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.
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.
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.”
Continuing the careers theme, today on Adventures on the Bookshelf we’re sharing some glimpses of the many career paths our graduates in Russian have followed. These quotations from our former students were gathered in 2016. They were originally featured on the Creative Mulitlingualism website. Here are a handful – more will follow in the coming weeks…
Where has your degree in Russian taken you?
- “I now live in Vienna and am working as a translator at the UN, the International Atomic Energy Authority and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, mostly translating from Russian.”
- “I moved to a business intelligence firm in the city, where I specialised as an analyst on Russia and the former Soviet Union. I undertook due diligence and intelligence analysis on businessmen, corporations and politicians, looking for signs of corruption, criminal activity and unsavoury connections. I was using my Russian (and at times also Polish) on a daily basis, scouring Russian-language news articles, legal records, corporate registries and blog sites, as well as speaking to human intelligence sources on the ground. I’ve recently begun a two-year-Master’s of International Affairs in Berlin, and hope to spend the second year of the degree abroad at Columbia University in New York, specialising in security and human rights in Russia and the former Soviet Union.”
- “I worked in Moscow for 4 years, first at the BBC Monitoring Service for a year and a half (translating news broadcasts from Russian TV and radio), which I enjoyed very much. I then moved to the Moscow Times. I’ve now gone back to university in London and am doing an M.Sc. in Speech and Language Therapy.”
- “I did an M.A. at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, and started working at the BBC. I spent a total of 6 years with the BBC – from admin to on-air journalism, and loved it. From news producing in the World Service newsroom, to a 3-week research trip to Pakistan. Then moved to Moscow to work with the RIA Novosti translation department (on Russian government websites). I’ve been in Moscow for 5 years and am now a Consultant in PR and Financial IR, in a consultancy specialising in Russia, the former Soviet Union and emerging markets.”
- “I’m an installation artist and writer, also a translator specialising in art and architecture (from German into English as I live in Austria) and occasionally fiction. I’ve also worked as a cultural journalist.”
- “I run a language learning website through which I sell intensive German, Russian and Greek courses and learning materials, while also organising international conferences on language learning and multilingualism, and working with organisations such as the British Council and the European Union to promote multilingualism worldwide, while also writing a book on language learning.”
- “I initially worked as the PA to a wine critic for a few months while applying for grad schemes. I ended up in my current job (as a strategist in a branding agency) almost by chance, but am very much enjoying it. As the only person in the agency who speaks Russian, I’m often called on for translations and general cultural insight.”
These are just a handful of the possible career options in languages. Truly, the world is your oyster!
This week on Adventures on the Bookshelf we bring you a career profile with a difference. Samantha Miller, who studied French and Italian from scratch at Somerville College and graduated in 2011, began her career in the publishing world before changing course and becoming a graphic designer. Here she tells us about her career route and how a languages degree from Oxford prepared her for the working world…
I studied French and Italian at Somerville, graduating in 2011. On my year abroad I got a job at a literary agency in Paris, which I had enjoyed, so after graduating I was keen to work in the publishing industry. After doing an internship at another literary agency in London, I landed a job at a large independent children’s book publisher working in the Foreign Rights department. Rights isn’t an area that many people outside of publishing have heard of, but it’s a really excellent choice for languages students. Basically, you are selling the translation rights to books to foreign publishers around the world. It gives you a broad insight into lots of areas of the business, and usually has good opportunities for foreign travel to international book fairs and to visit other publishing houses around the world.
After staying in the role for over five years, I decided I wanted a job with more creativity and flexibility. I did a three-month intensive graphic design course which taught me how to use design software, and more importantly how to generate ideas and solve design problems in a structured way. I got a job as a junior designer shortly after finishing the course. I now work at a small design and brand consultancy working on projects for large international corporate organisations in sectors such as law, insurance and property. The work is varied and challenging, although the hours are not as forgiving as in the publishing world!
Although I have rarely used any knowledge from my degree directly at work, the skills you gain from presenting your ideas in tutorials, navigating a year abroad, and processing large amounts of information quickly are invaluable. Clear communication and an international outlook are vital components of so many roles, and a languages degree gives you these. Most importantly, Oxford teaches you how to learn. Although it took me a long time to work up to courage to leave my job in publishing and retrain completely, I have found that much of my previous experience is transferable and employers do take this into account when considering candidates who have had career changes.
This week we bring you another career profile by a recent graduate. Elena, from Somerset, studied French and German at Wadham College and graduated in 2011. She now works at the Department for Transport as Head of Drones Policy & Legislation. Here, Elena tells us more…
In my year abroad I did an internship with a German MP in Berlin and at university I’d always been interested in politics, volunteering and trying to improve things around me. After I graduated that led to 2 years working for Student Hubs and Hub Commercial Ventures, the charity and social enterprise company behind Oxford Hub and the Turl Street Kitchen. That taught me a lot about grassroots working and campaigning, and following that I joined the Civil Service Fast Stream. I was put on a series of placements across Government, and also a secondment to Shelter the housing charity. I worked on a range of interesting projects, from tax policy to military procurements, and eventually ended up working for the Transport Secretary of State’s special advisers. After that I specifically requested an EU-related role and was given a role coordinating the UK’s response to the EU Aviation Strategy. I used my languages quite a bit in this role, making friends with my French and German counterparts in particular, when I attended EU workshops on policies and negotiations. I also got to participate in a 2 week Commission-run training course, where they introduced Member State civil servants to the EU. My favourite session was one with some European Commission interpreters where we all got to have a go at interpreting a live speech.
After this, I moved onto another role in the Aviation team – I now lead the team doing policy & legislation for the leisure and commercial use of drones in the UK. It’s a new emerging technology and poses quite a challenge to regulators because of it. As well as developing and implementing new UK legislation for drones, we do a lot of international work on it, including feeding into new EU rules in this area. I’ve occasionally used my languages then, although sadly not as much as I’d like.
A languages degree hasn’t been essential to any of the work I’ve done since I’ve left university. But it gave me skills I’ve used ever since. My time studying French & German gave me excellent writing and communication skills, which is crucial in the civil service, given how much we do is written. It also gave me an appreciation for different and wider perspectives, and the difficulties of communication, which has helped me immeasurably in dealing with challenging situations and interactions. Finally, although language skills haven’t been a requirement of any job I’ve worked in yet, it might well be in the future. There are lots of civil service jobs that do require language skills, and this seems likely to increase as the UK civil service grows its EU and international expertise post-Brexit. Having language skills will increase the number of jobs open to me.
This week on the blog we bring you another career profile from one of our recent graduates. Ellie, who studied French at St Anne’s College, now works as an actor in London. Acting is, perhaps, not a career many of us would automatically associate with Modern Languages. However, did you know that many famous actors are multilingual? As well as speaking English, Jodie Foster, Kristin Scott Thomas, Bradley Cooper, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all speak French. Colin Firth speaks fluent Italian, Gwyneth Paltrow speaks Spanish, and Sandra Bullock speaks German. Meanwhile, some actors speak a whole range of languages: Natalie Portman (Hebrew, German, Spanish, Japanese); Viggo Mortensen (Danish, Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic, Catalan, Norwegian, Swedish); Penélope Cruz (Italian, Spanish). And these are to name just a few!
Ellie tells us how languages are giving her a boost when it comes to a career in acting…
Name: Ellie Shaw
Profession: Actor and Singer
Studied: French sole, 2012-2016
After graduating with a degree in French in 2016, I trained as an actor and singer at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama where I earned an MA. I’m now building my career as an actor in London, and I also currently work at the Tate Modern and the Barbican Centre. When I initially undertook my actor training I never thought languages would be immediately useful, but countless directors and my agent have all really emphasised the utility of having foreign languages at hand. As an actress in London it makes me stand out. In fact, I just wrapped a short film where I was speaking French and I’m about to do a self-tape for my agent for an audition for a feature set in France; fluent French is a must for this role. Indirectly, learning a foreign language and going on a year abroad equips you with the kind of confidence to get any job you want – for me, it’s standing on stage or in front of a panel making a fool of yourself fearlessly. You learn to process written information more quickly and understand nuances in communication more effectively. It’s also – most importantly – part of my long-running campaign to marry Timothee Chalamet.
Ellie is currently starring as Daisy Buchanan in the immersive theatre show The Great Gatsby.
Bonus… Here’s a video of Viggo Mortensen speaking seven languages!
This week in our series on career profiles, we’re speaking to Gemma Tidman, who studied French at Worcester College and graduated in 2011. Having attended a big comprehensive school in a small village in Somerset, Gemma now researches and teaches French literature at St John’s College, Oxford. She tells us a bit about her route into an academic job…
During my degree, I figured out that I wanted a number of things from a career: the ability to use my language skills on a regular basis, to travel, to meet interesting people and to continue learning new things. I also knew that I loved my degree, that I enjoyed academic writing, and during my year abroad I learned that I really liked teaching (I was an English-language teaching assistant in a lycée in South-West France). I wasn’t sure what all this meant in terms of a career, but it sounded like these were things I could keep doing during a Master’s, so that’s where I started. I did the Oxford Master’s course in the European Enlightenment (2011-12), and had some brilliant tutors who inspired in me a love of eighteenth-century French literature and cultural history.
After the Master’s, I still wasn’t sure what to do next. I applied for a PhD, but in the end decided that I needed to try something beyond university. So, I took a job at the Wallace Collection, in London – a national museum that specialises in eighteenth-century French visual and decorative arts, among other things. I worked with a great team of people, on projects involving marketing, public engagement, and fundraising. I loved the job! I got to use my French skills now and then, and to pursue my interest in eighteenth-century France. But, after six months or so, I realised that I missed teaching and research. So, in 2013 I decided to go back to university… and I began a PhD in French, back in Oxford.
My PhD looked at the history of how literature was taught in France, during the second half of the eighteenth century (If you’re interested, you can read more about it here). But a PhD is more than just the 80,000 words you produce at the end of four years: it’s also four years of great experiences. During the PhD I spent a year living in Paris, where I taught at a French university. I spent afternoons conducting research on 250-year-old handwritten papers, held in archives in a castle. I had a month as a visiting student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, working with wonderful academics and students. And I got the chance to do more teaching, which I loved. I also had the time to pursue other projects I cared about: I became involved in university widening participation and outreach work, and I took up triathlon!
After my PhD, I managed to land a one-year research and teaching post at Worcester College: back where I started as an undergraduate. If you had told me, when I began my BA in 2007, that I would be working there as an academic a decade later, I never would have believed you. After that, I moved to my current post at St John’s College. In spite of (or perhaps because of?) some long, hard days of reading, thinking, writing…and sometimes deleting it all and starting again… I love what I do. I’m lucky to work with great colleagues and students, on a subject that I’m passionate about, and to get to contribute to the way we think about, and teach, French literature and cultural history.
I’d say to anyone wondering whether they have ‘the right’ profile for academia that there is no ‘right profile’. I’m from a first-generation, comprehensive school background; I didn’t always know I wanted to be an academic; I didn’t go straight through from undergraduate to PhD: and I’ve made it this far. Most people know that getting into academia isn’t plain sailing – there are many hurdles to face, from securing postgraduate funding to dealing with tough peer reviews, from long, long hours to finding a permanent post in a competitive field. In all of this, there can be a lot of luck involved, and you’ll need to be prepared to put in some years of groundwork (in terms of further study, fixed contract posts, etc) before you – hopefully – begin to see it pay off. But in terms of the skills you need, if you’re resilient, up for some hard work, and above all if you love reading and writing about your subject, they’re probably the major things you need. To all budding academics: go for it!
This week we continue our series on career profiles. We hear from Daniel Milnes, who studied German and Russian at Somerville College and graduated in 2011. Orginally from Leeds, Daniel now works as a Curator for modern and contemporary art at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for Contemporary Art in Berlin. Daniel tells us how his languages have fed into his career path…
After graduating from Oxford in 2011 I completed a Master’s degree in Art History at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg with a research period at the European University at Saint Petersburg (2011-2013). This proved to be the first step toward my current career as a curator for contemporary art. After graduation I completed a two-year traineeship in curatorial practice at the Kunstmuseum in Stuttgart where I served as assistant curator on two large-scale exhibition projects as well as curating my own exhibition with the artist Raphael Sbrzesny. This led to my next position as Assistant Curator at Haus der Kunst, Munich, a leading international institution for the display and discussion of contemporary art and culture.
At Haus der Kunst I served as assistant curator for the project “Postwar: Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965” which redefined the art historical canon of the postwar period from a multifocal and global perspective, deconstructing the traditional narrative that has until recently been dominated by the work of white male artists from the West. For this project I was responsible for the selection of art from the Soviet Union, liaising with artists, curators, theoreticians, and museum workers in Russia. My contact to the contemporary Russian art world was further strengthened through the development of a solo exhibition with media artist Polina Kanis, who works between Moscow and Amsterdam. In addition, I curated two further exhibition projects which analysed how models of identity have changed since digital forms of mediation have come to dominate daily life.
Since 2018 I am working as Assistant Curator at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for Contemporary Art in Berlin, where I am currently organizing the exhibition of the winner of the National Gallery Prize, Agnieszka Polska.
In my day-to-day working life I am constantly travelling and shifting between languages in order to coordinate exhibitions, write academic articles, proofread catalogues, give tours through exhibitions, deliver presentations and speeches, and liaise with artists. This would all be unthinkable without my training in Modern Languages and the sensibility for the nuances of language and culture that it fostered.
This week we hear from another Modern Languages graduate from Oxford, Elen Roberts. Originally from Cardiff, Elen studied French and German at St Anne’s College and is now a Trainee Solicitor at Marriott Harrison LLP, London.
I studied French and German at St Anne’s College from 2008 until 2012. I spent my year abroad in Munich, Nantes and Grenoble (15 months in total, as I did not spend either summer at home) where I worked as a marketing intern, au pair and translator respectively. The year abroad was without doubt one of the most enriching periods of my life, as I got to travel all around France and Germany and meet so many new and interesting people.
After graduating I undertook a TEFL course in Cardiff (my home city) and then taught English for two years at various private schools and universities in Hamburg and Berlin. My first teaching job was actually at Hamburg’s French Lycée! It goes without saying that my language skills came in useful there, as I was switching between English, French and German on a daily basis to teach different groups of children of various ages.
I then came back to the UK and did the law conversion course, which took a further two years. I am now in my final few months of training to be a solicitor at a small City firm, Marriott Harrison LLP. Although we are mainly instructed on UK matters, some of our deals and disputes have a foreign element where my French and German skills have come in very handy. So far, I have been asked to translate email correspondence, and analyse the corporate documents of various French, German and Swiss companies and then explaining them to senior colleagues. This has saved the firm the time and expense of having to hire professional translators and getting them to sign non-disclosure agreements. (A lot of our work is confidential).
In a nutshell, if you are considering a career in the law, or any field where you would have to engage with foreign businesses, a working knowledge of European languages is most definitely an asset!