Katja Woxell

From Linguistics to Life Sciences – through Cognitive Semiotics


 This is the fascinating thing about cognitive semiotics: It is not only humanities with qualitative research. It is also hard-core science grounded in data that speaks for itself. 

Katja Woxell, MA in Cognitive Semiotics, 2021

“Your life can only become what your imagination allows.” This is what I wrote in my diary a few months ago to help myself get through a long job-seeking journey. I always fantasized about working at Lund University, and I knew that one day this fantasy would become a reality. And it did! I recently landed my dream job at the medical faculty – a job that combines both communication about research infrastructures and development and implementation of strategies for communication. I am now communication officer for the EU-financed research project HALOS in life sciences and the research Infrastructure InfraVis involving all research areas, financed by the Swedish Research Council.  

My responsibilities are quite broad and include everything from devising communication strategies to executing them, involving stakeholder engagement both internally and externally. On a regular working day, you might find me reformulating and sharpening statements about the related infrastructures, producing targeted verbal and multimodal media, working with websites, blogs, print and social media, creating surveys to elicit responses that can help with strategic analysis or managing external events such as webinars and conferences, to mention just a few. 

I have been told by my boss that I was called to the interview because I was a linguist. Studying the master’s programme in Language and Linguistics and specializing in cognitive semiotics is the smartest decision I have ever made! 

This is the story of how cognitive semiotics helped me explore all my talents, create a better version of myself and land my dream job.  

My interests went beyond linguistics

People often “define” us by our most prominent interest but it does not mean that we have no other interests. My whole town knew me as the language nerd and I was often called the “walking dictionary”. Although I thought learning new languages was fun, what really fascinated me about language was how you could build others up or tear them down by the power of language – your word choice, word order and intonation, as placed in a context. I guess that’s why psychology and philosophy were not any less important to me: I was fascinated by figuring out people’s thoughts and intentions. That’s why, in my childish thoughts I was dreaming of inventing a mind-reading machine. And when my nerdy thoughts were at rest, I was secretly dreaming of dancing classical ballet. 

Cognitive semiotics equipped me with everything a good strategic communicator needs

When I moved to Sweden, I decided to start a new life – a life where I would make all my dreams come true and realize my full potential. Cognitive semiotics helped me do just that, which eventually led to me landing my current role. In my master’s thesis, I investigated the role of empathy in dance perception, so that I could make my childhood dreams come true in some way. In order to develop a better understanding of dance on stage vs. on film, I engaged with the aspects of production, perception and analysis of visual material quite early on through, for example, courses in Meaning, Mind and Communication and Translation Theory where visual and multimodal communication are focal, or through a summer course at Århus University where I developed strong interest for communicating ideas through video. As for the focal concept of my master’s thesis – empathy, that is our ability to understand others’ feelings, thoughts and behavior, it is the single most crucial skill in communication. Much of my master’s thesis furthermore relied on the philosophical method of phenomenology which aims for “careful description of what appears to consciousness precisely in the manner of its appearing”. This statement, and phenomenology at large, have had an enormous impact on my thinking and thus on how I communicate ideas or experiences, be it in writing, in speech or in visual media. 

If you want to become a good communicator or a good writer, you should learn at least the basics of phenomenology to be able to let your audience experience the experiences that you are trying to describe. 

The master’s program in Language and Linguistics, and namely my specialization in cognitive semiotics, equipped me, directly or indirectly, with everything a good strategic communicator needs – sharp language skills, strong empathetic skills, strong skills for making experiences come to life as well as taste and skills in visual media production.

Not easy to explain my educational background to employers

As exotic as research on empathy and dance sounds, it took me half a year after graduation to figure out how I could market my educational and research background without confusing people. What does research on empathy and dance have to do with the fact that you have majored in linguistics? Very hard to connect the dots. I needed to explain my specialization – cognitive semiotics, which in and of itself is a rather exotic and untraditional educational path that many employers have never heard of. And believe me, no employer has so much time or patience to listen to lengthy explanations. You need to keep it simple and down-to-earth.

Long story short – Pick out relevant details

I focused on the general concept of empathy: how my research on empathy had helped me develop an even deeper understanding for others’ feelings, behavior and circumstances and how I had used this in my side jobs to turn angry customers into grateful customers, for example. Furthermore, considering that my current role at the medical faculty encompasses not only general but also research communication, I focused on marketing my research skills to the hiring manager. This probably gave me an edge compared to other candidates with a background in communication. In my master’s thesis, I had worked with psychophysiological data, I had read literature not only in neuroscience and psychology but also in medicine. This is to say that although I had not specifically done research in medicine, I had a great understanding for research. 

This is the fascinating thing about cognitive semiotics: It is not only humanities with qualitative research. It is also hard-core science grounded in data that speaks for itself. 

Cognitive semiotics helped me become a better person

People often think of education as a way of getting a better job and better living conditions. But education should do so much more than that. It should be able to help you become a better person. My master’s research on empathy made me more aware of how others experience the world, how I should treat others or how I should conduct myself in general, keeping in mind that my actions have implications for other peoples’ feelings and lives. 

My 8 tips to you, my fellow linguists and cognitive semioticians: 

  • It is important to think strategically when you are choosing the topic of your master’s thesis, but even more important is to write about something that will satisfy your innermost and truest self, even if it is unclear how you could apply that outside of academia.
  • In your course papers, you have quite a lot of freedom in terms of the topic you want to write about. Map out the possible industries in which you can imagine working and explore all of those industries a little bit through your course papers. This can give you an unexpected advantage later on. 
  • If you intend on working within strategic communication or marketing, it is important to complement your education with relevant courses or practical experience in order to develop a more industry-friendly mindset as well as to sharpen your skillset. 
  • In strategic communication and marketing, being a good writer and/or a good speaker are a must. If you are studying linguistics, chances are you already possess some talent but you really need to sharpen these skills. I’ve been writing poetry and short stories, giving speeches and moving the audience to tears ever since I was a child, but I’ve been constantly developing those skills through courses in creative writing, drama and public speaking or by writing for Lundagård, for instance. You could do the same. No matter how talented you are, there is always so much more that you can learn.
  • Invest in developing practical skills such as photo- and video-editing, if you want to work in communication or marketing. Employers are agreeing more and more that video is the medium of the future. You need to be versatile. Being good at only verbal communication is no longer enough. 
  • If you can’t decide whether you want to do research or work outside of academia, go after varied opportunities whenever they present themselves. I did both research- and communication-related jobs. And guess what? My previous research experience makes my job as a communication officer both easy and fun because I can understand the researchers using the HALOS and InfraVis research infrastructures at the same time as I enjoy communicating about their research. 
  • Even the most irrelevant job you have had has taught you something extremely valuable for the new job that you are applying for. Would I ever imagine marketing my experience of teaching both children and adults as a skill in adjusting communication to target groups? No, because you never think of it that way. All you need is to dig deeper into your previous experiences. 
  • Lastly, your success story begins by you improving your personality every single day. We all have rough edges. You can’t become a diamond if you are not willing to polish them.  

Text: Katja Woxell 2022

Katja Woxell

About Katja

Name: Katja Woxell

Profession: Communication Officer for Research Infrastructures HALOS and InfraVis at Lund University

Education: English Language and Literature, MA in Langauge and Linguistics, Cognitive Semiotics

During her internship at the Division for External Relations at Lunds University, Khatia arranged a webinar about the paths that our alumni have taken after graduation. After the webinar, we hired Katja as a project assistant to create the alumni portraits that you see on this webpage.

Sidansvarig: jordan.zlatevling.luse | 2023-12-15