Tag Archives: employability

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.

Employability (Part Two)

posted by Simon Kemp

A couple of weeks ago we examined the statistics that show modern languages to be one of the best subjects to study at university in terms of the employability of its graduates. Today I want to tell you about some of the jobs my own students have gone into after graduation, to give you an idea of the range of opportunities open to people with a modern languages degree.

Let’s start with the City:

International business and finance are popular destinations for modern languages graduates, especially those who thrive in an atmosphere of high stakes, high pressure, and high salaries. Increasingly interconnected global markets need global communicators, and people with the ability to conduct business in languages other than English are much in demand. A former student of mine now works in the Gherkin, with access to the exclusive private dining under the panoramic glass dome on the top floor. What’s it like? I’ll tell you after she’s remembered to invite me.



There’s no need to stay in the UK, of course. As we saw earlier, more modern languages graduates get their first job abroad than graduates from any other subject. One of our former students now works at the Deutsche Bank headquarters in Frankfurt (above). Another, who maybe has slightly different priorities in life, headed straight back after graduation to the Caribbean island of Martinique, where he’d spent his year abroad during the degree, to carry on teaching English to local children.

Another major destination for our students is law. While it’s possible to become a lawyer by doing a three-year undergraduate degree in law, it’s also possible, and very popular, to take an undergraduate degree in another subject, followed by a one-year ‘law conversion’ course at masters level.

The combination of a modern languages degree and law conversion is a common route into the profession, with the obvious advantage that it also opens doors into international law. The reverse method, by the way, doesn’t work: you can’t top up an undergraduate law degree with a year-long modern languages course. That’s because it takes time to gain fluency in a foreign language: it’s not just a matter of learning the rules, but of letting them percolate into your brain through practice and reinforcement over a period of years.

Then, there’s the civil service.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the British Foreign Office are desperate for qualified linguists. There are posts in Britain, or also working abroad in British consulates with the diplomatic service. Plus, there is the European Union: many modern languages graduates go on to work as translators, interpreters, administrators or political analysts at the EU. And, of course, there are the Security Services, for whom languages are of utmost importance. On-screen, James Bond has to date been seen speaking fluent French, Spanish, Danish, German, Russian and Egyptian Arabic, which is quite some achievement. Have any of my students followed in his footsteps to GCHQ, MI5, MI6? Would I be able to tell you even if I knew…?

Journalism is another destination for our graduates. I now have several of my former students working for the national and international press. Not only do your language skills enable you to become an effective foreign correspondent, you’ll also learn through your degree to become an expert user of the English language, gradually honing your skills in expressing compelling arguments in clear and precise prose, as well as your skills in meeting deadlines for your copy (possibly by staying up very late and pressing ‘send’ at 11:59 pm on the due date).

Talking of writing, there are other, more creative routes into which your degree can take you. None of my former students is a famous writer yet, but give them time. My predecessor as the Fellow in French at Somerville, Dr Enid Starkie, though, made an impression on one of her modern languages students. Julian Barnes, recent winner of the Booker Prize, hilariously and unkindly immortalized her in his great novel, Flaubert’s Parrot. Other modern linguists who went on to become writers include John Le Carré, and J. K. Rowling, whose French and Latin degree clearly shows through in the made-up words, names and spells of the Potterverse. Studying culture and communication at university is a good grounding for your own creativity, and many modern languages graduates go on to creative roles, writing, composing, performing or presenting. We can’t guarantee you a media career like modern linguist celebs Nigella Lawson, Bear Grylls or Derren Brown, but we can certainly inspire the artist and performer you have hidden inside you.

Lastly, you don’t have to use your modern languages degree just to make a lot of money or have a fascinating and fulfilling career. You can also use it to change the world. Several of my former students have gone on to work for (and in one case, found) a charity or Non-Governmental Organization. International relief and development work needs skilled multi-lingual communicators, and modern languages graduates are in high demand. So if you’d like to make a difference, a background in modern languages would be a good start.

We’ll return to this topic in a later post with some tales from actual former modern languages students from Oxford. Until then, I hope this has given you some food for thought.

Employability (Part One)

paris_italy_2011_33-1posted by Simon Kemp

The Higher Education Statistics Agency recently released their latest report on what happens next to university graduates . They asked four hundred thousand ex-students, who had finished a degree at a UK university in the 2013-14 academic year, what they were doing six months later. The results, in spreadsheet after spreadsheet of data, are all here, if you’d care to explore them.

So, how does modern languages do? How does it compare with other subjects in terms of the employability of its graduates?

Well, as it turns out, it does pretty well. Six months after graduating, 88% of modern languages graduates were in employment or post-graduate education. That’s above the average for all subjects, and better than physics, chemistry, business studies, social studies, history and philosophy (all at 87%), or media studies, agricultural studies and computer science (all at 86%). It equals maths, biological sciences, design and engineering, and is bettered only by medical science, architecture, law and education. Given that the last two of those are also available to modern languages graduates via one-year teacher-training or law-conversion courses, and very popular destinations among our students, it seems fair to say that there’s hardly a better passport to a career than a modern languages degree. (Except maybe architecture or medicine, I guess, but we can’t all spend our working life doodling skyscrapers and getting coughed at by people with the flu. If that’s what you fancy, then please go ahead with the medicine and/or architecture. Everyone else, though, ought to think seriously about a modern languages degree.)

Looking deeper into the data, it’s no surprise to see that modern languages graduates top the charts for people getting their first job abroad, with 6% of the cohort working overseas. The subject also has one of the highest percentages of people going on to further study, with 19% of students studying for a postgraduate qualification, and a further 7% combining postgraduate study with work. Modern languages are useful in so many fields, that it’s common for students to follow up their degree with a one-year masters course in business, law, international relations or some other specialist area into which they will take their language skills.

This is, incidentally, why modern languages often get overlooked when newspapers publish ‘top ten’ lists of employable degree subjects: since the criterion  is to be in full-time work six months after graduation, the large number of modern languages graduates doing masters courses messes up our stats. Another chart on the HESA site looks at current employment levels for people who finished their degree in the previous year, 2012-2013. There, modern languages is riding high, with 92.2% of graduates from full-time degrees in employment, again beating physics, chemistry, maths, engineering, computer science (still at a startlingly low 86.5%), history and business studies. Once again, only medicine-related subjects, law and teaching have higher employment rates than modern languages.


So those are the statistics; what about the reality? Next Wednesday I’ll tell you about some of the destinations my own modern languages students have gone on to after their degree. (And, by the way, if there are former Oxford modern languages students reading this who’d like to share their own stories of life after university, do send them to me at simon.kemp@some.ox.ac.uk, and I’ll include them in a later post.)

One Hundred Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages at University

posted by Simon Kemp

There are lots more than a hundred good reasons to study modern languages, but if I’m going to drip-feed them to you at one reason per post, and no more than a couple of posts per month on this topic, then a hundred will keep us going nicely for a while. Many of these reasons are about the pleasures of discovering a foreign culture, exploring its history, literature and film. Others are about learning to handle another language confidently, discovering how languages work, how they develop, and how your own language connects with or differs from the language you’re learning. Still others will be about the experience of meeting new people on your year abroad, getting by in an exciting, unfamiliar environment and broadening your horizons. But of course, in the age of tuition fees and economic austerity, we also need some hard, cold facts about your prospects for employment and earnings at the end of your degree. Luckily, as well as being one of the most stimulating, adventurous and intellectually fulfilling choices of university course, a modern languages degree aces the career statistics too. So let’s start there.

Counting down, then, we’ll begin with Good Reason to Study Modern Languages at University, Number 100…

The Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey asks recent UK university graduates what they are doing six months after graduation. The most recent data is from graduates in 2012, which found that only 9% of modern languages graduates were unemployed six months after graduating. That compares with 10% unemployment rates for business studies, engineering, architecture and physical sciences, 11% in creative arts and design, 12% in media studies and 14% unemployment for computer science graduates. In fact, only teaching, law and medical/biological sciences have lower unemployment rates than modern languages for their graduates.

So modern linguists go on to many different things after graduation, but the dole queue is not one of them. We’ll delve further into these Destination of Leavers statistics later on to find out more about what these graduates are actually doing, but I thought this might be the most important place to start.