Many people find choosing the right subject and study programme very challenging. We have prepared the following tips on choosing a course in conjunction with Dr. Markus Diem, Academic Advisor at the University of Basel.
According to Markus Diem, anyone faced with choosing a degree subject should bear four things in mind: their own interests and abilities, their future career, the structure of the education and the social side.
Interests and abilities
Anyone opting to do a degree in language and literature studies needs to have a strong interest in languages and literature. It is important to enjoy reading and working under your own steam, since the majority of your study time will consist of working on texts – both literary and specialist – by yourself, as well as exploring content and material in a self-disciplined way. In addition, prospective students should of course have a flair for analysing language structures and texts.
If you intend to take language and literature studies in a language other than your mother tongue, you need to have a good knowledge of the relevant language already, or be highly motivated to acquire this during your degree course. If you are not bilingual, Markus Diem strongly advises you to complete a language stay in the relevant language area so that you will be able to keep up with the demands of degree-level study.
When choosing your degree, it is just as important to think about whether you would like to aim at a particular career after university. A degree in language and literature studies is not a professional course in the narrower sense, in the way that studying law or medicine would be, for example. It teaches fundamental skills and capabilities that may lead to different career paths, if the graduate does not wish to go into research (see Employment opportunities). If someone is not aware of this and simply studies for a degree without a second thought, they may be in for an unpleasant shock when they graduate. On the other hand, a degree which prepares the student for a particular career – pharmacy, for example – may also be rather disappointing, since it requires them to cram in a considerable amount of fairly boring material which is not directly useful to the actual job. Prospective students of language and literature studies should also be aware that choosing a degree that interests them does not lead straight to their dream job: they also need to show commitment over and above the degree course itself (see How to start your career).
Another point to consider when choosing a degree is the structure of the course. Unlike other courses, such as medicine or a degree at a university of applied sciences, a degree in language and literature studies is not clearly structured. After completing the foundation stage, students usually put together their own programme in accordance with fairly loose guidelines. Although many students value this freedom, others may feel overwhelmed by it. In the humanities, the main basis for grading a student's performance is through presentations, essays and papers, rather than the regular examinations which structure the semesters for students of other subjects. These formats call for responsibility and self-discipline; anyone who is unable to demonstrate these qualities and keeps missing submission deadlines, for example, will fail their degree.
The social side
Another point to which prospective students do not always give sufficient thought is the question of the social environment in which they will find themselves. Every subject tends to have a particular subject culture that attracts certain types of people – or not. As Markus Diem explains, this does not mean that you have to be a certain type of person in order to study a subject, or that you have to force yourself into a mould. It's just that you should ensure you are clear about the subject culture and whether you will feel at home in it.
When choosing a career, however, it is still crucial to obtain the basic information about your favoured degree course and dream job. Academic and careers advice provided by the universities and cantonal occupational guidance services can help in this respect (see links on the right-hand side of this page). Furthermore, most universities now hold open days (see below), and occupational guidance services organize individual taster days.
Dr. Markus Diem, Academic Advisor at the University of Basel:
« Choosing your degree subject is a process. You can't simply pass your school-leaving certificate and then expect a student advisor to wave a magic wand and tell you that English or biology or medicine is the right course for you. »