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From a Linguist to a UX Researcher: The Great Switch

The Great Switch is a series featuring those who have transitioned careers during the pandemic. We hope their stories can serve as inspiration for those who are considering a career switch. Now, more than ever, companies are focusing on employee engagement, shifting to remote or hybrid work models, and employees are prioritizing their careers and health. This is the future of work.

Meet Yuliya Manyakina, a Linguist turned UX researcher. This is her story.

  1. What were you doing before the pandemic? What are you pursuing now?
    Before the pandemic I worked as a “Science Assistant” at the National Science Foundation in the Directorate for STEM Education. The Science Assistant position is a broad role that can focus on anything from data analysis to communications and outreach to other types of program support. In April 2021, I accepted a new position as a UX Strategist with Gabriel Enterprises – a small business government contractor that focuses on education technology. Prior to both of these roles, I worked in language revitalization in various roles (Project Director, Communications and Events Manager), and my background is in linguistics.

  2. What made this the right time to switch for you/did you have any doubts?
    I had no doubts about switching for several reasons:
    – I did not feel like my position at the time was the best fit for me.
    – I struggled with how restrictive and bureaucratic working in the government could feel at times, so it also did not feel like the right space for me (at least in this season of my life!)

Also, the Science Assistant position is a temporary two-year federal position, so my time was going to be ending soon. I learned a lot while I was there and I wouldn’t change the experience in any way; I met so many great people, some of whom are my close friends today. It was through that experience that I learned more about UX and connected with someone who would become my mentor (see next question) and met someone who would introduce me to my current boss. 

3. What was the turning point for you in which you decided to pivot?
The turning point was meeting a UX Researcher who became my mentor. He helped guide me, shared his journey, and connected me with others in the industry. Read this post for more information.

4. What lessons have you learned during this process?
Pivoting is tough! Even if you’re sure that you want to take the leap and feel excited about the future, there is so much uncertainty – practically, emotionally, mentally: Am I doing the right thing? Do I have the right skills? What if I can’t find a job? How long am I willing to keep looking before I try something different?

I think career pivots capture the human experience of fear of change and uncertainty. has a There is a book called “Comfortable with Uncertainty,” by Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön. In it, Chödrön says, “We spend all our energy and waste our lives trying to re-create these zones of safety, which are always falling apart.”

If we can accept that pivoting to a new career will always feel unsafe because of the uncertainty, we can learn to show up in that space with more compassion toward ourselves.

I think part of the difficulty also comes from letting go of our identities, or who we think we are. One of the hardest things for me in the past has been accepting that leaving a field in which I have built my identity doesn’t mean that I am no longer interested in that field. When I decided to leave my PhD program, I struggled with the fact that I was no longer going to be a “linguist”. At that time, I thought the only way to be a linguist was to go to grad school and get my PhD and become a linguistics professor and researcher. But I found a way to continue working in language-related organizations that still used my linguistics knowledge, even if it wasn’t directly. Just because I don’t directly work in linguistics anymore doesn’t mean I don’t care about language. There are ways in which I can show up in my roles that still honor that knowledge.

When you pivot to a new career, you are shifting your identity. You are letting go of something that no longer aligns with you (for one reason or another) and making room for something new to emerge.
It takes a lot of work to transition into or out of anything (even beyond jobs). There isn’t a “correct” or one-size-fits all approach; everyone does it differently.

5. Have you dealt with imposter syndrome since switching? If so, how did you overcome it?
Absolutely. I have often felt and still often feel like I’ll be discovered like I’m not a “real” researcher. Should I be here? Do I belong in this space? More recently I’ve started feeling like I’m more of a researcher, but I still don’t feel like I know enough methods etc. (And I want to be careful here because there is a distinction between Impostor Syndrome vs. regular self-doubt).

For me, it’s been helpful to take a step back and reflect on things that will help me find self-compassion. Likewise, I think finding and surrounding yourself with people that will reflect and remind you who you are is really important (mentors, colleagues, friends, etc.).

Here are some questions that have been helping me reflect:

  • What if I accept that impostor syndrome will never go away?
  • What might I do differently with my time and energy if I acknowledge that I am in a lifelong relationship with doubt?
  • What do I know to be true about myself? (How would my colleagues and mentors/leaders/colleagues/friends describe me?)

Ultimately, fear and doubt aren’t going away. They are always going to be emotions that will come up and we will have to navigate them.

We’ll also never know “enough”! There will always be something new to learn. But, that doesn’t negate the skills or experience we’ve acquired so far.

I’ve written plenty on imposter syndrome. Check them out here and here.

6. What tips would you give someone who wanted to pivot?
The two top tips I’d share are:

  • Be open and flexible – Sometimes we want a specific position and want things to go a certain way, but life doesn’t always offer that. It’s good to have a goal in mind and to persistently move towards that goal, but it’s also important to be flexible and open. I’ve taken positions that were close to or adjacent to what I wanted because they were still loosely tied to the field and would still advance my skills or challenge me to grow in ways I haven’t grown. I know a lot of folks want to pivot into the UX space and I would encourage them to think about the skills they could continue to advance in other positions if they don’t get a UX position right now (communications, data analysis, etc.). What would set you up to get a position in UX in a year or two? Likewise, it’s important to stay open to opportunities in different industries or different types of organizations. Maybe you don’t get that job at Google or Apple right now, but you could gain UX experience working at a smaller organization. In those cases, sometimes you could even pitch and create your own position, which can be even more exciting!
  • Work on identifying and letting go of limiting beliefs – This one might be more of a precursor to being open. But it might be helpful to sit down and think about your limiting beliefs when it comes to careers. Many people have built their identities around having a specific role or being in a profession. This can be great on the one hand, because it can help us find community – if I am a “musician” I will seek out and be drawn to other “musicians”. But the labels we create for ourselves can also limit us. As I mentioned above, it was so difficult for me to let go of being a “linguist” because I thought the only way to embody this role was to be an academic doing linguistics research. This was a limiting belief I had to work on letting go and remind myself that there are many other ways to honor my linguistics knowledge and work. The meaning we ascribe to our identities can create pressure to fulfill roles a certain way. How might you let go of some of that pressure to help yourself emotionally during your pivot?

    See this post for more tips.

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