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Job Prospects for Language Majors Improve, but Still Limited

Heights Staff

Published: Thursday, March 25, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01


This year, those seeking professorships in English and foreign languages may have a difficult time finding them, but it might not be as difficult as predicted, according to a mid-year analysis by the Modern Language Association (MLA).

However, opportunities will still be lower than they have been in 35 years.

The job market for those looking to receive tenure-track jobs at universities is never particularly favorable, even when the economy is good. "Even in a good year, less than 50 percent of those who earn Ph.D.s that year will get a tenure-track job," said Mary Crane, chairperson of the English department. "Ever since I was in graduate school, everyone always says, ‘It's hard to get a job.'"

Generally, such students enter the job market three times, taking one-year jobs when they cannot get a tenure-track job. Crane said that at least one of her graduate assistants will not able to get a tenure-track job, but is looking to find a one-year position. Taking a temporary job will increase her chances of getting a tenure-track job next year, Crane said. "If you have a one-year job, that helps. If you continue publishing, that helps, too."

Boston College has been able to continue hiring because it is tuition-driven rather than endowment-driven, meaning that it has been less affected by the economic downturn, Crane said. This year, the University hired a new English department faculty member, a position for which there were about 200 applicants. About 15 of the candidates were interviewed at an annual convention held in December in Philadelphia, and three were brought back to campus to spend a day, at which point one was offered the job. "A bad job market is great for hiring," she said. "We had three really great candidates who all would have come here, and our top person is coming."

This allows BC to hire better quality faculty, Crane said. "BC sees [the economic downturn] as an opportunity – if places like Harvard, really wealthy schools that are worse off because they rely on endowment, aren't hiring, now this is one of the best jobs, so it's an opportunity to gain some good faculty."

Crane said that this year is a bad year for English and foreign-language scholars, but that there have been worse years. "Your chances are essentially the number of people getting Ph.D.s versus the number of jobs," she said. "It's a bad year because the number of jobs is low, but it's not as low as it was at its lowest point, probably because there are other places like BC who see the opportunity to hire."

For those who are English majors in college, there are many different options for career paths, and the data for their success in the job market is not tracked as carefully. "A lot of people go to law school or other kinds of graduate school, so it doesn't apply directly," Crane said. "A lot of English majors get jobs in publishing, which is having a lot of economic troubles, so it's probably harder to get a job in that field right now."

Many students have chosen to continue their education or volunteer instead of trying their luck on the current job market, Crane said. "You see more people getting master's degrees or doing Teach for America or another volunteer program to put off going on the job market."

For those interested in pursuing advanced degrees in English, Crane's advice is the same as it is at any time, given that job opportunities are almost always scarce in such disciplines. "It's really only something to do if you feel like you can't imagine yourself doing something else," she said.

Foreign language studies present a different set of problems. While becoming a foreign-language scholar is difficult, speaking a foreign language, particularly Spanish, can enhance many careers, said Karen Daggett, a professor in the Spanish department.

"There just really aren't that many jobs," she said. "Our best candidate last year got a doctorate in French, Spanish, and Italian theater, and the best job she could get was a one-year position."

Getting jobs in other occupations can be easier for those who speak other languages, especially Spanish. "I think there are certain jobs that a Spanish major can get just by majoring in Spanish, such as that of a teacher, principal, or interpreter," Daggett said.

"Those are jobs that are directly related to majoring in Spanish. However, unless it's someone's dream to be a tenured faculty member at a university who teaches literature, a high school, or junior high school teacher, or interpreter, Spanish is an enhancement."

Daggett teaches a Spanish conversation class at BC for those who already hold a variety of occupations and want to increase their marketability in fields such as medicine, education, social work, marketing human resources, and business, fields in which it is particularly helpful to be fluent in Spanish. "I have students who come into class and are desperate to learn Spanish," she said. "I have a lot of psychiatrists who come because they want to expand their practices, and some who feel they have to learn Spanish. They feel as if, if they don't, they could lose their job." This type of pressure is felt in other occupations as well, she said.

The Hispanic population in the country is growing, which makes Spanish an enhancement to one's resume, Daggett said. "I really believe that most professions, with very few exceptions, would be enhanced by Spanish," she said. "It opens doors and enhances everything. Hopefully when you learn a language, you're not learning it in a cultural vacuum. The assumption is made by the person you are speaking to that you understand them."

Cultural context can be important when speaking to a Hispanic person. "My brother-in-law is an engineer in California, and he was trying to make a deal with a company in Mexico," Daggett said. "He needed me because he couldn't get anywhere with them. I had to translate and also explain why he wasn't getting anywhere, because he didn't understand Mexicans and how they do business."

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