What can I do with a Russian degree?

What Can I Do With a Russian Degree?

by R.J. Praker
January 16, 2024

If asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.” 

The above is a quote from Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy was one of Russia’s — and the world’s — greatest novelists. His words are a timely reminder even centuries later. We often become too wrapped up in our work to notice the world around us. 

Studying another language and culture can be an opportunity to pause and look around. And what better place to start than with Tolstoy’s own mother tongue?

According to the United Nations, there are about 258 million Russian speakers worldwide. Our local Sacramento area boasts one of the largest Slavic populations in the United States. That makes Russian a handy language to have in your back pocket!

A Russian major studies Russian language, literature and culture. Whether you grew up speaking  Russian or have no prior knowledge, earning a degree in Russian can be culturally enriching and benefit your career. Russian language skills are a valuable tool in public service, health care, communications, technology and more!

What are the benefits of a degree in Russian?

A Russian degree can boost your chosen field of study, whether it’s in the humanities or STEM. If you’re interested in government or diplomacy, Russian is a great choice.

“Multiple federal government agencies have identified Russian as a language that they seek actively,” said UC Davis Russian Professor Jenny Kaminer. “The Department of State has identified Russian as a critical language, which means it’s a language that they want to incentivize American students to learn.”

There are also plenty of opportunities to use a Russian major in the STEM fields. Language skills are valuable for programmers and localization specialists. Many UC Davis students majoring in Russian plan on entering the healthcare field. Healthcare positions often prioritize candidates who speak multiple languages. Because of the large Slavic population in West Sacramento, which is near UC Davis, Russian is a useful language for local healthcare providers.

Beyond the career world, majoring in Russian can be a rewarding experience. The Russian program at UC Davis allows you to expand your horizons and enrich your cultural understanding. You’ll make connections across majors, across cultures and even across borders. The Russian program also boasts smaller class sizes with the average upper-division Russian elective having around fifteen students. 

“One of the big selling points of our program is that you get a lot of personalized attention from the instructors,” Kaminer said. “The language program gives students at a big public university something akin to the experience that a student at a small liberal arts college is accustomed to having.”

What do Russian majors study?

In the Russian program at UC Davis, you’ll study Russian language through the advanced level, developing fluency in reading, writing, speaking and listening. Non-native speaker Darian Lee, a fourth-year triple major that includes Russian, explained that the language program at UC Davis is excellent because of the high number of native speakers. 

“For some languages, you go into a class and it’s a majority of non-fluent speakers,” Lee said. “So it’s good practice, but you don’t ever really get that experience of interacting with natives. Whereas once you get into RUS 101, the percentage of native speakers is almost eighty percent. It’s to the point where you’re really getting that authentic feel.”

Alongside language courses, you’ll take electives on Russian culture. Course topics include literature by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Pushkin; film; contemporary culture and more. One of Professor Kaminer’s popular courses is “Russian Film.”

“It’s a survey of Russian film from its earliest period in the 1920s through the post-Soviet period,” she said. “Each of the films that we view takes place against the backdrop of a specific moment in Soviet and post-Soviet history.” 

If you aren’t yet sure you want to commit to learning the language, a course like Professor Kaminer’s is a good place to start. “We offer a variety of electives, and at least half if not more are taught in English and are available to everybody without any prerequisites. You don’t need to know Russian or know anything about Russian history or culture. You can just sign up to expand your horizons and get out of your comfort zone,” she said.

Another big draw for Russian majors is the opportunity to study abroad. Although American students are not currently able to study in Russia, there are plenty of opportunities in Russian-speaking countries. Darian Lee spent a summer in the country of Georgia. 

“I would go entire days without speaking a word of English,” she said. “I met a lot of really great friends there. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and I probably gained ten pounds because the food is so good. It was honestly one of the best experiences of my life.”

What careers do Russian majors go into?

Russian is a good choice for any student interested in government, law or journalism. If you want to work for the U.S. Department of State, whether at home or abroad, speaking Russian will be an asset. Any language skills are valuable for anyone going into public or social service. Being able to communicate in Russian is a resume boost for multinational companies as well. Russian students can work in foreign journalism or manage multilingual teams. The possibilities are endless.

There are uses for Russian in STEM careers as well. 

“I think a common misconception when it comes to languages in general is that people assume it’s just a humanities thing. But throughout my entire academic journey I’ve utilized Russian in a STEM context,”  said Lee, who is also majoring in linguistics and statistics and minoring in computer science. 

“I want to get into doing natural language processing for languages other than English, and there are so many tech industries that have teams in Russia,” she said. “I’m actually working on an app right now. I use a lot of flashcards for language learning, and normally what I try to do is look the language up in a corpus to find example sentence usages of a word and add it to a flashcard. I’m working on a flashcard app that does that automatically.”

Even if you don’t utilize Russian in your daily career, it can still be an asset.

“When you go on to try and land employment, you’re one resume in a stack of one hundred or five hundred,” Kaminer said. “Students often tell me that they were interviewing for a job that had nothing to do with Russian studies, but the interviewer was so intrigued by their academic profile that they called them in. The fact that they have a more unusual and interesting profile gives them an advantage in the job search.”

How have alumni used their Russian degrees?

Alumni of the UC Davis Russian program have used their degree in a variety of ways. Consider two alumni who both graduated with triple majors in Russian, international relations and economics. Daniel Scates became a Ph.D. student in the UC Davis Department of Political Science. He conducts research on humanitarian and public health issues in Eastern European politics. With the same triple degree, Michael Mikhov got a job at a multinational investment company.

During her time at UC Davis, Russian and pharmaceutical chemistry double major Marina Shatskikh founded the Nadezhda Clinic, a non-profit geared toward aiding low-income Slavic language-speaking patients in the Sacramento area. Now, she works as a medicinal chemist at a pharmaceutical company in the Bay Area. She hopes to earn her medical degree and use her Russian skills to better serve Slavic patients.

“Post-graduation, even in my chosen field of psychology, I have been using my Russian skills quite a bit,” said Sasha Melnikova, a Russian and psychology double major. “I worked with the San Francisco Department of Public Health on their emergency psychiatric crisis team, translating for and working with Russian-speaking clients and their families experiencing mental health crises in the city. Despite San Francisco having a very large Russian-speaking population, I was the only Russian speaker they had in that department.”

Melnikova is working on her doctorate in clinical psychology and using her Russian degree there as well. 

“My dissertation is focusing on the mental health stigma in the Russian community and looking at rates of acculturation and resource utilization in Russian-Americans and Russian immigrants in the United States,” she said. “The classes I took in undergrad gave me a greater understanding of what I should look into during my research.”

Why major in Russian?

Majoring in Russian allows you to expand your cultural horizons. You can study great works of Russian literature and Russian culture. Through learning the Russian language, you’ll open new career opportunities and boost your resume. You’ll also have a more balanced and enriching college experience.

“The bottom line,” Melnikova said, “is that choosing Russian as my second major not only gave me the language skills that I use in my translation work, but also connected me back to my culture when I felt that I was losing it most when I was away from home.”

As Tolstoy pointed out, every once in a while we all need to take a moment to stop and look around us. Studying Russian gives you that opportunity. Learn about perspectives you’ve never considered. Form a deeper connection to your culture, or reach across the gap to learn about an entirely new one. The lessons you learn will stay with you throughout your academic, professional and personal life.

R.J. Praker (she/her) is a third year pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science with minors in professional writing and Russian. She currently works as a writing intern for UC Davis' Office of Strategic Communications and an academic peer advisor for the Department of Political Science. She also serves as chief copy editor at the Davis Political Review. R.J. is from Placerville, California and loves to hike in the Sierra Nevada with her family’s dogs.

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