A guest post by Christopher Phipps, The Lousy Linguist
Let’s play a little thought game. Let’s pretend you have an academic background in linguistics with at least some graduate level study and now you want to find a job outside of academics, in industry. What should you expect to find? In the USA (and this is probably largely true of Europe as well), you should expect to find that most people misunderstand your skill set (you will first and foremost be wrongly categorized as a translator).
To combat this, you’ll need to craft your resume in a way the discourages this misinterpretation and highlights your academic skills. One thing I recommend is to avoid the word “linguist” if possible, especially in prominent locations like the top of a resume or the first paragraph of a cover letter or email. Find another way to describe your knowledge like “cognitive scientist” while still being accurate. One caveat, I would avoid using “syntax” in a resume because most non-academics associate it with theory, and they’ll think you don’t know anything “valuable.” But words like “grammarian” or “phonologist” are good because they are technical without being burdened by negative connotations.
As a linguist, most of the skills that will help you in the non-academic job market are no different than those that help accountants, engineers, and managers: people-skills. Ultimately , your ability to write a good resume, interview, and work with colleagues will help you the most throughout a career.
I’ve worked in industry since 2004 at big fortune 100 companies and small start-ups and my experience is that most companies don’t have clearly defined personnel requirements (they’re not sure what they need people to do, they just need people). Success is about convincing an employer that you can add value to their team. You’ll need the confidence to help an employer understand how your specialized linguistics skill set can add that value. I find that employers can be remarkably open minded if you convince them you are smart and devoted.
That said, what kinds of jobs are actually open to linguists? To be clear, the market for pure linguistics outside of academics is small at best. Most linguistics related jobs in industry fall into one of these categories:
- NLP (text mining, sentiment analysis, ontologies)
- Pathologist (audiology, speech pathology)
- Language specialist (lexicography, speech recognition, language learning)
- Other (forensic linguistics, branding & marketing)
NLP (text mining, sentiment analysis, ontologies) Many non-academic linguistics related opportunities are in engineering for natural language processing and these jobs pay very well, but unfortunately those career have evolved into almost strictly engineering careers (hint, they’re not looking for linguists who can program; they’re looking for programmers who can learn a little NLP). If you can’t write code, develop algorithms, or do statistics, these jobs are not really open.
Pathologist (audiology, speech pathology) I don’t know much about these fields except that they typically require specialized training is departments like communicative disorders, audiology, and speech pathology. These fields look like a remarkably satisfying blend of linguistic theory and practice. But rumor has it that they are clique-driven as well (difficult to break into a new job even after finishing the training).
Language specialist (lexicography, speech recognition, language learning) Many speech recognition companies will hire language specialists to build language-specific lexicons or linguistic libraries, but these jobs tend to be for native-speakers of a language, not academic linguists, and they are often temporary or short-term (Nuance is a major player in speech recognition and often hires these kinds of temporary “linguists”). Also, many language learning software companies like Rosetta Stone will hire temporary or permanent language specialists, but again, they’re really looking for native speakers, your linguistics background will likely give you an edge, but it’s not the key.
Other (forensic linguistics, branding & marketing) By “other” I mean there are occasionally jobs that pop up that are unpredictable or emerging. Forensic linguistics is an emerging field so I don’t know what the job market looks like, but it strikes me as one of the most promising new fields that may very well be a good job market for academics. Time will tell. There are also a number of marketing and branding companies that hire linguists either part-time or full time to perform various kind of quasi-linguistic related research on brand names or marketing strategies. But like forensic linguistics, this market is unpredictable and difficult to make any generalizations about.
Let me re-state that success in industry has less to do with your specific technical skills and more to do with your personality and how well you work with others.
Finally, let me ask you to sit back and ask yourself, “what kind of company could I create if I primarily hired academic linguists?” After coming up with some ideas, ask yourself, “how would this company make money?” Would you produce a product or a service? Who would buy that product or service? How much would they pay? Could you make a profit off of linguistics? If your answer is yes, call me, I’ll arrange VC financing and rent some space and we’ll be the next Google.