How useful is a degree in Persian?
April 3, 2010 11:20 AM   Subscribe

How vocationally useful would an degree in Persian Language studies be?

(UK/Irish passport holder, male, age 26.)

I completed an English Literature degree five years ago and have had little luck in finding worthwhile employment since then.

I am now considering returning to university to pursue a language degree, to improve my job prospects. French and Italian are appealing, but I imagine that these courses, while culturally rewarding, would land me in an already crowded job marketplace. Fluency in Mandarin Chinese would be a fantastic skill to possess for career purposes, but frankly I find the language (specifically the written form) rather too intimidating.
I have a little familiarity with Persian at present, having spent some months travelling around Iran, and having completed some online courses. The Persian language feels a lot more manageable than Chinese, and, I hope, a quicker route to employment than the more widely-studied Western European languages.

Does anyone have any experience in the study of Farsi / Persian at university level, and its desirability to employers? I don't really have a specific career direction in mind, but anything with a strong international focus, and which permits living / working overseas (tourism, travel, diplomacy) would be ideal.

Any information or thoughts would be more than welcome.
posted by Black Spring to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I do not have experience studying Farsi in the classroom, but I do know the diplomatic and intelligence services would likely pay a significant premium for that skillset.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 11:25 AM on April 3, 2010

I'm a native Farsi speaker. As an attorney in the US, it has not done shit for me career wise.
posted by MXJ1983 at 11:28 AM on April 3, 2010

My feeling would be that Farsi would have very specific applications to specific jobs in diplomatic and intelligence worlds, and close to zero application anywhere else. If you want to learn Farsi for its own sake, go ahead, but if your goal is overall improving your employment prospects, it's a pretty awful choice.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:41 AM on April 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Echoing the above: the only use for a U.S. citizen employment-wise would be working in Afghanistan (Dari being so close to Persian).
posted by trouserlouse at 11:54 AM on April 3, 2010

A big problem I foresee is that to learn Farsi fluently enough to be of real value you'd have to be able to spend considerable time in Iran interacting at a professional level. My guess is that diplomatic challenges and trade restrictions would make it hard for a person from the UK to get that kind of experience.

For this same reason, western intelligence agencies find it much easier to hire native-born Arab-Americans as translators and analysts than train someone fresh to the language.
posted by gabrielsamoza at 11:58 AM on April 3, 2010

Response by poster: Gabrielsamoza, my joint-Irish citizenship has made it much easier to gain entry to Iran in the past, letting me pick up a visa in 24 hours rather than waiting weeks if I'd used my British passport.
You've highlighted one of my main concerns - why would a government hire graduates with an imperfect grasp of the language )nevermind subtle nuances, accents and colloquialisms) when it could just as easily recruit native speakers from amongst its own population, or that of the country in question?
posted by Black Spring at 12:05 PM on April 3, 2010

Response by poster: Forgot to add: you're entirely right that finding professional roles / experience in-country would prove quite challenging, even with the (relative) easier of visa aquisition.
posted by Black Spring at 12:09 PM on April 3, 2010

Response by poster: Trouserlouse, I certainly wouldn't rule out work in Afghanistan, the proximity of Farsi to Dari being, for me, one of the incentives of studying the language.
posted by Black Spring at 12:14 PM on April 3, 2010

Best answer: I'm fairly sure Persian is manageable by comparison with Mandarin, being Indo-European and written in an alphabet. I only studied it for a short while at university, however.

You will find that Persian is under-studied in British universities by comparison with Arabic, for which numbers have exploded in the last decade. Not many places offer it at any level, and of those that do, not all teach it as a full degree (at Exeter, for example, it's only available as a joint degree with Arabic--not necessarily a bad thing, though the two languages share a script and some vocab rather than any close grammatical connection). You are also likely (I'd say almost certain) to find that you're in a small class, which has many advantages but some disadvantages too. These pros and cons are both pedagogical, social, and institutional. What do I mean by this? Pedagogical: small classes are nice, but can also be wearing, and if one person is a slacker they can be a real drag. (Fortunately few British undergraduates take language courses for an easy ride, and those that do rarely last long.) By social I mean that if the class develops a good esprit de corps it can be great (a small, committed group working together) but there's also more opportunity to get on one another's nerves, for example. By institutional I mean that your course, and any problems you may have with it, may not weigh heavily in the department's (and especially the university's) considerations when it comes to allocating resources. But I think most of the Persian courses in Britain are in specialized Middle Eastern Studies departments rather than Modern Languages ones--this brings issues of its own, but means that the departments are generally quite protective of their Persian courses and their students, and keen to increase their numbers.

The Persian degree at Edinburgh and Manchester is 4 years; at SOAS it's only 3--the difference probably consists of time spent in Iran, which may affect your choice. Check and make sure. Hard to tell from Oxford's website how long the course is, but they mention spending time in Iran. (Be aware, incidentally, that Iran often makes it difficult for would-be language students to get visas: this can be disruptive. Your Irish passport may help, but your application will still be coming from a UK university.)

As for employability: the number of institutions teaching Persian in Britain is small enough that you could quite easily contact them all and ask how employable their Persian degrees are and what sort of careers their graduates tend to get. (If you MeMail me I can put you in touch with the department at Edinburgh--where, by the way, it's called an MA even though it's an undergraduate degree.) What I would then do--on the basis of their answers, and your own reflection--is think about careers you'd find interesting and ensure that while you do your Persian degree you acquire other skills (and contacts) as well. This could include doing a joint degree: Arabic and Persian is a classic, and employable, but you (and your career) may be more interested in IR, law, or business studies. It might mean getting the right secondary courses in the first two years, or the right dissertation topic at Honours level: an extended translation, for example, or something on contemporary politics. But equally, it might mean developing the right extracurricular profile--internships with companies, newspapers, museums, NGOs or the FCO; news articles or travel pieces for newspapers and magazines while you're in Iran (NB--proceed carefully!). Without being aggressively pushy, it is possible to make contacts for yourself while studying that will be useful when you're looking for a job. At least some academics will help with this. Also, departments may well get visits from people in interesting fields: journalists, diplomats, politicians. Don't be shy about getting an introduction.

On balance I would say that a Persian degree, or degree including Persian, is inherently pretty employable. This is partly because the British universities that teach it all tend to be universities whose degrees are considered employable, and partly because a good degree in Persian is evidence of someone who is willing to do something different and difficult and make a success of it, and partly because while not that many employers need employees with Persian language skills, those that do really need them. (On preview: Afghanistan is an excellent example.) But you can take steps to ensure that you, as someone holding a degree in Persian, are very employable. As someone older and wiser than most undergraduates you will be able to do this a bit more systematically, and clear-headedly, than many.

I am assuming, of course, that you have come to your own conclusions about your ability and willingness to finance a second undergraduate degree.

Hope that's useful--feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 12:24 PM on April 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

While a degree in Persian and/or studying Farsi might be a good idea in general (check out also its relevance for forensic lingustic here,, scroll down for PhD students and the work on authorship plus its implications for the intelligence community), getting heavily in debt for it might not be so great. I presume you are thinking of going for a second undergraduate degree - there is a pretty good chance you might be hit by fees at international students' levels because of government refusing to finance students returning for "equivalent or lower degree", information here There is a small chance Persian might be exempt as I'd guess it's on the list of "strategically important and vulnerable subjects" but you'd still be in about 15k debt by the end of the degree or more and would not be eligible for help from Student Loans Company - as a second-time undergrad you'd have to go for commercial loans, something else to consider. Good luck with whatever you decide!
posted by coffee_monster at 12:47 PM on April 3, 2010

Best answer: With all due respect to several posters above, unless it's backed up by evidence rather than guesses or assumptions the assertion that Persian would not be employable is at best ill-informed and at worst the old "it's not worth it, everyone speaks English" argument in disguise.

First, the argument that it would have very specific applications: this is arguably true, but (i) as I mentioned, in those areas where employers need it, they really need it, and (ii) those applications are not quite so specific as everyone seems to think ("FCO or MI6 and no-one else"). Particularly in conjunction with other skills--and any degree's employability is strongly influenced by other skills--Persian would be marketable to a far wider range of international organizations and (business/political/security) analysts than that. I suspect, too, that while sanctions limit the amount of business US and UK companies do with Iranian ones directly, there are plenty of anglophone companies in Dubai dealing with Iranian companies. And the number of potential employees with relevant skills and Persian is small. In these specific (but not vanishingly 'specific') areas, Persian gives a comparative advantage here in a way that French, say, doesn't.

Second, the argument that it'd be hard to get to a good enough level. As someone with an Arabic degree, I understand this even if in the end I disagree. But I'd also say it'd be much easier to get to a good enough level in Persian, in the course of an undergraduate degree, than in Arabic (or Mandarin). It's also easy to overstate this argument: getting to a level where you can manage in a range of situations (and where you can keep improving) is more important than getting to a level where you can give speeches to the Literary Society. Employers don't need you to be able to trade quatrains from the Rubaiyyat with their local partners; they might be pleased, however, to have someone who knows how to read a news report.

Third, the argument that native speakers, including hyphenated ones, do it better. Again, it's hard to argue that someone who's grown up speaking Persian at home is probably going to have better spoken/listening skills than someone who's learned it at university. But this argument can be taken too far. Is taken too far, in fact, in Gabrielsamoza's comment: "western intelligence agencies find it much easier to hire native-born Arab-Americans as translators and analysts than train someone fresh to the language". There are a number of problems here, apart from the obvious confusion ("western intelligence agencies" such as the French DGSE or MI6 are hardly likely to hire "native-born Arab-Americans"). OP is British(/Irish): how many Iranian-British people are there, and how many of them are looking for, and qualified for, jobs with the FCO? I don't know--but without finding out, I wouldn't venture to argue that there's no point in the OP dreaming of a job in the FCO as a non-native speaker. Again, for good and bad reasons some employers--notably in the intelligence/diplomacy circuit everyone seems to think is the only option--may well be hesitant to employ Iranian citizens, or even UK/US citizens of Iranian background, for certain jobs. I can't give precise numbers or cases, I'm afraid, but I wouldn't operate on the assumption that the FCO will only hire Iranians for jobs requiring Persian. Embassy employees at desk-job level in Iran (Afghanistan, Tajikistan...) probably will be Iranians (etc.); the military attaché won't, however, and nor will the ambassador. I believe, too, that while the FCO is keen to encourage UK citizens of recent immigrant background to apply for jobs, it discourages them from working on/in the country their parents/grandparents/more distant ancestors emigrated from--though OP would want to confirm this information with someone who actually knows. (Pure anecdata, but the only FCO Persian specialist I've met personally--this chap--was not of Iranian background, though his language skills were evidently something far out of the ordinary.)

For that matter, native speakers may well hesitate before seeking employment in those same organizations: as far as I'm aware, MI6 has not been notably successful in hiring British citizens of Pakistani Muslim background to oversee the torture of, er, British citizens of Pakistani Muslim background. And, regarding UK/US citizens of Iranian background, being able to speak Persian as a native may not be enough. With Arabic, I had (at different times) a British classmate whose family was Jordanian and an American classmate whose family were Egyptian and Lebanese. Both spoke their respective dialects fluently, and far better than I ever will. But both had to learn to read and write along with the rest of us. Admittedly, written Arabic is more different from spoken forms than is the case in Persian, but the point isn't entirely irrelevant.

All of which is not to say that a Persian degree by itself is automatically the passport to a job (let alone an ambassadorship), still less that anyone should lightly take on the financial burden of doing a second undergraduate degree--just that OP should take these answers with a pinch of salt, and find out from more informed sources. If we don't fit that description, then our job here is to point him towards someone that does. And wish him good luck with whatever he decides to do!
posted by lapsangsouchong at 2:27 PM on April 3, 2010

Echoing the above: the only use for a U.S. citizen employment-wise would be working in Afghanistan (Dari being so close to Persian)

Untrue. Translating documents is another possibility, if you're reasonably capable in the language. Some civilian agencies specialize in this, and another option might be to search for these and see what kind of qualifications they require. Or, go into the online translating business yourself, if you're really ambitious.

Intelligence services would also have a use for these skills, but it can be pretty difficult to get hired because many times you're at a disadvantage to post-military applicants who may be trained in the language and already have a security clearance, at least in the US (don't know about the UK, sorry). If you can get your foot in the door, it can be a pretty good deal, though. Also worth noting is that while native speakers may start out at an advantage when it comes to being able to converse easily in the language, the qualifications for a security clearance can exclude many of them (if they have family or significant investments overseas, if they have a dual citizenship--again, US perspective). So not only intelligence agencies, but also contracted civilian agencies that work with the government can have stringent clearance requirements that you might fulfill better than the native speaker.

Please note that there is a lot of "may" and "can" in this, because I wouldn't know where to start in researching the specifics in the UK.

Also, spend some time checking around for scholarship opportunities, if you decide to do this, because a web search makes it seem like there are a lot of these.

Good luck!
posted by _cave at 4:51 PM on April 3, 2010

Learning a second language - no matter which one - is not enough to improve your job prospects. You need to also develop a complementary skill.

Your question seems to be more of a "what do I want to do with my life" question.

Do you want to work for an intelligence agency as an analyst? Will leaning Farsi provide you with enough tools to actually get a job?

Do you want to work for an NGO in Kabul? Or how about as a weapons inspector. Or maybe doing technology transfer on a government pipeline. Perhaps you want to work for the foreign service - you may learn Persian to get a foot in the door, and then get stationed in Colombia and never use Farsi.

Perhaps you want to do import-export. Do you have the skills to do that?

Iran is a tough nut to crack. It is isolated by culture, geography, and is effectively a pariah state. It's difficult to trade with Iran unless you're based in Turkey, Iraq, Russia, China, or the Gulf States. The petroleum industry is state-run, and while it exports oil, the lingua franco will be English.

It's not easy to do business with Iranians. For one thing, you can park your liquid assets in a state bank account there and earn 12% interest annually, the guaranteed return is far better than on any entrepreneurial venture.

Anyway, most people learn a language because it is immediately useful (learning French in Canada will help you get a Federal government job, learning English anywhere else in the world is just a no-brainer).

Other people learn a language because they like learning the language. I myself would like to learn Farsi because it seems like a window into an interesting culture.

I have a Persian business partner. However, I'm not sure if learning Farsi would help our business.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:40 PM on April 3, 2010

« Older oh noes! internets are broken!   |   All the livelong day Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.