonate to tasks, what it feels like to walk the walk of this job. You can think about it like an experiment, a laboratory. And now that you have become an ethnographer of your own stories around work, pay attention to the stories that you tell about this job. Ask your friends and family to be ethnographers of your own experience along with you.   What do you thrill to in the work? What makes you exhausted?   Why?


Do not fear mistakes – there are none
Steven Nachmanovitch’s Free Play has one of my favorite passages about mistakes:

In school, in the workplace, in learning an art or sport, we are taught to fear, hide, or avoid mistakes. But mistakes are of incalculable value to us. There is first the value of mistakes as the raw material of learning. If we don’t make mistakes, we are unlikely to make anything at all. Tom Watson, for many years the head of IBM said “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” But more important, mistakes and accidents can be the irritating grains that become pearls; they present us with unforeseen opportunities, they are fresh sources of inspiration in and of themselves (88).

Often it is the fear of making a mistake or experiencing rejection that leads us not to try something, but there is almost nothing as informative or illuminating and thus valuable to us than are mistakes.  When we can reframe mistakes (or frustrations, or setbacks) as opportunities, we are more likely to do two things: learn what we can from them and move forward. Essential activities to any job search.

An improvisational approach to job searching ultimately asks you to show up and pay attention! Attend to the patterns in the choices you have already made.  Pay attention to your audience, your community – engage them in helping you as well. And most of all, listen for stories –  they are your YES-AND!!

Professional Identity: Who am I? And who are you?

Love it: You are your best career coach, and you have been all along!

The Career Expo was so much fun last night – thank you everyone for your part in making it a success 🙂

Free Range Research

Last night I acted as a mentor at the annual Career Exploration Expo sponsored by my graduate program. Many of the students had questions about developing a professional identity. This makes sense, of course, because graduate school is an important time for discovering and developing a professional identity.

People enter our program (and many others) With a wide variety of backgrounds and interests. They choose from a variety of classes that fit their interests and goals. And then they try to map their experience onto job categories. But boxes are difficult to climb into and out of, and students soon discover that none of the boxes is a perfect fit.

I experienced this myself. I entered the program with an extensive and unquestioned background in survey research. Early in my college years (while I was studying and working in neuropsychology) I began to manage a clinical dataset in SPSS…

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