Reflections on a life lived

I received my Ph.D. in Germanic Studies from the University of Texas in 1997, but I work as a software quality assurance engineer. I do not directly use my language/culture/literature education in my work, but I started out as a computational linguist in jobs which very much required my educational background. I was recently invited to talk with the students currently enrolled in my graduate program about career opportunities outside of the academy. How could I offer any kind of advice when I didn’t really have any particular plan before the age of 30? After a lot of soul searching, I settled on describing it this way: I was the recipient of some significant good luck, but only because I was open to a variety of experiences did I take advantage of the luck when it presented itself.

The biggest break came after six years in grad school. I had completed my coursework, was working on my dissertation and was beginning to think about my longer-term future. I admitted that I wasn’t particularly passionate any longer about my academic area (if I’d ever been very passionate, to be honest). Therefore, there was no reason to believe that I would be among the smallish percentage of my peers who would get good jobs in academia. So, I made a conscious decision to open myself up to other opportunities. Very shortly after this self-confession, there was a part-time job opening for a English-to-German lexical coder and quality analyst with the Metal machine translation project (which was, at the time, owned by Siemens and maintained a development office at UT). To make a long story short, this job led to a full-time job as a software quality assurance engineer with  Logos machine translation and ultimately to my career as a software QA engineer.

As far as I know, I was the only one of 20 or so qualified grad students who applied for the Metal position. There are very few industry applications for my graduate education, and working in machine translation was one of them, but most of my peers were so focused on the very narrow path that was presented to them by their graduate program that they didn’t even think to try out this opportunity. Tellingly, when I decided to pursue this path instead of one directly in the academy, some of the faculty members in my program wrote me off. They didn’t consider my job as a computational linguist a valid career choice for my education.

So, my advice to the current grad students was to think more broadly of the skills that they’ve acquired in grad school and just to be open to the opportunities that fate places in our paths. You just never know what might come along, and if you’re not open to it, you might not recognize an interesting opportunity when it presents itself.