8 Jobs in tech for linguists
I first fell in love with linguistics after taking my intro course in undergrad. It was just so eye opening that all of our communication was governed by an unseen system. So often people assume that linguists are polyglots, some definitely are! But I believe what connects all of us is this love of systems hidden the everyday. I pursued my PhD in Linguistics, always assuming I would go into academia. For various reasons, I decided that wasn’t right for me but where would I go from there? I had never considered an industry job as a linguist.
Luck struck and some former classmates had already found a landing place — the tech industry! We worked at an enterprise software company that did text analytics. We were mostly working as Knowledge Engineers, the team that coded the English dictionary and grammar that parsed text documents. At the time, I didn’t know any of this vocabulary. I had come from reading, research, and writing papers on theoretical morphology and syntax in Native American languages! I had some background in programming and AI theory from this course of study, but no practical understanding of how the tech industry worked. If I would have known earlier, I may have pursued one of these careers before or during graduate school. I’m sure there are other linguists in a similar situation.
Now, 8 years later, I have been working in tech and truly enjoy it. I often come across jobs that make me think — hey! That’s just the sort of thing my linguist colleagues would love. These are mostly highly systematic, have a mix of meaning and structure, some even involve words! Success in these jobs will require different degrees of technical experience, but getting started shouldn’t require anything more than adding a few electives or taking a coding bootcamp one semester.
- Information Architect. An Information Architect focuses on organizing and structuring information on a website or an app. This is a sub-discipline of User Experience Design (UX). In general, how you structure the navigation or other content on a site will determine how your users experience and locate the content. I first came across this career in depth when I worked with a team (Factor Firm) to redesign navigation for our consumer website, e.g. what are the categories of navigation that will be meaningful to our users? How do we deal with ambiguity and themes with multiple possible parent nodes? How cool is that!?
- Content Strategist. The linguist may understand Content Strategy as carefully constructing the dialect and vocabulary for a community in order to cultivate the experience you want users to have. As linguists, we know that shared dialects reinforce group identity. Software platforms and content providers also know this and they want to strengthen their communities by being mindful of this. A description from Natalie Shaw, Content Strategist at Facebook:
At Facebook, content strategists are responsible for creating experiences that are clear, consistent and compassionate. We maintain simple, straightforward and human language to talk to our community across all of our products, and to do this we get involved early on in the product design process. — Natalie Shaw
- Project Manager. Project Management is less directly linked to linguistics in general than the previous careers I’ve mentioned. However, I know plenty of PhD students who were mostly administering a grant, scheduling a lab, and coordinating a long term study with their P.I. This is known as Project Management in the tech industry and most big companies have them. Project Managers make sure deliverables are on time and on budget; they also identify blockers and work through those issues with team members. In order to pursue this career path you don’t need to learn a lot about technology, although it can help. There are various certifications that are required or a good start to this career: PMP, Project Management Professional — this is for larger project coordination, usually for large established companies; Agile Scrum Master — this is a specific approach to Project Management in tech that promotes flexible work and rapid feedback and iteration.
- Computational Linguist. To become a computational linguist, you’ll have to pivot from theoretical linguistics to computational, formally. There are a lot of technical skills that you need to acquire in order to land a job. Computational linguists usually work with other software engineers on human language based problems. These problems are extremely fascinating right now. With the rapid innovation in smart homes and Internet of Things, voice recognition is in high demand. There are also massive amounts of text data from medical records and journals, customer feedback and social media, to volumes of literature that now have initiatives for various reasons to be parsed and utilized — either for machine learning or business initiatives. These are the kinds of problems we’ve always been thinking about. Now it’s just that machines are sophisticated enough to learn speech, semantics, and syntax from massive amounts of input data. For the linguist to participate, we need to get more technical in our skillset.
- Data Scientist. Data Scientists are possibly the hottest commodity on the job market right now. There are lots of different paths into this career — lots of Data Scientists come from math, stats, or physics backgrounds. The main requirements are strong in statistics, strong technical skills (mostly in the programming language Python), and relevant business knowledge. Many data intensive research projects include language data, in that way, you’d still use your linguistic training to a small extent. However, the real draw to Data Science for a linguist is that the job is playing with data, finding patterns, finding anomalies, and attempting to uncover the underlying system that governs things like purchasing behavior, product use, or positive customer experiences. This is the new field linguist! But the language is data, the field is the wide world of technology, services, and products, and your field notebook is in a database.
- Product Manager. This is not a common career to encounter a former linguist, but it is my career so I ought to include it! A product manager works at the intersection of users, business, and technology to define solutions for high impact problems. I find that I rely on my skills and training as a linguist in a few major ways. First, I interview a lot of users to find out what their needs are in a product. This is not dissimilar from the language consultant interviews we often do. I need to ask the right questions to prompt examples that will exemplify and isolate the problem that the user is facing. I then need to consolidate all of the feedback I’ve gathered into a grammar for that type of user. That is, combine the individual examples into a prototypical user. Second, I work closely with software engineers to translate my prototypical user’s needs into a solution. In this endeavor, everything must be well structured and logical. Syntax and semantics have taught me how to be logical and unambiguous which is the native language of an engineer. I often joke that my job is a translator — I translate from non-technical user’s needs to technical builders’ logical requirements.
- Localization Specialist. Localization is the process of adapting a product to a local market. For software, this usually includes language translation along with other cultural and regulatory requirements. A quick search on LinkedIn found over 3500 postings for Localization (also called Internationalization). A localization program manager coordinates translators, timelines, and requirements for a product to move into a new business market. This would be very similar to work a linguistic graduate student would do coordinating a large translation effort. If you are the polyglot type of linguist, this path seems very practical and appealing!
- Technical Writer. A technical writer writes manuals for software. You have to be somewhat familiar with technical concepts but depending on the product and your target audience, the goal will be to present the information to be understood by non-technical users. I’ve always felt this would be a good career path for someone who enjoyed the research and writing part of linguistics. There’s a great need to be specific, provide demonstrative examples, and to write very clearly. All skills that we’ve developed throughout our time in linguistics.
These careers could appeal to all sorts of linguists, from the language collector to the formal syntactician. There are myriad online and IRL courses to develop these skills as a part time or full time pursuit. I still love linguistics and think of it as my hobby now. Fortunately, I’ve been able to find a career that rewards my passion for identifying systems and document/create structure in the every day. Your linguist brain sees the world uniquely and the tech industry will embrace that!