Category Archives: Careers

Undergraduate vs DPhil: What’s the Difference?

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to continue studying a subject you love, beyond an undergraduate degree? Well, wonder no more! Further study is a popular route taken by our graduates, whether it’s completing a Law conversion, a PGCE, or a DPhil [1] . On the blog this week, current DPhil student in German, Isabel Parkinson, explains what this means and entails…

Being a DPhil student is to exist in a strange, liminal space between the student bubble and the real world. You’re straddling the boundary between town and gown; certainly no longer an undergraduate – in fact, you’re probably teaching them! – but still going to college formals, still claiming a student discount whenever the chance should come your way. I was an undergraduate here at Oxford, and I’m a third-year DPhil student now – not quite long enough to have produced a full thesis, but long enough to have noticed the biggest differences between the two degrees.

Expertise

Even if you are just a couple of weeks into your DPhil research, you’ll have crafted a research proposal that is so niche, and so specific to you, that you are probably already a world expert in your own little field. It’s possible that nobody else in the Faculty will be looking at your chosen author or text, or will have considered your topic with the particular slant that you have put on it, or will have seen the archive material that you’re accessing.

Isabel presenting her research at a conference.

How often you meet with your supervisor will depend on what you both decide, but there is a real possibility that you could go for at least a fortnight without seeing anybody else (theoretically, at least – I do not advise doing this). It’s a personal choice, how much you fill this time and what you fill it with: you may choose to take on teaching commitments, to convene this seminar or that reading group, to deliver outreach, to present at conferences.

Instead of tutors asking you questions to which they already know the answers, your supervisor(s) will ask you for your opinion and input because they recognise it as valuable, informed. It’s a disquieting feeling at first; similar to when the GP asks you what treatment you fancy for whatever ailment you’ve presented them with. But as you’re trusted to set your own working pattern, your hours, your deadlines, as the bare bones of your research proposal get fleshed out, the feeling of being a clueless undergraduate pushed, blindfolded and disoriented, into a world of Real Academics, begins to fade.

People

The end of an undergraduate degree brings an end to tutorial partners, college classes, lectures. Rather, as a DPhil, you will likely mix much more with people in fora not specific to your degree – the MCR [2] , perhaps your scholarship or funding group, on projects or at conferences. It generally means coming into contact much more frequently with people working on very different research – oncology, music, archaeology, politics, anthropology… you get the sense very quickly that you could assemble an unbeatable University Challenge team.

St Hugh’s College, Oxford

Unlike school, undergraduate, and maybe even Master’s, a DPhil cohort is also a much broader cross-section of ages and life stages. I spend an inordinate amount of time saying to new acquaintances, variously, ‘nooo, I can’t believe you’re thirty-seven!’ or ‘wow, so – yes, you were still in primary school when I was a Sixth Former?!’ Mixing with people who have spent years in the working world, or who are married or have children, helps to remind you that life is a little broader and bigger than your laptop screen and your library desk, in a way which the undergraduate world seldom does.

Time

Unlike at undergraduate level, there is more of a sense at DPhil level that you are expected to have a rich life outside of your research. Three senior academics have now told me, independently of each other, that one never has as much free time again after the DPhil – so enjoy that time; read widely; explore new topics; do those things that you didn’t get time for as an undergraduate.

View of the Radcliffe Camera from Exeter College
Focus

From swapping between ten or so subjects at GCSE, three or four at A-Level, a plethora of assorted papers or modules at undergraduate – a DPhil is the culmination of an increasingly specialised focus across your academic journey.

Rather than the constant working towards deadlines as an undergraduate – handing in a completed essay for a tutorial and, Sisyphus-like, beginning the whole process again with a fresh title – you spend three or four years focussing on one title, one big research question. That focus will shift as you get better at research, get worse, and then get better again, as you read more texts and soak up more opinions – but that’s what keeps the whole process so absorbing.

Isabel Parkinson

St Hugh’s College | DPhil in German


[1] Doctorate of Philosophy. The PhD is known as the DPhil in Oxford.

[2] MCR (Middle Common Room): The self-governing body and social centre for graduate students in a college. Fourth year students are also granted MCR membership. The MCR is also a room located in the college. 

Modern Languages Careers: Marketing

In an occasional series, we’ll be dropping in on our former Modern Languages students to see what they are doing now, and how the skills they’ve learned in their degree course have led them to their chosen career. This week, Daniel Abu, who studied French and Italian for his undergraduate degree at Oxford, talks about how his studies have led to a career in Marketing at a Brand Strategy Consultancy.

Transferable skills from the Modern Languages Degree: Narrative in Business

One of the challenges facing modern languages today is justifying the subject to students in terms of its employability and transferable skills, particularly in competition with STEM subjects. A new report funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and carried out by Oxford University will help make that case.

‘Storycraft: the importance of narrative and narrative skills in business’ based on interviews with major UK business leaders, shows the demand for a ‘narrative skillset’ in CEOs, managers and employees of twenty-first century business.

The narrative skillset comprises:
■ Narrative Communication
■ Empathy and Perspective Taking
■ Critical Analysis, Synthesis, and Managing Complex Data
■ Creativity and Imagination
■ Digital Skills

And the study found that Arts and Humanities degrees like Modern Languages are seen by business leaders as specialising in a range of skills that foster this area, such as essay writing, critical thinking, creative thinking, rhetoric and persuasion, storytelling, cross-cultural studies, social analysis, and dealing with ambiguities.

Some of the key findings of the research study are that:
Narrative is a fundamental and indispensable set of skills in business in the twenty-first century. The ability to devise, craft, and deliver a successful narrative is not only a pre-requisite for any CEO or senior executive, but is also increasingly becoming necessary for employees in
any organisation.
Narrative is about persuading another person to embrace an idea and act on it. Narrative exists in action rather than as a static message.
Narrative is necessary for a business to communicate its purpose and values. This reflects dramatic societal and economic changes this century by which society as a whole and employees, especially younger ones, expect businesses to live and operate by positive values.
The old corporate objective of focusing on maximising shareholder financial returns is no longer sufficient.
A successful narrative must be authentic and based on facts and truth.
Audiences for business narratives are becoming increasingly numerous and diverse. Previously, businesses would focus external communications on core audiences such as customers, suppliers, investors, and regulators. Now businesses must engage with a wider
variety of stakeholders and a diverse workforce, actively taking a position on key social issues including the environment, social well-being and the community.
Writing is a critical part of narrative, but it is as much a performative as it is a written form of communication. Body language, facial expressions, staging and engaging an audience are as important as the written word when it comes to disseminating a business narrative.
■ Diversity is integral to narrative on two levels. First, in a multicultural society like the UK even an internal narrative for domestic employees must appeal to people from different cultural, ethnic, gender, linguistic, religious, and educational backgrounds. For businesses with offshore
operations those narratives must cross geographic, social and cultural borders. Second, the devising and crafting of a business narrative must be done by a diverse group of people, reflecting the differences in background among audiences as highlighted above.
Arts and Humanities university degrees are better placed than others to train graduates with narrative skills, but narrative should also be taught across STEM (Science, Technology, Education, and Mathematics) disciplines as well and the Arts and Humanities should not be seen as having a monopoly on narrative skills. The consensus among business leaders interviewed for this project is that the education system in England – at secondary and tertiary levels – is too siloed for the needs of the economy in the twenty-first century, forcing students to choose between either the Arts and Humanities or STEM-related subjects too early. Instead, they argue that the education system should encourage and support students to undertake multidisciplinary
courses of study, because business problems require multidisciplinary solutions.

You can read the full report here.

Modern Languages Teachers’ Conference 2021: All Welcome!

SRTS Teachers' Conference, offline version
The SRTS Teachers’ Conference, pre-pandemic version

We’re delighted to announce that our Oxford University Modern Languages Teachers’ Network, the Sir Robert Taylor Society, is holding its annual conference this year on Thursday 23 and Friday 24 September. If you’re UK modern languages teacher, or have an interest in modern languages teaching at school and university in the UK, you’re warmly invited to attend. Due to Covid, the conference will once again be online this year, with two evenings of roundtable talks and guest speakers.

On Thursday 23 September, from 19:30-21:00 on Microsoft Teams, the theme will be Modern Languages and Careers.

We’ll be talking about, among other things:

  • Career paths of modern languages graduates
  • Employability and demand for modern language skills in the workplace
  • Transferable skills from modern language study
  • STEM pressure and the value of humanities subjects

On Friday 24 September, again from 19:30-21:00, the theme will be Modern Languages and Diversity.

We’ll be talking about, among other things:

  • Revisiting the canon: diversifying and decolonizing the curriculum in language, literature and film
  • Race, gender and sexuality as topics of study in language, literature and film courses
  • Racism, homophobia and other prejudice in literary texts and film
  • Diversity in the student body: widening participation in modern language courses

If you’d like to attend either or both events, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk, and we’ll send you the link to join.

During the events, participation from delegates through the chat and live discussion will be warmly welcome. If you’d like a seat at the Round Table to talk more substantially about either of these topics in secondary or higher education, please let us know, and we’ll be very pleased to accommodate you.

What I did with my Modern Languages Degree

In an occasional series, our graduates talk about where a degree in modern languages has taken them since leaving Oxford. Here is Ian Hudson’s story. Please do share yours with us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

As graduation loomed large in 1980, and I started to pursue opportunities in commercial management with large multi-nationals, I told myself: “If I use my languages, it will be a bonus.” With this frame of mind, I graduated from Oxford with my degree in French and German to embark on what became a 35-year career in the chemical industry.

The first bonus seemed to come quickly, during my first overseas trip to attend a distributor conference in Germany. The organisers had mistakenly assumed that the participants’ command of German would be sufficient to follow the programme content. In fact, the lingua franca was English. I spent three days providing simultaneous translation, and my year abroad in Germany proved very useful.

I encountered the second bonus two years later when my company sent me to France as a sales representative, much to the astonishment of the local French management. They had not yet encountered an English colleague who would be able to negotiate with their customers in French. During my interview lunch (this was Paris of the 1980s), I set their minds at rest by ordering a pastis aperitif and a rare steak, thus passing simultaneously the language and, more importantly, the cultural test.

My career progressed in more global roles where French and German fluency was less in demand, notably in Asia and the USA. Nevertheless, the openness to study other cultures, catalysed by my degree, served me in good stead as I travelled beyond the more familiar European shores.  As I climbed the management ladder, the more important aspect of a languages degree began to assume greater prominence. Interacting with people and managing teams effectively requires an ability to understand their individual motivations and to anticipate their reactions in specific situations. I began to realize that my languages were not the bonus, but rather the foundation of my expertise and skills in my role.

For the last 10 years of my career, I was the Regional President for Dupont de Nemours, covering Europe, Middle East and Africa, based in Geneva. This vast region stretched from Madrid to Novosibirsk and from Oslo to Cape Town, with over 10,000 employees. As I travelled around the region, I was often asked how a languages graduate could fulfil this role in a very technology driven organisation. I replied that 80% of the issues in my role were people related and my languages degree training in literature had more than adequately prepared me to respond to the challenges. Human nature does not change, so the character studies contained in the plays of Molière, Racine, Schiller and Goethe or in the works of Sartre, Camus, Zweig or Mann were just as relevant as I navigated the corporate world. For the remaining 20% of issues, I had hundreds of specialists to whom I could turn for advice, and sometimes even converse with them in their own language.

A languages degree on its own did not fully equip me for my career, but it provided a solid base for other competences that I acquired over time. In today’s world, there are perhaps fewer companies prepared to invest in the complementary training for a management career, but I believe that a languages degree remains just as foundational for a well-rounded and successful career in many fields. Finally, for me, it turns out that the true bonus of a languages degree was not career related at all, but rather my French wife of 35 years, 2 bilingual children, and many cross-cultural friendships.

Ian Hudson, Lincoln College, Oxford 1976-80

Skills and employability in the arts and humanities

The British Academy has commissioned a major piece of research into the employment prospects for graduates with degrees in the arts, humanities and social sciences. One of the things they wanted to look into was what seems to be a pervasive idea, sometimes repeated to students seeking advice on A-level choices and university courses, that studying STEM subjects will give you significantly better career prospects than studying a humanities subject like English, history or modern languages.

So is that true? Are you really better off studying engineering rather than German? Maths rather than geography?

Well, short answer: no you aren’t. Humanities subjects were found to be level-pegging with STEM subjects in terms of their general employment prospects, and to have distinct advantages over STEM in certain aspects of your career.

I’d encourage you to have a look at the report itself, which you can find here. (You can also see it discussed by the UK press here.)

Some of the most important findings of the research are these:

  1. Graduates from arts, humanities and social science subjects appear to have more flexibility and choice in their career than STEM graduates. They’re more likely than STEM graduates to voluntarily move to different sectors of employment, or to change role in their job, and to do so without wage penalty.
  2. In the most recent statistics, 88% of UK humanities graduates were in employment, and 89% of STEM graduates. This suggests there isn’t a significant difference in employment prospects between the two fields.
  3. Of the ten fastest growing sectors in the UK economy, eight of them employ more graduates from the arts, humanities and social sciences than from other disciplines.
  4. There’s a strong link between the skills developed in university by humanities students and the top skills needed to thrive in 21st century work. The top five skills developed by humanities students are: becoming an independent learner, thinking critically and analytically, being innovative and creative, working effectively with others, and writing clearly and effectively. These match up closely to the seven skills found to be most important for 21st century work, which are: initiative and entrepreneuralism (independent learner), accessing and analysing information, and critical thinking and problem solving (thinking critically and analytically), agility and adaptability, and curiosity and imagination (being innovative and creative), collaboration and leadership (working effectively with others), and effective oral and written communication (writing clearly and effectively).

The British Academy sum up the findings of their report as follows:

Graduates who study arts, humanities and social science disciplines are highly employable across a range of sectors and roles. They have skills employers value – communication, collaboration, research and analysis, independence, creativity and adaptability – and are able to build flexible careers which may move across a number of areas of employment while remaining resilient to economic downturns. They are employed in sectors which underpin the UK economy and are among the fastest growing – financial, legal and professional services, information and communication, and the creative industries – as well as in socially valuable roles in public administration and education.

Young people chose to enter higher education for many reasons of which salary is only one, but it is a legitimate question to consider what the economic return is on the substantial investment which is a degree course, both in time and money. Overall, salary levels for arts, humanities and social science graduates are a little lower on average than for graduates in science, engineering, technology and medicine, but this top-level picture conceals complexity underneath. Consistently high salaries in medicine and dentistry drive much of the difference, while the other discipline areas which make up the two broad groups show far more variance in earnings within subjects. As individuals progress through the first ten years of their career, arts, humanities and social science graduates are able make strong progress up the career ladder into roles attracting higher salaries.

Whatever the future holds for the UK, it is our people, their skills, knowledge and attributes, that will ensure prosperity and wellbeing. We need to build an evidence-led, broad and balanced education and skills system to create the society we want to live in. The challenges the world is facing – climate change, global pandemics, the growth of populism – need the insights of the arts, humanities and social sciences as much as those from science, technology and engineering. The importance of a highly qualified and versatile labour force for productivity and economic growth cannot be underestimated. Our evidence shows that arts, humanities and social science graduates are central to this ongoing and long-term requirement. They are well equipped to profit from, and more importantly shape, the new opportunities of the future.

Humanities at Work

Earlier this month, The Oxford Reseach Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) hosted an event which shone a spotlight on why the humanities are valued in the world of work. Entitled ‘Humanities at Work: a panel discussion on why employers value humanities degrees’, the event took the form of a discussion between three professionals who studied humanities subjects and have gone on to successful careers in business and finance. Here we cover some of the highlights of the discussion.

The discussion was chaired by Philip Bullock, Professor of Russian Literature and Music, and Director of TORCH. The three panelists were:

  • Jiaxi Liu, from the investment business Baillie Gifford. Dr Jiaxi Liu trained as a classical pianist and has a PhD in music cognition. She has been working as an investment analyst for three years.
  • Adam Lisle, from the supermarket Lidl. Adam Lisle is a senior HR professional, who works at Lidl GB as Head of Recruitment and Employer Brand. He has worked for Lidl for 14 years, including 17 months in Germany, where he gained valuable language skills. He studied European Business Management at university.
  • Micah Coston, Perrett Laver. Dr Micah Coston is a Senior Research Associate at Perrett Laver, a company which identifies and engages global candidates for leadership roles in Higher Education. His undergraduate degree was in Music and he has an MA in Performance Studies and another in Shakespeare Studies, as well as D. Phil. in English Literature.

Does choosing a degree subject limit you?

Mr Lisle said that he remembers agonising over which subject to study, and even doubting his choice during the degree itself. But employers look across a wide range of degrees and are interested in what you learn during the experience of gaining a degree and how you translate that to a professional context, rather than necessarily focussing on the subject itself. Dr Liu emphasised the role of critical thinking, literacy, and the ability to construct an argument – all skills acquired in a humanities degree. Dr Coston added that you are only limited by yourself so it is important to know your own skill set and follow your strengths, regardless of degree choice.

How do we differentiate between the subject studied and the skills acquired during a degree?

Dr Liu and Mr Lisle agreed that humanities students have a different way of approaching a problem, and that this is useful in the workplace, where sometimes a variety of viewpoints are needed in order to solve problems collaboratively. Dr Coston felt we should not necessarily be putting the emphasis on vocation when we think about degree choice. In other words, we should not only think of a degree as a route to a job but also value it for what we learn in terms of personal development: learning how to think, feel, and grow.

Is there anything a humanities degree does not equip us with? Where are the gaps between what we learn at degree level and the world of work?

The panelists made the point that adapting to the world of work is hard. It takes time to understand how to apply what you’ve learned to a professional context. The work is never really complete in that each report you produce, for example, will be a prompt for future discussion in a constant process of development and learning. We have to recognise that, even when in a job, we are engaged in a workin progress, always building. Deadlines are important, as is being able to deliver something well, but we also need to undertand that everything we produce serves as inspiration for the next step.

What advice should we give to humanities graduates when preparing for a job?

Research the company and make sure it’s a good fit for you and that you share the company’s values. Understand what you’re getting into before applying and try to find out what the company doesn’t know about itself. Think about your own goals: if you are approaching an employer to explore your options e.g. at a careers fair, the conversation will be smoother if you know what you want and can help steer the discussion. It’s also worth recognising that if a challenge seems insurmountable during the application process, it might simply not be the right job for you. When you’re looking for jobs try to talk to people as much as possible because online applications can be demoralising if you do lots of them. It’s important to meet the people behind the company and talk to them – this is where humanities students have an advantage.

What are the key employability skills humanities graduates have? Are there any they don’t have?

Communication is a key pillar of any big, varied company. Humanities students who know how to communicate clearly and precisely will be valued. Teamwork and leadership are also important: the humanities teach us to think independently, so that we learn to define and own a project. The danger, however, is that we may become too attached to a project and reluctant to let it go. Businesses sometimes require us to let go and move on to the next project.

Do employers value freelance experience?

It’s important to have some experience of applying skills to a practical context so it may be worth doing an internship or a bit of freelancing, or even a micro-internship, so that you start to adjust your perspective early on. But don’t neglect your degree! Focus on developing you as yourself, rather than trying to fit a particular company while you’re still studying.

How will technology change the skills employers are looking for?

We have to work with technology and make it work for us, not vice versa. Technology is not a replacement but a collaborator. We will need new skills to deal with technology, and technology cannot replace creativity, which humanities students have in abundance.

What should humanities students do now to prepare for the job market?

Explore what’s on offer in terms of jobs and figure out what drives you. Above all, enjoy your degree and make the most of it!

Thanks to all the speakers, TORCH, and St Cross College who hosted the event. If you’re thinking of applying to Oxford, you might like to know that we have a brilliant Careers Service, staffed by a team with lots of expert knowledge, advice and experience. As well as offering a comprehensive skill-building programme they offer hundreds of internships in over 40 countries and advertise thousands of job opportunities on their own CareersConnect website. This is open not just to current students, but to alumni throughout their life.

Snapshots of graduate destinations in Russian – back for more

Two weeks ago, we posted some snapshots of career destinations from alumni who have studied Russian. From journalism to business, from marketing to translating, it’s fascinating to see where our graduates end up. This week, we’ve included a few more snapshots to give you an insight into the vast range of career options open to linguists. These were originally published on the Creative Multilingualism blog.

  • “I became a journalist when I left Oxford – and intended to go back to Moscow to become a reporter. However, I ended up in New York instead and took a different path, which led to a career as an author. I have now written 8 books and am about to embark on a 9th. I was awarded an honorary D.Sc. last summer, which is perhaps unusual for an arts graduate and a Russianist. I have done a huge amount of work in making science accessible and entertaining to primary school children, hence the award.”
  • “After graduation I spent 3 and a half years in Moscow. I worked for a French sports retail company called Decathlon. I spent that time speaking virtually no English. It meant that I am now very fluent in both French and Russian (plus I know how to say every type of sports equipment under the sun in both languages). After Decathlon, I decided that I wanted to pursue a more academic career (law) and I went to work for an English law firm in Moscow as a paralegal for the remainder of my time in Russia. I came back to the UK, did my law qualification and, before starting work in London, I decided I wanted one last adventure. I went to China for a year and taught myself Mandarin. I’ve been working in London since 2011 in an international law firm and have also spent spells working in China. I specialise in EU and competition law.”
  • “I joined a classical music publisher on leaving Oxford, at first as an intern and then as a permanent member of staff. I have also worked in the Publications team at the National Portrait Gallery.”
  • “I produce TV commercials.”
  • “I have been working as an editor for an educational publishing company since graduating from Oxford. Presently, my husband and I are setting up a beer brewery.”
  • “I went back to Moscow after graduating and tried out various jobs such as English teaching, working as trilingual PA in a Russian bank, a journalist, translator, copy-editor; then I worked for 3 years at an artist management company in London (working with many Russian artists), then for a year at a marketing company with a Russian client base. I’m now back at university doing an M.Sc. in Speech and Language therapy (which involves linguistics and phonetics).”
  • “I completed a Master’s in Russian and East European Studies at Harvard. I’m now a corporate lawyer by day (and most of the night) where I work heavily with Russian and Eastern European clients (I have used Russian, Czech, Slovak and Ukrainian – picked up at Harvard – at work). For the remainder of the night I am a struggling writer (on things Russian).”
  • “I continued my study of languages, first Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies as part of a Master’s, for which my major was Law in the Middle East and North Africa, then Chinese at BPP University as part of a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC), all funded by the law firm I work for in London as a trainee solicitor. I’m also a freelance producer of short films, comedy and theatre.”