February 7, 2021
Given the change of course that has happened in the world, we wanted to provide expert opinions on what aspiring graduates can do to start off their careers in an uncertain economic climate. We wanted to know what skills will be more important, where the economy is doing relatively well, and if there will be any lasting effects on the job market.
Companies are looking for candidates that can handle the new responsibilities of the job market. Recent graduates actually have an advantage because they are comfortable using newer technologies and have been communicating virtually their whole lives. They can take what they've learned and apply it immediately.
We spoke to professors and experts from several universities and companies to get their opinions on where the job market for recent graduates is heading, as well as how young graduates entering the industry can be adequately prepared. Here are their thoughts.
Brett Rogers: As a professor of the Ancient Mediterranean (as opposed to Future Studies), I tend not to try predict trends. Obviously, this is not a great time to get into postgraduate work in most Humanistic disciplines unless a student is fully funded or independently solvent, especially since it's not clear whether these pathways will lead to jobs five-to-six years from now. Primary and secondary education also do not seem to be thriving, although there's a desperate need for good Classics BAs to share their skills and talents with (especially) middle school and high school students. This is important and necessary work, if never easy work. Relatedly, there's clearly no shortage of demand in health care, although it's not clear to me whether those jobs are compensating workers sufficiently for the risk they are taking during the pandemic. One hopes that the new administration will promote education and health care as fundamental goods again.
If I were a recent Classics BA, I'd explore adjacent fields. There's no shortage of need for good narrative or creative content, whether that takes the form of podcasts, screenplays, novels, or video games. I suspect there will be a huge travel boon once we reach appropriate levels of public safety, so students who have experience abroad might figure out how to use that experience to guide others. I'm always surprised how often people need good editors and writers, and Classics students tend to have superb language skills that can be applied to so many other fields of work.
Brett Rogers: It depends on what work a graduate wants to do next. From my present vantage point, if I wanted to keep studying Classics and I could afford it, I'd try to do a post-baccalaureate degree or find a good master's program or see if there's a gig teaching language or humanities at a private school. If I couldn't afford or find those opportunities, I'd find a job I didn't mind and spend my free time hunkering down and reading a ton of Greek and Latin and picking up a modern language or two. In either case, the worst case scenario is that I've inadvertently prepared myself to work as a teacher, a translator, an editor, a lawyer, or an analyst for the CIA.
If I had an interest in archaeology or linguistics, I'd spend time building computer-science based technical skills, learning to code or work with related technologies (such as site mapping and GIS). Again, worst-case scenario is that I've set myself up for a lateral move into tech. In non-pandemic conditions, I'd also see if I could at least work on a dig somewhere and gain some experience in the field.
But I'm probably the wrong person to ask, since if I had taken a gap year, I would have stopped to work a job at the video store and play in a band (which would probably have made me a better musician than I am now). Since video stores no longer exist, so much for predicting trends.
Brett Rogers: I'd encourage grads to worry less about predicting trends and instead to think creatively about how to find the point of contact between a given job or project that might appeal to them and the broad suite of skills they've developed in order to study Classics (or any discipline). As Steve Jobs said (at my graduation from grad school, no less!), you can only connect the dots looking backwards, not forwards. Most successful people I know remain engaged in the moment to see the point of contact between their own idiosyncratic skills and the lurking opportunity-and then they take a leap: often they leap into a job or field they never expected to get into. (This is the real problem with choosing a college major based on the current work force: the job may not exist by the time you graduate, while new types of jobs may emerge for which no one has training.)
And, most importantly, I'd tell a graduate to do what Douglas Adams tells us: Don't panic.
Dean Rader: There are a couple of different ways to think about your question. Will the pandemic have an impact on recent graduates as humans? I think so, though each student will have a different experience with the disease. Some will emerge largely unscathed, others will have gotten sick and recovered, others will have witnessed friends, lovers, or family members suffer, and still, others will have family members die. So, it is impossible to know the range and degree and length of the many aftereffects of COVID, but I think we can be sure they will linger.
As for the impact of the pandemic, as graduates enter the workforce, the two are related. It is hard to know what sorts of jobs will be available, just as it is difficult to predict if the pandemic will alter the kinds of work graduates will want to do. After the 2016 presidential election, we saw some students who had planned to go to graduate school in literature or creative writing change directions and look instead into public policy. Will something similar happen now?
I do think that as the vaccine rolls out, the world will need people who can communicate and connect. English majors are poised for success in these areas.
Dean Rader: When I host panels for our Internship class in Writing and Literature at the University of San Francisco, I always hear employers list the same skills: the ability to communicate clearly and succinctly, the ability to write persuasively and descriptively, and the ability to craft a narrative or tell a story.
The latter might be a bit of a surprise, but so much of business, science, education, technology, and politics comes down to framing a narrative. Can you tell the story of an app to venture capitalists? Can you convince the City Council of an important new form of legislation? Can you tell a compelling story to a board of directors about an investment strategy? Can you explain to readers the effects of a new vaccine? Can you craft a justification for a grant for your nonprofit? Can you describe your company's long and short-term financial plans for your IPO?
The world comes to us in stories, and those who have a facility with narrative and description are going to be in demand.
Dean Rader: That depends on the sort of job you are applying for. If it is an entry-level position, often hiring managers are swayed more by a smart, error-free cover letter that conveys passion and commitment over a dull, general letter by someone with more experience.
In the Humanities and Liberal Arts, graduates already have experience reading, writing, researching, making arguments, making PowerPoint presentations, and discerning good and bad information. They may not have much work experience, but smart graduates can parlay school experience into professional skills.
That said, any type of experience for a recent graduate is valuable. Internships, volunteer work, and even part-time service or retail work send the message that you take work seriously.
I have been teaching our Internship class for over a decade now, and alumni, hiring managers, and directors all say the same thing-working hard, being kind, and paying your dues lead to opportunities. It is important to stay connected to your co-workers and to be a positive presence on the job.
Chadron State College
Justice Studies, Social Sciences, & English - English
Dr. Matthew Evertson: When I am advising my students, I ask them to be clear-eyed about the prospects for a straight "writing" career. If they are creative writing students, the number of people who can make a living just as a novelist or a poet or a freelance nonfiction writer, etc.... is very limited (and the job numbers below bare this out). BUT, the "soft skills" (as outlined below) associated with a CW minor or major, or even an English/Literature degree, will likely be very useful in securing a job in OTHER fields, particularly those that emphasize clear and persuasive communication.
Dr. Matthew Evertson: Other pathways include further graduate studies to obtain an MFA or Ph.D. in Creative Writing or a Ph.D. in Literature (none of which we offer). With additional course work, students might have a path towards higher education-but the job market for these positions is VERY competitive. We get almost 100 applicants for our open positions-and we are a very rural, remote, and average state college. The prospects for a permanent position as a full-time creative writing teacher or literature professor are very limited. BUT, more options for contingent faculty (adjuncts, part-time, year-to-year instructors, etc....). Those positions, as has been well-documented, have challenges of their own: lack of benefits in some cases, low pay, and the need to teach many more sections of courses than is probably healthy (or good pedagogy) in order to make a decent living.
But English majors can write their own tickets, if they follow a path towards public education: Middle Schools and High Schools need lots of English teachers. In our state, the students would need to follow a much different path in their studies in order to earn their certificate: but the core of the studies are about the same.
Dr. Matthew Evertson: Otherwise, our graduates might consider the "hot" careers right now, which include social media/public relations or in professional/technical writing. Neither of these areas is really addressed in our course offerings-but other programs across the country are doing more and more with these areas. The prospects for Editors, Reporters, Correspondents seem to be declining as well.
So-at the end of the day, an English degree (literature or creative writing) will set a graduate up with some excellent skills for a wide variety of professions, but the odds of landing some sort of job where creative writing or literary exploration is the primary thing you do are slim.
Han Hsien Liew Ph.D.: For the academic job market, teaching. It helps to show that you can teach a wide range of courses, including those that fall outside of your field of expertise. Having at least one article published in a peer-reviewed journal is a huge plus, though not required.
Han Hsien Liew Ph.D.: They should try to obtain more teaching experience, wherever they can, if circumstances permit. Try to teach the main survey courses in your field since you would likely have to teach those when you get a position.
Han Hsien Liew Ph.D.: For academia, online teaching has gained a lot of attention, given the restrictions to in-person instruction imposed by COVID-19, so I would recommend gaining some experience along these lines. The digital humanities have been on the rise for the past five years or more. Therefore, obtaining some basic knowledge in statistics and coding language will undoubtedly go a long way when applying for academic jobs.
Department of Classics
Nathan Brown Ph.D.: In my mind, there are three main sets of skills new graduates need to cultivate to be successful in this market. First, graduates must be top-notch researchers with some demonstrated potential -- think professional conferences and a publication. They must also be able to articulate their research agenda in an exciting and relatable way. Second, compelling teaching is paramount to program building. In this environment, when language programs often struggle to attract students, your teaching needs to be on point to get students interested. Third, young graduates need to be intentional about honing their soft skills. Patience, teamwork, and the ability to listen deeply are the keys to success once you have secured the job. The image of the cranky academic working in isolation and surrounded by mountains of books is long gone!
Nathan Brown Ph.D.: When you decide to become an academic, your ability to choose where you live geographically is fairly limited. You must go where the jobs are, and it is hard to predict that year to year! My advice is this: decide if there are regions of the country you could just simply never live, and then refrain from applying to institutions in those areas. That being said, college towns are known to be cool places that typically have good cultural activities, interesting food options, and a well of potential, like-minded friends. In short, I think graduates need to keep an open mind about geographic locations. There are many many awesome places to live in the US.
Nathan Brown Ph.D.: Zoom has changed the nature of our field, probably permanently. Technological fluency is a prerequisite nowadays for securing a job. However, I do tend to believe face-to-face teaching will remain a dominant mode of instruction for the foreseeable future, but distance-learning and hybrid courses are here to stay. The trick, of course, will be if institutions can convince students to pay top dollar for them in the long-term! As a new graduate, you need to be able to explain how you create a student-centered curriculum in a Zoom or hybrid classroom. Lots of people are working on that right now, but there is not a consensus, in my opinion, on how to do that.
Dr. Kevin Koch Ph.D.: It almost goes without saying that graduates in the upcoming years will continue to need technical skills, but they will also need to be highly flexible, be able to analyze complex situations, communicate clearly, and have strong cultural awareness. These requirements precisely describe the skill sets that graduates with writing degrees typically possess. They will do well, so long as they develop basic technology skills as well.
When writing majors-or other majors who continue to develop their writing skills-compose and revise, they are analyzing varieties of audiences, refining their message, and clarifying their intended meanings. This happens whether they are writing poems, short stories, analyzing literature, or writing a grant proposal. These are translatable skills. And the ability to maturely receive feedback on writing from peers and professors, assess that feedback, and make decisions accordingly likewise translates into skills needed in the workforce, as does the ability to offer feedback tactfully and constructively, as most writing majors are required to do.
Some jobs that writing graduates pursue are natural to the field: editing, reporting, grant-writing, publishing, public relations, and more. But equally as often, the jobs that writing graduates are often hired into may not seem all that different from those that other majors' graduates pursue: general business, marketing, sales, advertising, and the like. Don't consider this to be a failure to place into your field. Indeed, it is a success. Your communication skills have brought you to this point, and it is likely that your communication skills will carry you farther in the field-or other fields-than those who have not developed these skills.
Dr. Kevin Koch Ph.D.: COVID-19 will likely change the face of "where to work" for a good long time, as the work-from-home culture may long outlast the disease, at least in certain fields. Although certain types of creative writers may find it helpful to live on the coasts, for most graduates, geography will not play a huge role. I am a born-and-bred Midwesterner along the tall, scenic bluffs above the Upper Mississippi River, where I have made my writing and teaching life. Rather than pointing writing graduates to one geographic location or another, I offer two paths: 1) Thrive in the place you love, or 2) Embrace, learn about, and love the place where employment allows you to thrive.
Dr. Kevin Koch Ph.D.: As mentioned in my first response, it is a given that all graduates-writing or other fields-should have basic technology skills. But what we have seen with COVID and what is likely to outlast COVID is the ability or even the need to work remotely. To this end, graduates need to develop the self-discipline to stick to a task, to do it better than was actually expected, and to be able to communicate clearly from afar-whether in writing or on-screen-the vision of their work. Writing graduates have learned to do this by satisfying deadlines, endlessly revising and polishing, and explaining their work while being open to suggestions.
Jessie Grieser: No doubt. We know that there is always downward pressure in an unstable job market, where people with more experience take jobs meant for people with less experience, out of necessity, which makes it more complicated for new graduates to gain a foothold and gain experience over time. At the same time, the exigencies of online learning have meant that this class of graduates has increased their computer and organizational skills, out of necessity, which helps them become good.
Jessie Grieser: Linguists have wonderful flexibility in career opportunities, which benefits us greatly. Bachelor's degree linguists work as editors, as programmers, as nonprofit organizers, in a second language and translation work, and many, many others. This gives many opportunities to find entry-level work across a wide variety of places.
Jessie Grieser: One thing which technology will continue to change, and which the pandemic will accelerate, is our ability to learn from speakers who are remote from us. The pandemic has meant that suddenly, 85-year-old retirees are able to Zoom on their tablets. It makes it much easier for linguistic research to take place, which in turn, will change the kinds of speakers linguists are able to learn from, which it will ultimately (hopefully!) have the effect of increasing our understanding of the wide diversity of languages and language speakers across the globe.