Interview by Ilana Gershon
Ilana Gershon: In writing a book about how linguists get jobs outside of the academy, what kinds of misreadings or misconceptions were you trying to avoid?
Anna Marie Trester: By sharing stories that focus on moments where people really come alive in their work, I hope to give a glimpse to the multifaceted, complex, and challenging nature of the myriad worlds of work (both “outside” and inside the academy) where linguists are finding professional expression of their skills and training. I want to active dispel the misconception that working as a professor is the only kind of meaningful work for someone with a PhD in our field.
In the book, I explore the difference between working like a linguist, and working as a linguist. Most of us won’t have the job title “linguist,” but that doesn’t mean that we won’t be addressing important challenges, and using our brains, and working with smart colleagues and collaborators. Nor does it mean that we can’t bring specific skills and abilities that we cultivated over the course of academic study.
NB: I specifically profile some people in the book who work as linguists, but I bring focus to how they work and think like linguists within these jobs. I like to find unusual ways that our ways of thinking can show up and shape how we work (what we choose to focus on, how we frame problems, and so on).
Ilana Gershon: What aspects of people’s Phd training or experiences working as a professor proved helpful to them in these other jobs?
Each of the approximately 40 stories builds around a spark – something that I heard as a listener when the teller really came alive as they talked with me. Many of these sparks had to do with content-area knowledge, for example micro-level linguistic features like “adjacency pairs” – which knowledge comes to bear in work in conversation design work for artificial intelligence; or more macro-level questions like ensuring language access. Other north stars pointed to broad social aims like making workplaces more equitable and inclusive, looking for ways to make our field anti-racist, and confronting legacies of white supremacy and sexism. Still other linguists really shone when they talked about job-crafting (actively choosing and shaping jobs) to have more time or flexibility for family or work-life balance.
I should mention, I was insistent on the ambiguity in the word “employing” for the title of the book because I wanted to include examples of people using linguistics outside contexts of work. There are stories of self-advocacy at the doctor’s office, or speaking up on the bus when the linguist heard hate-speech being used during the course of everyday commuting. I see value in these moments of employing linguistics as well.
Ilana Gershon: What would you like people to know about LinkedIn as a medium?
Anna Marie Trester: That it’s a great research tool. I was talking to a history PhD the other day who was telling me that she’s interested in UX research, but all the positions listed social science disciplines, and she wanted to know how humanists made themselves interesting to employers in this sector. I fired up LinkedIn and popped in search terms like “history” “humanists” “user experience” and all these really interesting people with really interesting-sounding jobs returned. Those are the people to whom she needed to bring that question.
When it comes to LinkedIn, I find many academics to be overly focused on the profile and being found, when it is at least (if not more) about using LinkedIn to find things: conversations that you might want to join, events to attend, people to connect with, updates about your network, etc. etc.
One last thing (I can’t help myself – I love to talk about LinkedIn!) there is no better source of data for professional self-presentation. Say you’re applying to work at an organization like The Wikimedia Foundation. You can go on LinkedIn and find the linguists who work there and see how they describe their background, their experience, their current tasks.
Ilana Gershon: What should people know about how informational interviews function as a genre?
Anna Marie Trester: In the book, I use the metaphor of “charting the constellations” to make sense of all of the activities that professionals do as part of career development, activities like self-reflection and yes, the all important informational interviews. For those of you who haven’t heard the term: informational interviews are conversations with people about their work. And the bottom line is that you need to do a lot of them before you start to see patterns. Informational interviews only really become helpful in sense-making (giving you perspective and clarity) when you have much fodder for reflection and can put what you learn from these conversations into context with what they reveal to you about your own interests and curiosities. They also give you feedback on how you are likely to be understood and valued in fields of interest, which can then point you towards organizations, people, and projects that inspire you to learn more.
Ilana Gershon: What do you wish academic advisors knew about how their graduate students could get jobs outside of the academy?
Anna Marie Trester: I wish advisors would approach finding jobs as a research project, and frame them as such for their students. The great news is that we are very well-trained as researchers! There just are different sources of data when it comes to learning about career – alumnae being probably the most valuable one. And because it takes very little effort to keep track of all the places graduates go after they leave campus thanks to LinkedIn, I wish more professors would take a few minutes when people are graduating to make that connection (so that they can invite them back to talk to students about their work down the road).
I wish more advisors would encourage their students to take advantage of the expertise on campuses over at the career centers and alumni offices. Simply helping students formulate better questions would go such a long way. Just as one would advise someone formulating an actionable research question for a thesis or dissertation project, students need to move from “how do I find a job in industry?” to a question like “where could I find application of my research in language and gender in public policy world?” Just like a good lit review, researchers will know that they are getting somewhere when they start to get to the same source multiple ways!