A linguist in tech: designing healthcare conversations

By Shana Melnysyn

Dr. Joseph Tyler received his PhD in Linguistics in 2012. He is a Conversation Designer at Sensely.

How do you talk to a computer? How does it listen and understand your words? How do you make a computer produce utterances that a human can understand? Dr. Joseph Tyler addresses these questions every day in his role in voice user interface design. Dr. Tyler uses his linguistic expertise in intonation and meaning as a Conversation Designer at a healthcare-related startup called Sensely. Sensely is a smartphone app that connects users suffering from chronic health conditions with their doctors via an avatar, creating an easy way for care providers to touch base with their patients without having to schedule an office visit every time.

Dr. Joseph Tyler

The idea behind Sensely is that the avatar helps patients feel connected, accountable, and makes them more likely to be consistent and proactive in participating in their medical care. Dr. Tyler makes sure that the avatar’s speech patterns sound natural to the user, and assures its responsiveness to users’ speech. While Joseph knows some basic coding with R and Python, he leaves the core coding to the company’s engineers and developers. Through extensive testing, both on his own and using volunteers, he lays out the possibilities in a way that developers can understand. For the most part, his role is to translate the user experience to developers. User experience research—known as “UX” in the tech industry—is one of the best areas for humanities PhDs interested in tech jobs.

Dr. Tyler’s work with computer speech and computer speech recognition directly connects with the focus of his graduate research in linguistics at the University of Michigan. His background studying English intonation guides him as he works with a team to get the avatar’s speech to sound as natural as possible. According to Joseph, tech companies value independence and the ability to organize oneself and plan one’s own time. In the tech world, many things happen at once, and tech professionals need tools to keep track of everything and prioritize. Writing a dissertation sets you up well for this kind of work–managing the many small pieces of a research project helps you learn about managing project components leading to a larger goal.

Pivotal Moments: Partway through a postdoctoral fellowship at Morehead State University in rural Kentucky, Dr. Tyler started to rethink his academic path. He was the only postdoc at the university, and while people there were friendly, he found his work isolating. He felt like he was sacrificing a lot in order to do his research. He realized the tradeoffs academia would require of him were getting harder and harder to justify. He wanted to work more with people instead of spending his time in the lab. He wanted a faster turnaround time for his work, which would allow him to enjoy more successes. As he put it, “I want to be able to high-five co-workers when things go well!”

Dr. Tyler’s long-term ambition for traditional academic success fell away when he started to think in depth about his goals. Did he want to be known for a particular theory or finding? Did he want to mentor lots of graduate students? When he thought about these questions, he realized: it simply wasn’t his goal to be the next major figure in academic linguistics.

Joseph knew of linguists who had gone into tech, and it seemed like an area that made sense. He found a useful tool called the “Flower Exercise” in the book, What Color is Your Parachute? The book had helped him start to focus on career goals even before going to grad school. After he finished the PhD and decided to move into a new field, he worked with PhD career coach Jennifer Polk.

Getting Hired in Tech with a PhD: Dr. Tyler emphasizes that it is very useful to find people with PhDs to talk to as you begin your career exploration. You should target people with PhDs for informational interviewing – they will have a better sense of where you’re coming from, and can help you understand the possibilities in their fields for someone with your credentials. Through research he began conducting when he was still in graduate school, Dr. Tyler found contacts at companies that interested him and asked for short informational interviews. He found that people were very happy to talk to him about their career trajectories and to offer advice. He learned from these encounters that some employers in fields outside academia may not have a lot of experience working with someone with a PhD, and consequently might have unrealistic expectations or preconceived notions of what your strengths and weaknesses will be as an employee. For Dr. Tyler, it was very helpful to find people who could help him translate his existing skills and knowledge in order to convince employers of his capabilities.

Challenges in the Transition: One of the challenges that Dr. Tyler faced as he transitioned out of academia into the tech industry was learning new norms for managing human capital. For example, he had to learn new habits that differed significantly from those he had developed in academia, and different answers to questions such as: When do you bring up an issue with your supervisor? How do you share information? How much should you have processed information before it’s shareable? The answers to these questions differ from company to company in tech. Areas like these are where having a mentor in the industry can be absolutely crucial to your success.

What Do You Wish You Had Known/Had Access to in Grad School?

  • More examples of PhD alumni who went on to jobs beyond the tenure track
  • More information about non-academic career possibilities
  • Internship opportunities
  • Institutional interest in and validation of alternative career choices

Advice to Graduate Students: “Be honest with yourself about what you really want. Do your research. You don’t have to be rash. Don’t ignore things just because you think you’re supposed to. Follow your heart. Don’t blind yourself to opportunities. Learn about what your options are.”

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