The Classics Edge

Now that you have a sense of the wide range of careers that classics majors go on to pursue, you’re probably wondering how your degree will land you a job like this. You might also be wondering how to reassure the people who care about you that classics really does prepare you to succeed in today’s job market.

There is good evidence that a major in classics develops exactly the kinds of soft skills—that is, widely applicable skills that rely on the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives and an attitude of openness and curiosity rather than knowledge of specific facts—that employers are looking for. In fact, a recent article from Kiplinger rates classics at sixteenth among the top twenty-five best college majors for a lucrative career.

As for the worriers, check out this video produced by the Classics Department at Carleton College on “How to Talk about Your Classics Major: to Parents.” You might also recommend they check out George Anderson’s book, You Can Do Anything.

Classics and Transferable Skills

If you do a web search for the skills employers most desire (which we recommend you do), you’ll find certain ones come up again and again:

  • communication (listening, speaking, writing)
  • teamwork
  • problem-solving
  • computer and social media literacy
  • data analysis
  • personal management (self-motivation, time management, organization)
  • leadership
  • ability to learn new skills
  • decision-making
  • adaptability

At first glance, it might look like this list has nothing to do with classics. But we encourage you to take a minute and think about the classes you’ve taken, the projects you’ve worked on, and your ever-broadening understanding of the ancient world. We’re willing to bet that, by the end of your degree, you could name a strong example from your experience in every category.

To aid you in thinking about your career and in your job search, we’ve compiled a more detailed list of the skills that you will develop as a classicist and organized it into three broad categories. Review each skill below to see a more detailed explanation of how your classics courses help you to develop these capacities.

Category #1: Working with Information & Data

Ability to contextualize evidence. As a classicist you’ve learned how to take context, especially socio-political context, into account when you interpret sources. For example, you know that it makes an important difference that the Aeneid was written under the patronage of Augustus.

Ability to extrapolate when evidence is lacking. One reality of studying the ancient past is missing or fragmentary evidence. You’ve learned how to work within these constraints, supplementing with other sources where possible and offering well-supported conjectures about what is lost.

Ability to see patterns and make connections. Whether you thought about it this way or not, this is what you did every time you sat down to figure out the topic of your next paper. You gathered evidence, identified elements of repetition or perhaps a gradual progression, and structured your thesis around those observations. If you studied Greek or Latin, engaging with all those paradigms also honed this skill. Many classics alums comment on how well the study of an inflected language prepared them to work in the tech sector, particularly with programming languages.

Ability to analyze data. You’ve probably had the most experience with this one if you’ve focused on archaeology, where statistical analysis is more common. However, classicists frequently analyze smaller data sets in different contexts, for example, word frequency in particular texts or authors. We increasingly have sophisticated online tools to help us do this work and you may have used these in some of your classes.

Ability to memorize and organize data. This one is particularly tied to the Greek and Latin language classes you may have taken. Professors don’t usually emphasize this (because they don’t want to scare you away) but you probably memorized thousands of vocabulary words and word endings in a short time, not to mention all those grammatical constructions and rules.

Category #2: Working with Words & Ideas

Ability to analyze texts. As a classicist you’ve been trained to read texts actively and attentively, not just passively absorbing what they say. Your degree has taught you to read sources for their subject, purpose, argument, genre, and potential bias. When Cicero makes a point of emphasizing how little experience he has in public speaking, you can spot the rhetorical strategy a mile off.

Ability to construct persuasive arguments, written or verbal. This is likely a skill that you’ve cultivated throughout your classics degree. You’ve been asked to think about organization, use of evidence, and a good balance between description and analysis. Every paper and presentation you’ve done has honed your ability to convince people of your interpretation of a particular body of evidence.

Ability to situate ideas within a larger discourse. You’ve practiced this skill through your research papers, citing other scholars’ ideas and showing how they align or diverge from your own views. You’ve also learned that the authors of the ancient world participated in a shared literary discourse, frequently quoting or referencing each other, and you’ve had to learn to speak this language. Finally, you’ve seen how the texts and ideas of the ancient world have been adapted and reinterpreted by later thinkers, and how nuanced engagement with these works demands an understanding of both the original context and the reception context.

Excellent facility with English grammar and syntax. It’s well documented that studying a new language improves your facility with the languages you already know; this is doubly true for languages with case systems like Greek and Latin. Language learning is useful in many other ways, too, as discussed by Ben Simkin in this article outlining four reasons entrepreneurs should learn another language.

Category #3: Working with Other People & Perspectives

Ability to revise ideas in light of new evidence. Understanding the complexity of the ancient Mediterranean is a gradual process and you certainly didn’t learn everything right away. Whether or not you realized it then, each time a class gave you a new piece of the puzzle, you were sharpening your ability to fit new evidence into your existing picture of the ancient world.

Ability to think in an interdisciplinary manner. As we’ve emphasized elsewhere in this guide, classics is an extraordinary discipline because it embraces so many fields of study and so many methodologies. You’ve learned to approach problems from multiple angles and apply different methodologies to answer big questions. What was the role of women in the Roman Republic?  The best answer emerges not from a single source, but from combining the evidence of comedy, love poetry, legal texts, archaeological evidence and more.

Ability to work with people in other fields. Think about the classics courses you’ve taken over the course of your degree. Who was in the room?  It probably wasn’t just classics majors. You’ve learned to work with students pursuing other majors, from environmental studies to economics. And of course, there’s a lot of diversity within any group of classicists. You’ve learned to communicate your ideas to people who may not think about evidence the same way you do, and picked up ideas and methods from other disciplines, too.

Ability to understand and take into account multiple perspectives. Another way to describe this skill is intercultural literacy: the ability to understand different cultural realities and facilitate communication in a cross-cultural setting. As a classics major you’ve learned to discern the assumptions, categories, norms, and hierarchies underpinning the way ancient societies thought and lived. You’ve also cultivated an ability to use this same discerning process more broadly in other cultural and socio-political contexts. From this informed viewpoint, you can see how a figure like Antigone can be, all at once, a brave freedom fighter martyred for her just cause, a dogmatic individualist who destabilizes legitimate political authority in a time of civil war, and a marginalized girl with few options, living in a world in which men have all the power.

Ability to translate ideas for different contexts. You’ve studied not just ancient sources, but also modern receptions of ancient Greco-Roman culture across the centuries and in different countries. You’ve also seen how ancient topics frequently resonate with modern ones and vice versa, allowing you to become a more sensitive interpreter of both. What does the study of the Athenian empire help you to understand about modern U.S. politics?  How could an understanding of the plight of modern migrants and refugees make you a better director of a production of Aeschylus’ Suppliants?

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