I'm wondering the same thing as Darksummmers in this question.
Why do a lot of people drop out of interpreting school? I realize that it's a demanding program and a difficult profession. Still, it's nowhere near as hard as engineering or life sciences. Then, why do a lot of people have trouble launching their careers and end up working as receptionists and secretaries?
Obviously, there's nothing wrong with working those jobs. Still, you're way overqualified for them if you have a Master's. Also, I read on other sites that a lot of people who get this degree are then forced to get additional degrees, diplomas and certificates, since foreign languages cannot be your only skill.
I think you may be very wrong when you say "it's nowhere near as hard as engineering or life sciences". How many engineers are there in the world? Millions. How many conference interpreters. Thousands.
There is a big difference between the jobs you quote and conference interpreting too. Interpreting is a skill (like playing tennis or making pottery), rather than the use of acquired knowledge.
The following filters get applied to the pool people wanting to be conference interpreters. With each "filter" more and more people drop out.
The drop out rate is high at every stage of the process. (All these figures are based on my own reasonably extensive experience, not on any official stats).
These are some of the reasons for the high drop-out rate during and after interpreting school.
You can practice maths exercises. You can learn anatomy by heart. It's demanding, no doubt, but there are procedures, so to speak, allowing you to get there.
Interpreting is a niche market and so is the training: There is no bachelor specifically tailored to prepare you for the masters programme. So-called translation & interpreting bachelor programmes give you some language skills, some general knowledge (economy, politics, law) and some training in (mostly) written skills.
To be admitted to a masters programme, you'll be submitted to a short test which will allow to speculate on your abilities to get your diploma in the end, provided you put in the continuous effort and have a personality that'll allow you to withstand the constant criticism and judgement that is inherent to our training.
Yet, feedback gets under your skin. When you get a maths exercise wrong, your personality is not under scrutiny. When your interpreting is evaluated, your voice, your public speaking skills, your general knowledge, your shyness (or excessive swag) are being criticized.
You will have the impression that you're being told that YOU, as a person, are not good enough and that you will have to change who or how you are (or rather, appear to be).
Many students can't take it, because understanding what exactly isn't on par with the expectations is very difficult, and actually changing those things is even more. There's no bachelors degree that will craft an open yet discrete and self-confident personality. Studies most of the time are about what you know, not who you are. You can't overall prepare for a masters degree in conference interpreting, except for your foreign language skills and general knowledge. The time lapse to accept the feedback, lick your wounds, swallow your pride and rebuild your self-confidence is very limited and you have to advance fast.
And there's the A language. Having a very strong A language isn't something you can improve within a few months. If you had a chance to read and write a lot even before you ever knew that conference interpreting was a profession, your chances are good. Otherwise, you might just not be up to the required level. And you might only find out during the final year.
You will need also to focus on your interpreting technique, while developing your other skills. Foreign languages are never strong enough (I was often told that my English wasn't worthy of being a C language, and it took me some time to realize that indeed this language can be a real pain for me in the booth) and when it comes to general knowledge, you're expected to be more knowledgeable about recent events that the US President's advisors, while you also need to understand financial and legal topic as if these had been your minors.
In short, you need a wide range of skills and competences plus the right personality to make it. And whenever you believe you have reached a milestone that would mean that you're almost there, life reminds you that you're not even close.
Very few people get admitted to interpreting school, and the few lucky ones might get the impression they are quite unique. Well yes, compared to those who do not get admitted, they are. But being admitted doesn't mean they'll get their diploma. And getting a diploma doesn't mean they'll make it on the market. Which brings me to your second question/remark:
A masters degree in conference interpreting is a bit like having a degree as an architect. It means that you can draw (a certain type of) fancy buildings. But it doesn't mean that you'll be able to sell yourself to a client who doesn't want to pay you decent wages. Nor that you're able to compete with all the other talented architects out there.
So, you freshly graduated. Your school taught you how to behave in a professional setting. Your personality has undergone a few mutations, you're one of the 30% who can pride himself with a degree which tells as much about your interpreting technique as a driving licence tells about your driving. But you want to become a racing car driver. What your school did not have the time to teach you sufficiently (if at all) is how to approach sponsors, what a race is actually like, and how to beat your fellow graduates - who suddenly became competitors.
Also, you have embraced a profession that many do not know about. You're expensive, too. While your potential clients did not have engineering or architecture classes in high-school and therefore will have to hire engineers and architects, they did have foreign language classes. So, you want to sell them language services? For THAT much money for just what, two hours of work? And you need to work in a team of two AND rent extra equipment? You must be kidding! I mean, interpreting can't be that difficult. And well, times are rough, they already have to pay for the architect so, well... The company certainly could ask someone who's already on their payroll to translate orally. You know, they have Pamela at the reception who speaks a bit of French and a bit of German, so she'll interpret for the business meeting scheduled at 2p.m. instead of hiring you. Or they'll just hope that the Lithuanian and the Hungarian experts who are in their mid-fifties do understand enough English to just fly without an interpreter. After all, everybody had English classes in the USSR and other Eastern bloc states, right? Oh, no. But come on, English is supposed to be an easy language.
So, nobody really told you how to close deals. Nor where to find clients. Maybe you don't even have a B language, so you realize that you have no chance at all on the private market. But! There are the European institutions and the International organizations. There, you need to have the right C languages.
Your school only offered you a conference interpreting training, they assumed you had done your research for the languages in demand and knew what you were doing. If you did your research too late, you'll need four to five years to add the one language that'll get you invited for an accreditation test.
You'll need to pay rent during that time. So, off you go finding a part-time job where you could use your language skills. And eventually, work will alienate you, you'll lose touch with your former fellow students and you won't have the energy to pursue the ambition of adding a language, while also maintaining your interpreting technique two hours per day.
Overqualified for the above mentioned jobs, yes. More qualified than your competitors to get a job as a PR advisor, a journalist or a language teacher: No. Employers wanting a journalist will hire somebody who has studied journalism, and so on. A masters degree in conference interpreting will make you the second choice for any position for which more relevant degrees exist.
Addendum: Some schools do adapt the language combinations they offer, so they don't pour large quantities of soon-to-be unemployed people on the market but only train people who'll have a chance on the market. Some (usually the same, since the two aspects are closely related) also do care about the professional insertion of their graduates. Some others, too many of them, will train anyone having two C languages, while they know that there is no chance that they'll make it later on, despite having their diploma.
In my school, out of 13 students, 8 did not have a combination that later would allow them to make a living (or even work at all). Only two of us did have a viable combination, got our diploma and are able to live off interpreting only.
And there's also the change in demand that can't be predicted. For the EU for instance, to be invited for the French booth, having EN and DE as C languages was the best option in the last years. Many students had heard that their German would allow them to get invited for the test, hence they pursued their studies until the final year and we're pretty sure that at least, they would be invited for a test - knowing they had a 25 to 35% chance to pass (which isn't a guarantee of regular work, though). A few weeks ago, some of these students went to a study visit at DG SCIC, where the head of the French unit told them that rules had changed. You now need EN, DE and a third C language to be invited. So, provided these students get their diploma, they'll need to find a way not to lose their interpreting technique, add a language and find a way to pay their bills in the meantime.
I am answering late, as this question only just came to the top of the list again. You asked above about what has changed since UN interpreters and translators used to be taken on years ago.
Well, for one thing, technology. Rare is the speaker who doesn't get up with his speech written out on paper, computer, iPad, etc., and who starts reading much faster than in the past. Speaking time per delegate has shortened as IOs have less money in their budgets for long conferences - general conferences and assemblies that used to take six weeks are now taking at most two, and time has to be cut from something. But the delegates don't cut back on how much they want to say - hence they now read at breakneck speed, sometimes using slides if we're lucky! Back when I started, it was only Soviet delegates who read that fast; nowadays it's everyone, and few people speak their native languages anymore.
You also say that engineers hold people's lives in their hands. We also do, sometimes directly, if interpreting for a doctor, lawyer, immigration official, or if you prefer, for the ICC, ICTY, ICTR, STL; sometimes indirectly, if interpreting a border dispute between two Latin American countries that will involve fishing rights and livelihoods (ICJ) or planning safe storage facilities for storing unused nuclear warheads.
So on top of having an excellent mother tongue, excellent comprehension of at least one - if not 3, 5, 7... - other languages, possibly excellent expression in one of those non-mother tongues, excellent knowledge of all domains of human endeavor, plus a brain that allows you to extrapolate from first principles and make connections between seemingly unconnected things, there is also all the stress of performing that an actor/musician/comedian/circus acrobat/dancer has.
Add to that the fact that - especially in this economic climate - there are fewer interpreter days available for a growing number of graduates. This means that you have to be really good to be able to get started, and even better if you went to an interpreting school that isn't in the market where you want to work, so you won't have the same connections that people who went to the local interpreting school do. Moreover, if you are a freelancer, which is what 99% of graduates will start out as, you have to be a marketer, negotiator, accountant, PR and social media specialist, all while studying for your next conference on POPs or your next economic arbitration.
It's not for nothing that in the US, it has been said that interpreters have just as stressful a job as air traffic controllers!
I don't want to be completely pessimistic - there are students who do make it each year, some very quickly, some taking longer, some only interpreting, some also translating. There is an enormous amount of non-conference interpreting work out there, but you have to have the imagination and energy to find it. And if you are trying to get a degree, you are still getting the degree in conference interpretation, with juries made up of conference interpreters - so you will still have to show you can do that job to get the diploma.
I hope that helps answer your questions.
answered 23 Oct '14, 07:56
In the same vein as my previous message:
Continue reading: The Dark side of interpreter training by Andrew Clifford
answered 20 Oct '14, 15:52
They drop out because they correctly realise they made a big career decision mistake and are smart enough to back out before it's too late. Why should anyone use their tremendous skills and training only to be shafted by interpreting agencies?
Unless extreme luck intervenes, interpreting is poorly paid considering the effort and intelligence required as agencies compete for contracts and self-employment provides often unreliable source of income.
What's more, the profession is hardly ever appreciated and at the best of times very stressful due to having to deal with people that are best to be avoided. Unless of course one seeks to make themselves feel terrible day in day out.
The good feeling and motivation stemming from helping strangers to bridge their language gap, while using a very unique skill set and experience, unfortunately won't pay the bills and won't guarantee a good quality of life or retirement. God forbid the interpreter suffers a burnout.
To these drop outs I'd say well done you.
answered 08 Mar, 12:01