Alumni Testimonials
Meet the alumni of the Master's Programme in Linguistic Diversity and Digital Humanities (LingDig).

Our graduates share their educational and professional experiences and talk about how the Master's Programme has helped them in their career path.

Tero Aalto | Language Technology

Administrator of the Language Bank of Finland

 

The new Linguistic Diversity and Digital Humanities programme combines five study tracks: phonetics, language technology, cognitive science, general linguistics, and digital humanities. Why do you think it’s crucial to bring digital methods to humanities? 
"Only digital humanities and not digital humanities and social sciences (ihmistieteet in Finnish)? Language research is in a special position among these disciplines in that language technology is such an established field with a long history. There’s no such thing as, say, history technology. Other digital humanities and social sciences have a lot of catching up to do. But why, that was the question. Research data is increasingly digital and can’t be efficiently used, or even accessed, using traditional methods. On top of that, computational methods are capable of various feats that people aren’t. They can also be used to automatize data processing tasks – according to estimates, the portion of time in data-based research spent on processing the data can easily be as high as 90%." 

You work on the Language Bank of Finland (Kielipankki) at the CSC. What is CSC, and why is it important to develop platforms like the language bank? What kind of potential does it have for linguistics and non-linguistics research alike? 
"CSC is the Finnish supercomputing center that acts as the main centralized research infrastructure for most fields of science in Finland. The Language Bank of Finland offers corpora and services for using them, both of which are vital for researchers whose data is coded using natural languages. Most researchers prefer easy-to-use interfaces (such as the Korp corpus query interface, korp.csc.fi) but CSC also offers state-of-the-art supercomputing facilities for those with high performance requirements."  

It seems that your major studies have had a big impact on your career. Do you think there are some other factors, such as extra-curricular activities or minor studies, that have contributed to your path?  
"Like so many others, all jobs I’ve ever got all involved some kind of a personal connection. In terms of employment, I’d go as far as say that networking with the people you’re planning to end up in the same job pool with is the most important part of university studies." 

Do you have any tips for someone pursuing language technology on what they should study outside of their major? 
"The cliché answer is to study something related to your dream job, but it doesn’t always work out that way in the end. From a generic perspective, it’s a good idea to be aware what kind of computer science skills are in high demand on the job market and invest in those. Combined with the edge you get from a specialized field such as language technology, that should set you up for easy job seeking." 

Who do you think should choose language technology? 
"Myself, I chose language technology because I saw it as a modern variation of general linguistics and I have always been interested in languages in general. This was a misconception, of course, as the two fields are actually very different from each other, and you can easily be a successful language technologist by speaking only English. This may have changed since my days, though. I was, in fact, technically speaking the first language technology student in Finland because the subject changed its name from computational linguistics during the summer before I started, and I was the only major student starting that year. From my (possibly antiquated) perspective, I’d say that language technology is best suited for somebody looking for a specialized branch of computer science (bioinformatics being another good example)." 

Are there some interesting new advances in the Language Bank of Finland, or in language technology and digital humanities in general, that might interest our students? 
"As far as I know, all language technology students use the Language Bank in one way or another, so definitely. Unlike many other supercomputing-related services, ours has always been available for teaching as well, and there’s a strong bond between CSC and the universities. In fact, most people who work for the Language Bank are actually at U Hel."

Is there something else you would like to tell us? Perhaps a memorable anecdote from your time at the University of Helsinki or from your work in the field of language technology? 
"My first job somehow related to my studies was during my first year as an IT support person at the Department of General Linguistics. My very first customer of my first day at the job was a researcher who came in with a huge pile of hand-written papers that she wanted to automatically translate from North Sami to Inari Sami. Unfortunately, language technology hasn’t advanced quite that far even today."

Paula Toivanen | General Linguistics

Content Designer at OP Financial Group 

 

What are the benefits of studying general linguistics?   
"Studying general linguistics gave me an excellent theoretical and methodological framework to understand and study language and many language-related phenomena – and through that, us humans. I don’t know the current curriculum, but at least during my time, we were quite free to choose courses on topics that best suited our interests – both within linguistics and in other subjects in the faculty and beyond." 

Why are/were you interested in general linguistics?  
"For me, understanding language is about understanding our ways of thinking and communicating, and how we perceive the world around us. Initially, my plan was to apply to a philology, probably English, but when I read about general linguistics, I immediately knew that this is my field. I’ve always been into languages, and it was amazing to discover I could study language from a theoretical point of view without having to focus on perfectionating my skills in one language only."

How did you end up in IT?  
"In the traditional way: I was looking for a new job and bumped into an interesting job ad. A leasing work agency was looking for a linguist to help design an internal proof of concept of a voice UI for daily banking at OP Financial Group. Back then, I had a permanent job in a government office, and I just received a better post in another office, but I declined when I heard I was approved at OP – even though my initial contract with the leasing work agency was for five months only! Now I can say that the risk was worth taking: I have a permanent contract and an interesting career in design." 

What are the benefits of being a humanist in a field dominated by engineers?  
"Well, not everybody in IT is engineers: many of my colleagues have a background in, for example, business or design. But yes, humanists are rare. 

The best thing about being surrounded by people different from myself is that I get to discover a whole new world, gain new perspectives, and widen my horizons. It’s always an exciting feeling to delve into something completely new! At the same time, I learn a lot about myself and my strengths as a humanist. For example, my studies taught me how to conduct quantitative and especially qualitative research about humans, and I have now realized those skills are extremely valuable in IT: it’s not enough to develop products and services that technically work, but they should respond to the customers’ needs, too." 

What are you working on now?  
"Shortly put, I design texts that help customers use our services: for example, what each button or navigation link says and what kind of error messages users get. Together with my colleagues, I make sure that the terminology is unified across our channels and the content follows the company’s tone of voice. 

Currently, I work in two teams. In the first one, we build and maintain OP’s two chatbots Opotti and Viljo. I design the conversation flows and everything the bots say in collaboration with another designer, AI trainers, data scientists and developers. It’s fascinating to see how people communicate with our bots! 

In my other team, I design our internal software engineering services especially related to APIs and our developer portals. It’s an extremely technical – and challenging – topic, but I learn a lot about software development all the time. Recently, I’ve also taken up User Experience design (UX design) with the help of my more experienced colleagues!"

If you could choose again, would you choose the same field?  
"Absolutely! Although I’m not sure if I will work in IT for the rest of my life." 

In a business-oriented world, how do you explain your studies or word your expertise? 
"Good question – this is something I often wonder myself! Having been in work life for a few years now, my expertise is naturally more than just my studies. However, my daily work consists of many elements I learned at the Faculty of Arts: I have to think in a human-centered way, study humans’ behavior and motivations, master research methodology, understand the big picture, and communicate insights to other team members. Of course, there are certain elements, such as usability and accessibility requirements, that I have had to learn at work or from books and open university courses, but generally speaking, I believe that studies in humanities form a great background for a designer."

Iiro Tiihonen | Digital Humanities

PhD Researcher at University of Helsinki

 

Tell us about your academical and professional background. 
"Both are quite strongly intertwined with the University of Helsinki and with digital humanities. I started my studies in history in 2015 straight after upper secondary school. I remember thinking already as a fresher that I don’t want to leave my natural science side undeveloped, because I had studied that a lot in upper secondary school. So, I started statistics as a minor, but got so excited about it that I started as mathematics major in 2017. In 2017-2018 I was basically doing both degrees at the same time.  

In 2018 I found digital humanities hackathon and through that, this digital humanities idea at the University of Helsinki. I started working alongside my studies as a research assistant especially in the Computational History Group. In 2020 I graduated as a master both from history and mathematics and in the fall 2021 I am continuing as a post-graduate student at digital humanities, which is in the intersection of my fields. 

So, I have an academical background from two sides and my professional career is in the intersection of them, right here in digital humanities."  

How did you find the hackathon and digital humanities? Did you get a tip from friend or how did you run into it? 
"That was quite accidental, actually. We had this work-life course, where people were pushed to think what they wanted to do after graduation. I had already had this idea that is there something that combines history and quantitative approach. The student-counselor of the course said to find someone who does what you want to do and write and interview about it. I found Mikko Tolonen. So, I was thinking “Okay there is this person at the University of Helsinki” and I asked if we could do the interview. Mikko recommended that I’d join the upcoming hackathon [Helsinki Digital Humanities Hackathon] to try if it seems interesting. And then it escalated from there really. I’d say that you should take the work-life courses seriously as well. That is a good chance to ponder these things and at least for me it worked out pretty well, heh." 

How did you end up at the Computational History project? 
"It started with the hackathon. They used Computational History (ComHis) group’s materials and I found the work interesting. The hackathon was during the spring and the fall following that I got a research assistant position, that is, a small piece of land of the ComHis work that I got for myself. After that I have worked part-time as a research assistant there and in fall 2021, I will start there as a post-graduate student." 

You have quite strong background also in relation to digital humanities, because it is in the middle of both of your fields. What benefits your degrees have then? 
"In a way I’d say that even though for example programming is not in the core of mathematics, statistics or history, still a big part of the principal level things relates to one of them. In historiology, criticism of sources is what makes it so distinctively its own field. Criticism of sources is emphasized in digital humanities strongly, because the materials are poorly known and not very strongly curated, like digital materials are. It is super important to understand what you are working with and how biased the materials are. And even though sometimes the materials are digital, you still need to integrate them to previous research tradition. It can be dangerous if the link between previous research and your research breaks and you end up in your own bubble. And from the quantitative side I would emphasize the importance of knowing what tools to use. Then you can know how to use them wisely and, in the context, you want to.  

Digital humanities fields are all still pretty new, so it is even more important that you don’t just use some cool tools without thinking about it. The way things are done in digital humanities is still, in a way, pioneering work. It is also what makes this so interesting to me due to my statistical background: I have the possibility to think from zero, or almost zero, what tools are suitable for this field." 

What is your role in the Computational History project? 
"I think everybody is working on developing the data towards research. So, we manually curate historical data and make it better. We do use algorithms as well to develop, parse and standardize the data. The work has also more and more going to the analytical side. For example, we take framing of a question or fields of question and try to find the quantitative and macro perspective to how we can bring out new points of view. The work is thus mainly handling the data, but it is going towards historical research complemented with these quantitative methods." 

What are you working on at the Computational History Group? What interesting projects do you have there right now? 
"Good question! There are few things I’m strongly tied up to. We have noticed that in British Library materials there are quite a lot of price information, which is a rare situation. This material seems to be bigger in size than any other equivalent. The British Library catalogue in itself might be the biggest Anglospehre data there is about intellectual and cultural history. Therefore, the price information is very promising material from an economic perspective as well.  

Price information is quite ideal for the history of quantitative analysis. They are important for social science history, but also for questions like does some kind of sphere of luxury printing, a data find, appear. We have also been presented a possibility for comparing different national materials. Right now, I have been comparing French national materials to the British Library catalogue. That way we can see how strongly the French authors are present in the British materials." 

What does the price information tell us? What kind of information can you get out of it? Why is it interesting? 
"We do have around 10 000 cases of price information dating from the 18th century onwards. What I’ve been doing is that I’ve created this mathematical model, that tries to understand for example how the physical features are related to the price. For example, the amount of paper in a work is important on the formation of the price. That might be the biggest thing, but also time and place of printing affect as well and we can research how the price was formatted in relation to time or place of printing. So, the model tries to illustrate how much the price is determined by the size of the work but also by the place and time of printing. We can for example research if there happened some changes in the availability of culture products in 18th century Britain."  

Super interesting! I have never even thought that you can research something like that. 
"Well, me neither, before we kind of figured out the size of the data. With modelling we can link the size of the data to the time and place or even the size of the work to the price. With the link the model makes between these things we can surpass the limitations the relative scarcity of price information presents." 

What was the topic of your master’s thesis? What was it like to write it? 
"Well, yeah, last year I did write two master’s theses. The one I wrote for history connects maybe more to digital humanities and it is about changes in printing production in 17th century England, during the civil war. It was a critical reading about the previous interpretations. With our data it was maybe easier to handle questions like how much does outbreak of a war affect the rise of printing quantities. For example, some book sellers started consciously save books and works from their time, because they understood the historicity of the moment. These collections later ended up in national collections and therefore increased the amount of works that has survived that era. If you put that without criticism to a timeline, it looks like there are more books printed then in total. I had the resources to think about the question that has there been changes in material sense (printing more) or has there just been a change in the focus of what was printed (from books to pamphlets).  

Writing my master’s thesis was a very satisfying experience. In general, I like these kinds of projects where you can focus on one thing thoroughly, but it demands that you schedule enough time for the process. I have noticed that for many writing their master’s thesis is difficult and it tends to become this forever project. When I compared my process to my friends’, I noticed that it affects a lot of much you emphasize the thought that it must be the most perfect version it can be. For me it was more like I set myself timeframes for both theses and then it is as good as it becomes within that frame and the work is non-negotiable after the timeframe has closed. 

It also has the practical benefit that it prevents you from doing the thesis over and over again or postpone it. The work is as good as it is in that time frame and then it can’t brother you anymore." 

Do you identify yourself as a humanist, generalist or something else? 
"Well to be honest I switch it depending on the discussion – the role changes in different situations. When I’m working alone, I don’t need a role and I don’t really think about if I’m a humanist or something else. If I’m working on a group where there are humanists who understand the subject better, but don’t for example code, then I quite consciously take the role of the IT expert and I can leave some of the questions to the others. Then in some cases I am the only humanist and others are statisticians and mathematicians then I can bring different perspective to that and it’s fine as well. It is context based." 

And what are the benefits of being both humanist and mathematician? 
"It leads to quite interesting intersections, and you can approach it from many different angles. If you think about the educating effect the university has. You have certain traditions in your head, for example about how to interpret humanistic texts, but those are rarely integrated to something else. I think this multidisciplinary background I have, has given me ability to see things from a broader perspective. I feel like people should clash their world views more. It can be difficult and lead to interesting dialogues within your own head, but in the end, it is for the good. Pragmatically you can think that it gives you good chances to move within the university but also outside of it. It broadens your chances in a way."  

If you could choose now, would you take digital humanities as your major? 
"I’ll answer maybe. If you want to get your hands on the intersection quickly, then it is probably wise and effective. But I do believe that in the future as well it is entirely possible that you get a base for example in history or in a technical field and then supplement your knowledge later. I think that digital humanities are a derivative of tools and backgrounds of several other disciplines and in that sense, nobody has to close any mental doors. Even if you start somewhere else, you can still end up here. 

Probably everybody experiences a lot of pressure at the university no matter what they study. I have tried to take the perspective that it is inevitable to make mistakes so you can’t treat that like a disappointment or that you have done something wrong. You can’t take the attitude that you’ll always suffer. You have to be merciful to yourself, it is mandatory, because otherwise you’ll make this intolerable. You will probably make decisions that you regret later or that are unsatisfactory, but that isn’t the end of the world by any means."  

Do you have any tips or advice on those who are thinking if digital humanities are their field? 
"I’d say that the Digital Humanities Hackathon in Finland is worth trying, because there you can see both the good and the bad. You can see that you can approach questions in very different perspectives, but you can see the everyday challenges in a multidisciplinary field when people from different backgrounds try to communicate with each other. Of course, in eight days you can’t sum it all up, but they are still in a good balance, and you get the idea if the field feels like you. Many have ended up in digital humanities from the hackathon, including myself."

How did you end up as a post-graduate researcher? 
"Simply put, the research I was interested in was left unfinished. I also had the idea to become a researcher already when I first started to study at the university. In digital humanities I found a good intersection of my fields and I wanted to become a researcher, so I suppose I’ll become a digital humanities researcher. This path felt like the obvious one for me." 

Could you tell something about the process of becoming a post-graduate researcher? 
"You probably should view the process kind of like the process of writing your master’s thesis. Not quite, but it worked for me. I wrote the applications first as well as you can and then ask someone who isn’t afraid to give you their honest opinion for feedback. It is a project, and you can set a certain number of iterations you are willing to do and then do it as many times and then send it. Mine was iterated three times if I recall correctly. The first one I sent to the university and then I edited the same application for other places. It wasn’t horrifying. Writing your master’s thesis is a way longer text than the applications for post-graduate research."  

What is the topic of your doctoral thesis? 
"I’m researching 18th century North-Atlantic societal turning points in the light of bibliographic data analysis. It is a word monster, but we are trying to get a perspective how Europe started to slowly move towards the modern world in the breakage of 18th and 19th century. We can see the change in the level of thinking, but also in the development of economy and I’m interested in seeing if we can get historical macro perspectives through book descriptions in Britain, the Netherlands and maybe in France as well. 

I’m in civil service right now, so I’ll get to start this project in the fall 2021."  

Do you have any tips for those who want to write their doctoral thesis?  
"It helps a lot if your instructors are truly interested in the same subject. If you can find a group of people or even just one person who is in board with your idea, that it isn’t unimportant for them, it helps a lot. It is the benefit of the university because here you can find people who share the interests and are willing to spend their time to read through your applications or theses and grade them." 

 

 

 

 

Olli Savisaari | Cognitive Science

Experience Designer at Perfektio

 

Why did you choose to study cognitive science? 
"I first got interested in psychology in high school, like many others. I went to high school in the US, and my psychology teacher was fantastic, inspiring many students to pursue that path. I wasn’t sure at all after high school what I would study, and I spent a few months exploring different options from personal trainer education to economics to various behavioural sciences. I knew that the human brain interested me and decided to focus on that. On the university website, I came across this short description of cognitive science, and it included all of the things from the psychological field that I was interested in, and none of the things that were not interesting to me, mainly clinical studies and patient-related work. I decided to apply to both psychology and cognitive science, however, and actually got accepted into both. At the end, the choice was quite difficult, but I think one of the decisive factors was the wide spectrum of things one could study within cognitive science, that eventually tipped the scale." 

How does your work relate to your studies? 
"This is a question I get a lot as a designer. There are quite a few cognitive scientists working in user interface design, and there are two main parallels between my studies and my current work.  

Most of today’s digital user interfaces are based on visual observation and touch-based interaction. Understanding perceptual psychology and how the visual system works lays the foundation for good UI design. Additionally, designers have to know the limitations of humans’ cognitive processes, understand motor functions and how possible disruptions in any of these processes can be overcome and accounted for in the design. If you don’t know who and what you’re designing for, the end result is not going to be great.  

Second, the work is about understanding users and their behaviour, and the best way to do that is by observing them in a natural setting, utilising various research methods that are now familiar from my studies. I’ve used various ethnographic research methods, conducted interviews, designed and carried out user tests both online and offline." 

What skills have you gained during your studies that have helped you in your professional experience(s)? 
"This overlaps partly with my previous answer. The most useful skills in my work are definitely the various research and design methods used to design, evaluate and reiterate designs based on user understanding and feedback." 

Was it hard to start your career after graduation? 
"Like many others in our field, I found myself in a different situation, where I had started my ‘career’ already while studying and found it quite difficult to finish my studies after starting to work full time. I started working in Aalto University at the end of the second year of my studies, and from there I switched to Perfektio in the beginning of 2018. I finally submitted my thesis and graduated in the middle of the Corona pandemic in spring 2020." 

Is there something that stands out about your experience as a cognitive science student? 
"I still tell people that ask about my studies that the most interesting part is that you can become “anything” as a cogsci student. You can specialise in neuropsychology doing clinical studies or ground-breaking research, or instead end up as an expert statistician. It’s equally likely you become a game or a UI designer, like me. The opportunities are quite broad, as understanding human cognition is key in a lot of different roles. I think the only limiting factor is one’s own imagination and ambition." 

Do you have any advice or suggestions to give to prospective and/or current students in cognitive science? 
"I want to encourage everyone to study a broad palette of topics, because it’s so useful to understand issues from many different viewpoints. Study a minor in a completely different field and take a deep dive into a neighbouring field, like social studies or computer science. I spent seven years in the university, and I think it as just the right duration. There is no rush to get out of there - once you’re out, it’s hard to get back in, as well all know."

Is there anything else you would like to share with us? Perhaps a memorable anecdote from your time at the University of Helsinki or from your work?   
"Here’s one that has stuck with me for a long time. I think it was Otto Lappi that said this during the introductory course in the first week of studies: “You can study anything as your minor but geology. Rocks don’t think.”" 

Pietari Nurmi | Cognitive Science

Doctoral Candidate and MEG-MRI Researcher at Aalto University Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering (NBE)

 

Why did you choose to study cognitive science? 
"I have always considered myself more a generalist than a specialist. I would rather know a little bit of everything and see the big picture than dive deep into one single field. After high school I was interested especially in psychology, philosophy, computer science, biology and music. One day I was browsing through Wikipedia and found an article about cognitive science. It hit me instantly. A perfect mixture of the topics I was interested in, and there was a study program in Helsinki! I had to apply. I had a study right to psychology also, but choose cognitive science instead! No regrets. 

Unfortunately cognitive science bachelor’s program is no longer available at University of Helsinki. Luckily, you can still study many of the same courses." 

How does your work relate to your studies? 
"I am currently a doctoral candidate and an MEG-MRI researcher at Aalto University Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering (NBE). So technically, I’m still a student! We have a small research group focused in neurophysiological markers and structural changes in the brain related to healthy aging and age-related disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.  

I started to specialize in cognitive neuroscience from early on in my studies, and got to play with MEG and other neuroimaging methods as a research assistant. So my work is very much related to my studies! Of course, cognitive science is so much more than just brain stuff. Cognitive modelling, artificial information processing systems, philosophy of mind, AI ethics… But even the topics that are not directly involved in my research, still hugely affect how I do science and understand the world. I wouldn’t be half the researcher I am without the philosophical mindset, great psychology courses, practical computer science and statistics skills, and design projects I have experienced and acquired during my studies." 

What skills have you gained during your studies that have helped you in your professional experience(s)? 
"Of course, during my studies I have acquired many practical skills that have proven very useful. Computer science and programming skills are vital, since I find myself writing code or analysis scripts nearly every day. And statistics and data analysis skills are, of course, core tools in every researcher’s toolbox. But in my opinion, the real value of cognitive science lies in the interdisciplinary nature of the studies. Thanks to cognitive science, I ended up having courses at all four campuses of the University of Helsinki, and even Aalto University.  

Working with students and lecturers from various backgrounds is eye-opening and allows you to extend your skillset beyond traditional discipline borders. For me, cognitive science courses have worked as a glue between these different disciplines and views. Ideally, cognitive scientists can act as a connecting bridge between experts of different fields. I think that is a major reason why many cognitive scientists make successful careers also outside the academic world." 

Was it hard to start your career after graduation? 
"Not really. But I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I got my first research assistant job at Aalto University NBE already after my second year of bachelor studies. I’ve had other jobs after that, both in research and start-ups, but always kept coming back to NBE. Very supportive work environment, the best colleagues, and endless opportunities to keep on learning. I conducted my master’s thesis study here, and continuing to doctoral studies was the natural next step. Thanks to my supervisor, I got a grant to get the research project up and running!"

Is there something that stands out about your experience as a cognitive science student? 
"In cognitive science study track I was free to build my studies according to my interests. Naturally, there were compulsory courses, especially during the bachelor stage. But for the most parts, I was able to pick practically any course I wanted. I always felt I was personally in charge of the direction of my studies. Might not work for everybody, but for me it was perfect and highly motivating. I am all for academic freedom!" 

Do you have any advice or suggestions to give to prospective and/or current students in cognitive science? 
"University is the perfect place to meet new interesting people with similar interests. Cognitive science people (“konnarit“) have a tight and surprisingly active community in Helsinki. I encourage every student to be active and take part in student organizations and cognitive science social activities. Get to know cognitive science student organization Intelligenzia and the staff members. Hanging out with similar-minded people is great fun, and many of these people might as well be your future colleagues. The most important lessons are sometimes learned outside the lecture halls." 

Is there anything else you would like to share with us? Perhaps a memorable anecdote from your time at the University of Helsinki or from your work?   
"I still remember the first day as cognitive science freshman. We had a welcoming picnic at Kaisaniemenpuisto, and I immediately felt I was in the right place. For the first time ever I was surrounded by people who were interested in similar topics and were eager to discuss, debate, and share their opinions. I share my best student memories with these people, many of which are my close friends still today."

Minttu Ripatti | Phonetics

Senior Lecturer and Coach

 

Introducing clinical phonetics to Finland 

Minttu Ripatti’s career is a prime example of how diverse a discipline phonetics can be. Minttu has found use for her expertise in oral communication in a variety of fields, from introducing a new sub-discipline of phonetics to Finland to working in communications and higher education. 

Before enrolling in the university, Minttu had a degree in practical nursing, but she had always been  interested in languages and music. She incorporated her background in health care into her phonetics studies, and after a traineeship at the Phoniatrics Outpatient Clinic of the Helsinki University Hospital, she introduced a new field, clinical phonetics, to Finland. 

“Phonetics is a wide field and one can focus on pretty much anything they are interested in, be it acoustics, music or any other topic where oral communication is involved. I did my master’s thesis on the articulatory strategies of ventriloquists. I was interested in how they are able to produce speech with a limited range of movement in the vocal tract, and how those strategies could be used in a clinical setting, for example with people who have trouble speaking after oral surgery.” 

Clinical phonetics concerns itself with phonetic examinations and diagnostics of speech disorders in a clinical environment. After training at the Phoniatrics Outpatient Clinic, Minttu initially got employed there as a practical nurse, as the position of a clinical phonetician did not yet exist.  

“We realized that there is a lot of written data available on patients’ speech provided by speech therapists, but no systematic numerical data was available. We decided to record patients’ speech before and after surgery and do an acoustic analysis of the recordings. We would look at things like jitter and shimmer, fluctuations in the duration and loudness of consecutive pulses of vocal folds. We wanted to see what changes had taken place after treatment and came up with numerical thresholds for voice disorders, that can be tested and defined as we get more data. At the moment these scales are still quite subjective as there isn’t enough data, but hopefully within the next ten years this will change as there is a lot of interest from university hospitals towards the discipline.” 

A diverse set of skills 

Although the most obvious route for a phonetician is to build an academic career, studying phonetics equips you with an understanding of oral communication that can benefit potential employers. 

Clinical phonetics isn’t the only field where Minttu has been able to use her phonetician’s training. Later on, she worked at a Helsinki based communications consultancy firm Ellun Kanat, and nowadays she works as a university lecturer and as an entrepreneur.  

“Phonetics opened a window of opportunity for me by making me understand communication more thoroughly, for example, acoustics of open spaces, how certain lip movements can help when talking to a large crowd, or how non-verbal features of speech such as intonation and prominence are important when trying to get a message across to listeners. Especially as communication is moving more and more online, companies can benefit from phoneticians’ expertise in communication. However, phonetics is a small field, and phoneticians need to pitch themselves and show how their strengths can help a potential employer. Employers won’t know they need a phonetician if they don’t know what phonetics is.” 

Students have a lot of freedom when it comes to tailoring their degree according to their interests, and during her time at the university, Minttu studied subjects such as education, psychology, political science, music science and language technology. Minor studies can have a major impact on where you end up working in after graduation. 

“Think about where you want to be in ten years, where you want to go, and what skills you will need, and bridge that gap. I always try to think of real-life examples from theory, and if they could be implemented into practice in an organization. Embrace all the jobs you´ve done and the metaskills you learn in those jobs, recognize them, and implement them in your studies and theses. That way you´ll have a chance to create practical solutions from your own field, that can turn into a career in the future! It is our job to bring phonetics into the discussion and talk about it in a common-sense manner without academic jargon. I think phoneticians will become more important also in language technology as applications of artificial intelligence such as text-to-speech synthesis and automatic speech recognition keep becoming more commonplace.” 

“Take leaps of faith.” 

Unlike in more vocational degrees, humanists do not have a clear-cut path to a specific career, instead we are generalists whose expertise can be beneficial in a vast number of fields and industries. Phoneticians can work in speech technology, phoniatrics, communications, academia, or in any kind of field where understanding of speech, communication and language is involved. 

“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, take leaps of faith and stand from the crowd already as you are writing your thesis. You can even do your thesis for a company in your field. Don’t let rigid academic structures hold you back, but be brave, think outside of the box and find your own thing!” 

Kirsi Kauppinen | General Linguistics

Translation Project Manager at Acoland Group

 

How did you end up studying general linguistics?
"I have always been interested in languages and learning them has been relatively easy for me. Growing up I felt a strong connection with the English language, and that made me want to pursue a degree in either English translation or philology. After my matriculation examination I applied to study English in the University of Helsinki, but I didn’t do well in the entrance exam, so I wasn’t accepted as a degree student. Every year I applied but my exam results were never good enough. During one of my gap years, I studied English, Chinese and other language related courses in a folk high school in the municipality of Kauniainen. There I selected a course called “English linguistics” and my mind was blown. Everything we heard during those lectures just somehow clicked, and I realized that I have always been more interested in the linguistic side of languages. Finally, I knew what I actually wanted to study, so after four gap years I was finally accepted to study general linguistics."

Did you participate in student organizations while studying?
"Throughout my studies (2013-2019) I was extremely active in the student nation Karjalainen Osakunta (Karelian nation), which is a 116-year-old multidisciplinary student organization and basically my second home here in Helsinki. At the moment I’m the president of our student nation on a two-year term. I definitely encourage students to participate in the student organization of their choice. I can't think of a better way to get to know new people and to enjoy extremely important and meaningful experiences. My nation has given me so much that explaining it would require an entire blog post."

What are the benefits of becoming/being a generalist?
"I think one of the most important aspect of being a generalist is realizing that you actually are a multi-talented professional. No matter which generalist degree you have finished, we are all really good at solving problems, gathering and processing information, thinking analytically and being organized, just to name a few things. I believe generalists have endless career opportunities because of the generalist nature of their degree, so you shouldn’t see it as a disadvantage but as a great advantage."

What is something that stands out in your career or current job?
"In my current position I need to be detail-oriented, extremely organized and able to manage several different projects at the same time. I might not have realized it while studying, but everything I did then has given me the tools to be successful in this position."

How did you learn to word your expertise?
"To be honest, it hasn’t been an easy process. Right after graduating I applied into a mentorship program for recent graduates and found that really helpful. During that mentorship I learned how to describe what I can actually do, without emphasizing a specific degree title. I think the best way is to write down everything you know how to do, whatever the skills might be, and then summarizing those skills into larger concepts."

What advice would you give to someone who is uncertain about how to land their dream job?
"I’m pretty sure no one believes they can land their dream job straight from university. Therefore, I would suggest picturing what your dream job might actually be and gathering information on that job and what skills it might require. Then you could learn and develop those skills in a different position somewhere else, which can really help you in the future when applying to your dream job. The sad part is that you need work experience in order to get work experience."

Why did you do your exchange in Sydney?
"This might sound a bit blunt but the linguistics courses in the different European universities were either non-existent or something I didn’t feel like studying. Therefore, I started looking into other universities and found out that the University of Melbourne and Sydney had really interesting study units available. I applied for both of them and was accepted to study in the University of Sydney."

Have international experiences helped you in work life?
"In general, I believe international experiences, either working or studying abroad, are really useful. You can learn a lot about yourself, and you will definitely get some new skills. I did an internship in London after my first year of studies and realized that translation project management might be something I could also try to do here in Finland. Even though I was an intern, the experience gave me an understanding of the business and the skills required in this field. So, when I applied for a position as a translation project manager, I already had a rough idea what I’m expected to do. I’m sure it helped a lot in the recruiting process."

Viivi Lähteenoja | Digital Humanities

Special Advisor at City of Helsinki

 

Tell us first about your academical and professional background. 
"I did my bachelor’s degree at the University of Cambridge in the Faculty of Classics where I specialized in ancient philosophy. My master’s degree I did at the University of Helsinki in theoretical philosophy. I have also studied at the University of Utrecht some master’s studies, but I didn’t graduate from there. Right now, I’m working on my doctoral thesis about practical philosophy at the Faculty of Social Sciences. 

I have published a few things that relate to Digital Humanities, for example conference reports, posters and an article about the computational methods in researching semantic change in Ancient Greece.  

Professionally I have done various research assistant jobs. For example, I have been a research assistant for conferences and seminars like Philosophy and History of Open Science, Inclusion and Exclusion in the History of Ideas and Digital Humanities in the Nordics 2018. I have also produced these professional conferences, like the MyData conference in 2017 and while working for MyData I was the project leader for the MyData conference 2018.  

After that we founded organization called MyData Global, that is the only international organization that has their headquarters in Finland. There I first worked as Head of Programs and soon after that as the Deputee General Manager. Nowadays I’m working there as the Senior Adviser. I’m the editor and one of the writers of the third MyData White Paper and the editor of Understanding MyData Operators. From MyData I went to work for the City of Helsinki, where I right now work as a specialist in data policy. From that context I went on a secondment to the World Economic Forum, where I lead the Data Policy project called Empowered Data Societies. When that fellowship ends, I will continue at the City of Helsinki as a specialist. That job includes influencing the legislation in both Finland and the EU. I have for example given an expert’s statement at the European Parliament about the new Data Governance Act. The job includes also developing data-led and human centered proactive services." 

Digital Humanities has been a major since the fall 2020. Have you studied Digital Humanities for example as a minor or some separate courses? 
"I haven’t done courses on Digital Humanities, so I have no formal qualification so to speak. I have been the affiliated researcher in the Computational History (ComHis) Group, more on the His than the Com side. And I have written articles with the ComHis people." 

Do you have any thoughts about Digital Humanities being a major? 
"I my opinion it is incredibly nice thing, because this digital revolution affects everything – humanities research as well. I think there are two interesting levels at the digital humanities. First there is the method level, which is about what research techniques we can use for example to study philosophy. On the other hand, there is the substance level, like humanities research about digitalization. My doctoral thesis is about the usage of personal data and the ethics of that. I apply applied ethics and the theoretical points of view of ethics to analyze the current usage of personal data paradigm. These two levels relate to each other, and both are important, and they fit quite nicely under digital humanities." 

Why do you think it is important to study Digital Humanities? 
"I had to transfer to the Faculty of Social Sciences because the supervisor of my doctoral thesis is there. This was a major identity crisis for me, because I identify as a humanist. One cannot emphasize the importance of humanists' fields too much. It is fundamentally important for every society to understand itself as a society and the humans, ourselves, in it. And to study Digital Humanities brings an original angle to all thinking and doing. The analytical capability it brings is super important. Digital humanities are important today. Before, the big thing was to sit in a library or an archive for decades and then you wrote a magnum opus and that was important work then. Nowadays the digital dimension is present in everybody, and it penetrates our lives completely. It would be very artificial to try to understand humanities and the humanists’ fields separate from the digitality that surrounds us."

Was there something that surprised you in your studies? 
"It has been surprising how hard digital humanities really are. The traditional calculatory fields have a very strong research culture, and so do the humanist fields. When you collide these two, there are major culture shocks and clashes. All cooperation is communication and negotiation, but in digital humanities it is even more on the surface because people come from so different backgrounds. It has been a positive experience as well. Researching ancient philosophy in an antique university was very traditional: you sat in a library, wrote and read. When I jumped to these digital humanities circles, the sense of community has been super rewarding. In digital humanities we do a lot together, like writing. It is different than what I had accustomed to." 

What was the subject of your master’s thesis? 
"If I only remembered, The Concept of Cosmos in Milesian Philosophy." 

And are you able to connect digital humanities to your theses? 
"My doctoral thesis is about researching digitalization. I apply ethics to digitalization, data and try to understand the usage of it. I think it is kind of in the core of digital humanities. My master’s thesis on the other hand was very traditional humanistic research and it didn’t have much to do with digital humanities." 

If you could now choose, would you choose digital humanities as your major? 
"Could be. I have always been interested in these subjects. At primary school I read A Brief History of Time and decided I’d become a cosmologist. Then I went to upper secondary school and realized I can’t do math. The “hard sciences” so to speak have always interested me though. Nowadays I code sometimes and quite like it, but in my heart I’m a humanist. But absolutely I would try to find out what I can do there and it would probably be a very considerable option." 

Has there been something memorable in your studies? 
"It has recently, especially along with the doctoral thesis, brightened to me how important the social relevance is. It has of course always been important, but it feels different now. Before if I wanted to study pre-Socratic ethics, you couldn’t be 100% honest about the relevance the research has. It is easier now, when the antiquity research is applied to modern world.  

I have thought a lot about the interaction between the so-called “real world” and “academical world” and how assorted that often is. Academics stay at the university and professionals in their own lockers. It is quite sad, and I try to work hard that both would understand each other better and have a dialogical connection. It is sad that researchers won’t talk about their research in public because they fear that they will be judged in both ends. I think it’s very important the assorting work is." 

And then something about Computational History group. How have you ended up in there? 
"Filipe Silva started to organize the Philosophy and History of Open Science conference with Mikko Tolonen where they needed a research assistant. Filipe was my master’s thesis instructor from traditional philosophy at the time and I had mentioned him that I’m looking for a job. He asked if I’d join that. I grow to like the subject and the people and in addition Mikko and others thought that I did a nice job. So, I stayed in their Slack-channel to hang out and there came along other things, like the Intellectual History seminar and others. I stayed like a resource there that would be invited if they needed help with organizing something." 

How is it to work in a project like Computational History Group? Pros and cons? 
"The multidisciplinary is a huge pro, but also a challenge. For example, the communication with other people, like I said before. It is extremely stimulating when there are so many people researching many things around you. When I was the most active there, I was a master’s student and there were other master’s students, post-doctoral researchers, post-graduate students and professors. I got a whole new point of view to the academical career and what the different phases are. I also got a lot of help from there, for example when I needed to write financing application or post-doctoral plans. Everybody was so helpful. I also got to meet the visiting lecturers, which was very interesting. 

On the other hand, it is very independent. It is not as structured as following a programme and taking certain courses and so on. It is much freer. Your own priorities must be crystal clear, because there are always people around you who have super interesting things going on. There are reading clubs, python courses, friends give speeches, lead courses and it easily spreads all over the place. Nobody will look after you, which is in general quite common in academia, but it gets a different emphasis in this kind of environment where there are so much interesting things going on. Focus to your own work must be very strict."