If you want to major in English, you might feel some pressure. Folks might warn you against it. Folks might tell you that you can’t get a job with an English degree, might advise you that a “practical” degree is the safe bet in a rough economy, might crack jokes about you working at Starbucks while writing a novel in your parents’ basement.
Now, many college majors are vocational degrees, which do prepare students for specific jobs: nursing, teaching, accounting, counseling, social work, etc. Many people declare these majors because they really want to. They want to study and work in these fields. That’s great, for them.
But what about you? What if you would rather study the humanities or liberal arts? What should you do if you love English—or art, or anthropology, or history, or philosophy—but also want a job?
Well, you could listen to the naysayers, play it safe, and major in something you’re not interested in. If you do, with a little luck (jobs aren’t automatic in any field), you could go on to do that thing that you’re not interested in for forty years or so until you retire. Though that sounds kind of gloomy to me, it might not be so bad. Your interests might change. Careers you have little interest in now could become fascinating to you. Moreover, you can have an avocation alongside your vocation, a serious hobby alongside your career. After all, T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, two of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, worked in banking and insurance.
In contrast, you could just ignore the naysayers, throw caution to the wind, and major in what interests you, come what may. If you do, you might end up secretly worrying about a job through four years of college and then very openly worrying about a job for a year or two after you graduate, the time it might take for you get on your feet. This isn’t the worst possible outcome. But it’s not the best either.
Thankfully, there’s a third way: you could listen to what’s legitimate about the naysayers’ concerns but then chart your own course around the obstacles. Embracing idealism and practicality simultaneously, you could major in what interests you while also taking steps to prepare yourself for a job by learning how to apply toward a practical and meaningful line of work those very skills, dispositions, perspectives, and ways of seeing the world that you develop as an English major. I recommend this route.
Vocational degrees prepare you for a specific job. Majoring in English prepares you, broadly speaking, for life, including a wide range of possible careers. There are trade-offs with either choice. If you do major in English, you will want to know what the job and career opportunities and obstacles are and how to prepare for them. That’s what this essay is about.
1. The Disadvantages of Majoring in English
When it comes to jobs, it seems English majors do face three distinct disadvantages. None are fatal. All can be overcome if you know what they are and put in some effort.
1. English majors don’t automatically have a preselected career in mind simply by virtue of having majored in English. If you major in English, you’ve got so many options, you might not know where to start.
2. English majors don’t always have career supports such as internships or workshops on resumes and in interviews already built into their degree programs.
3. English majors don’t always have professors with substantial work experience outside of being an English professor. While most professors in vocational programs became professors after having careers in the fields they now teach, a good number of professors in liberal arts programs have only or mostly worked as a professor. For instance, I went to college, then to grad school, then became a professor. What I do is what I know best. (And I’ve got some great advice for you in a separate post if you’re thinking about going to grad school in English.) But you might be more interested in other kinds of work that I might not be able to tell you much about.
These are real but small disadvantages. They just mean you’ve got to take some extra initiative in learning about what careers are available for you and how to prepare for them. How can you do that? One English professor, Helene Meyers, has her students get in touch with and shadow people in fields they’re interested in and talk to people who majored in English and are now working in careers. While most English professors will not ask you to do these kinds of things, they are capital ideas for you to do on your own initiative. Also, since you’re reading this post, you’re already on the right track.
2. The Advantages of Majoring in English
An English major from Calvin College who went on to work in pharmaceuticals testifies that “being an English major has taught me how to teach myself anything, even—yes!—science.” Majoring in English has several major advantages. In preparing you not just for a specific job but for life, an English major gives you opportunities to develop broad, flexible, indispensable skills. Ideally, one of them will be learning how to learn.
That’s how I came to write this advice for English majors on getting jobs, by using research skills I learned in my English degrees. In addition to reading what I could find on the topic, I put together a questionnaire, in March 2016, for people who majored in English and went on to lines of work other than teaching or grad school in English (those call for different kinds of advice). Within a week of creating the questionnaire, with responses pouring in, I had hundreds of pages of stories and advice from 100 working English majors from all sorts of colleges, all around the country, at all stages of their careers. (By the way, if you fit the bill, you can take the questionnaire, too.) Much of what I have to say throughout this post I learned from these responses, which brings me back to the advantages of majoring in English:
1. Majoring in English gives you the opportunity to develop a wide range of important, complex, adaptable skills. In addition to learning how to learn, these skills may include writing, reading, analyzing, speaking, critical thinking, creativity, research, discussion, and many others. When Helene Meyers asked her English major students to think about what skills they’ve developed in their major, they came up with a list that “included the usual suspects—writing and research—as well as the ability to connect the small with the big picture, to manage a project and meet deadlines, to both listen and speak, and to create and innovate.” These are valuable, employable skills. According to one major survey, the top skills employers look for when hiring college graduates are “written and communication skills.” Next on their list are “adaptability/managing multiple priorities” and “making decisions/solving problems.” Then come “collaborating with others” and “planning/organizational skills.” All of these general skills, of the sort you might develop in an English major, come before any specific “technical skills associated with the job” or “knowledge of content area associated with the job,” which vocational majors tend to focus on more heavily. (Another survey of employers confirms these same priorities.)
Many of the English majors who completed my questionnaire point in the same direction. Kaylin Brian, from Indiana State University, learned a “work ethic” from majoring in English. Aaron Singh, who earned two degrees in English from the University of South Florida, credits his “degrees in the humanities for literally how I think—how I tackle projects and obstacles; how I communicate with others; how I plan and prepare for the worst.” Liz, an English major from New College of Florida, sees a strong continuity between her degree and her work. “At work,” she explains, “I am an active student, which means I contribute, dialogue, reflect, and grow.” She also adds, “English majors make implicit meanings explicit, and that’s how you make yourself essential.” An English major from Southwestern University who graduated in 2006 learned skills in their degree that they use “as Correspondence Director for a state senator, ghost writing responses to all of her constituent correspondence and managing interns who helped with that process.” Indeed, writing skills were emphasized again and again in the questionnaire responses. In her experience, shares Rebecca, an English major from Seattle Pacific University, “Being able to write clearly, concisely, and coherently will get you just about anywhere.” Necco McKinley, an English major who graduated from Augusta College in 1995, agrees: “Remember, most people are not good writers. They need us.”
In a response worth quoting at length, Deborah Schander, from Washington Adventist University, explains how the writing and reading skills she developed as an English major gave her an advantage in law school: “Reading legal texts is a lot like reading literature: big words, dense prose, and ambiguous authorial intent. Unlike many of my classmates, I was already used to reading long passages quickly and to the amount of reading expected. I had also studied and practiced a variety of writing styles, and knew that one style is often better suited to a situation than another . . . My English major taught me how to craft an argument, defend it, and use the best words while doing it. I was also okay knowing that there isn’t always one answer or interpretation of a situation. It was mostly a matter of retraining those skills and instincts to a new field.”
These skills are not just about what you know but about what you can do. Majoring in English gives you a great opportunity to develop in these, particularly with respect to writing, speaking, researching, thinking, and working with people.
2. Another crucial advantage is that by studying literature, writing, culture, and language you can come understand the world more clearly and more deeply. This may involve understanding people, understanding different cultures, and understanding yourself. Through helping you develop these understandings, the study of literature can then help you develop empathy and compassion—the ability to imagine what others are thinking, feeling, and experiencing and the propensity to act with kindness towards others, particularly those who are hurting or in need. Obviously useful in your personal life, these habits of being also come in handy in a wide range of jobs.
3. In some companies, having majored in English can actually give you an edge in being hired—even in fields not clearly related to English. Writing in Forbes business magazine, George Anders suggests liberal arts degrees, such as English, can help people get work in tech fields, particularly in positions that require working with people, something the techies and engineers at these companies may sometimes not be as good at. Striking a similar note, Steven Pearlstein, business writer for The Washington Post, likewise explains why many companies look to hire people with these kinds of larger skills. “In today’s fast-changing global economy,” he writes, “the most successful enterprises aren’t looking for workers who know a lot about only one thing. They are seeking employees who are nimble, curious and innovative. The work done by lower-level accountants, computer programmers, engineers, lawyers and financial analysts is already being outsourced . . . soon it will be done by computers. The good jobs of the future will go to those who can collaborate widely, think broadly and challenge conventional wisdom—precisely the capacities that a liberal arts education is meant to develop.”
All told, the advantages of majoring in English far outweigh the disadvantages, particularly for those with a deep interest in and strong aptitude for the subject. But I must make a caveat: all of the advantages of the English major are contingent on you really learning and growing during your time earning the degree. As with virtually every major, it is very possible to pass courses, graduate, get credentials, and not have gone through the formative and transformative process that the English major offers. Degrees represent opportunities. It’s up to you to actually engage yourself, apply yourself, push yourself, in order to avail yourself of the advantages.
3. The Jobs English Majors Do Get
Regardless of what the naysayers say, testimonies from working English majors and statistics on employment both point in the same direction: English majors do get jobs, and good ones. The 2003 national Survey of College Graduates, as David Laurence reports, found more than 96% of college graduates with a first bachelor’s degree in English either employed, retired, or choosing not to work (in order, for instance, to stay home with family members). What kind of jobs do they have, you might ask? Are these English majors mostly baristas, as the joke goes? Far from it. Citing data from the the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Robert Matz explains that less than one percent (0.72% to be exact) of people with a degree in English spend any time working in food service at all during the forty years that constitute the bulk of most people’s careers (ages 27-66). What this means is that English majors “are less likely to work in food service than in many highly skilled positions, including as chief executives and legislators (1.4 percent), physicians and surgeons (1.2 percent), or accountants and auditors (1.2 percent).” That bears repeating: with an English major, you’re literally more likely to become a CEO or legislator than to end up serving coffee or French fries. Indeed, the one person who responded to my questionnaire who works in a coffee shop owns it. (To be clear, it’s perfectly honorable to work in food service; it’s just statistically unlikely for you to do so for long if you have an English degree.)
What other work can you do with an English major? It turns out that the easier question is, what can’t you do? Majoring in English rules few options out. Of course, there are several career options that connect closely and clearly with the English major. To begin with, there’s teaching English in middle school or high school (I should write a whole separate post for advice on that) and going to grad school in English in order to become a professor (I have written a whole separate post for advice on that). A similarly obvious option is to become a writer. If that’s what you’re interested in, you need to know that very few novelists make a living through novels, and not a single one of them started off that way. But even if entry-level novelist positions do not exist, there are many writing positions that do: freelance writer (a tough gig, admittedly), staff writer for a magazine, copywriter for an advertising firm, social media manager, television writer, corporate writer, technical writer (an occupation the Bureau of Labor Statistics rates as growing faster than average), journalist, etc. An English major might similarly lead in a fairly direct way to work in editing or publishing.
At the same time, most English majors actually work in fields you might not automatically associate with English. The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey finds that only a little over a fifth of English majors go into education (including middle and high school, college, and libraries), while another almost fifth go into various sorts of management (including CEOs and legislators), a significant portion go into law, and still others go into media, computers, sales, finance, and even science. Some English majors become physicians, while others become police officers. The list goes on. (For a complete breakdown of the categories of work English majors go into, check out this interactive chart.)
Respondents to my survey work in a wide range of areas. I’m giving you the whole long list here just to show how adaptable an English major can be: teaching, religious ministry, library, law, para-law, journalism, communications, antiques, technology, editing, publishing, freelance writing, copywriting, technical writing, ghost writing, grant writing, copyediting, proofreading, marketing, advertising, public relations, stay-at-home parenting, politics, business management, project management, corporate training, film, video, insurance, entrepreneurship, nonprofit directing, speech pathology, student services, clerical work, pharmaceuticals, college advising, college administration, youth counseling, camp administration, engineering, jewelry retail, sports retail, cosmetics export, radio, ballet, county government, clerking, construction, carpet cleaning, horse grooming and training, graphic design, student affairs, programming, fine art painting, sexual violence prevention education, photography, mortgage, military, web development, bookstore, music, investment bank marketing, operations director, telemarketing, fundraising, planning and guiding regional and historical tours, directing product development, engineering, and oil and gas inspection. Respondents also included English majors working as an administrative assistant, a CFO, a CEO, and a single individual—Wade Elliot, an English major who graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 2000—working as a “Singer/Songwriter, Contractor, Distiller, Film Producer, Business owner.”
In sum, the idea that English majors can’t find personally and financially meaningful work is simply bunk. It is no surprise, then, that when Sheryl I. Fontaine and Stephen J. Mexal got in touch with as many English majors as they could who had ever graduated from the English program at California State University, Fullerton, they found the former students were, overwhelmingly, not only gainfully employed but also grateful for what they had learned in their English degrees.
4. True Stories of Employed English Majors
To show fuller pictures of some of the kinds of work English majors can go into and of the various, sometimes winding, career paths that can lead to these jobs, I share the following stories from folks who completed my questionnaire:
Military: Hugh Burns (San Diego State University, 1968) worked at a mortgage company before finishing his English major. He graduated at the time of the military draft in the Vietnam War. He enlisted and later became commissioned, spending twenty years in the Air Force. After the Air Force, he went into research and development and then higher education, where he did both academic and administrative work. Every chance he got, he says, he continued his education both formally and through traveling the world. He writes, “I’m over 70, so it’s a long story. Being able to read critically, write clearly, speak truth to power, and listen like a Benedictine monk are virtues embedded in a wide liberal arts experience. I read everyday. I write everyday.”
Marketing: Caitlin Klueber (Ohio Wesleyan University, 2011) began working for Whole Foods Market during college and, upon graduating, found ways to put her English major (and later her English Master’s degree) to use in her career. She ended up moving into a sales and marketing position with one of the suppliers for Whole Foods, The Oppenheimer Group. She explains how her job revolves around communication, “whether email, phone calls, or writing reports.” She also shares how, as an English major, “I know how to analyze documents quickly, pay attention to my audience when answering emails and company queries, and how to write a succinct, effective report to summarize my company’s needs and goals, and the goals of our customers.” She finds that “With an English degree, you can work in any field” because “The skills that you learn (reading, writing, comprehension) are universal and important, no matter the industry.” Most importantly, she finds the work fulfilling, writing, “I couldn’t be happier with the industry or company.”
Antiques: Emily (from a state university in the Southeast) earned a master’s in English and starting working as a copyeditor for an online education company. When she decided that the tedious work and traditional office environment were not for her, she started volunteering with local historic preservation group, following a personal interest of hers. Through that volunteer work, she met the owner of an art and antiques auction gallery, who offered her a job. Her work involves researching and writing about art and artists in the collection for the gallery’s website and online art journals. She simultaneously works at an antique furnishings store and has been curating her own collection of antiques to sell. She aims eventually to open her own “antique and book shop, which will combine two of my beloved hobbies.” Emily writes, “My English degree definitely provided me with some essential skills that give me an advantage above others. Being able to write well is something that should never be taken for granted. Even if it’s just writing a Facebook post for your business, being able to write properly counts for something. My research skills have also been very important in my line of work, as it is important to know to provenance of every work of art or piece of furniture that I handle.”
Nonprofit: John Orzechowski (Southeastern University, 2008), after earning his English degree, went on to divinity school and then on to work at a nonprofit law firm. “Being able to write clearly, succinctly, and persuasively has helped me do well in the nonprofit world,” he shares. “I initially provided direct assistance to low income Tennesseans who need access to health care services or coverage. For that work, being able to clearly communicate was an asset. I drafted many letters, appeals, etc. on behalf of clients. We also use client stories to educate the public about needed policy changes, so being able to tell their stories in a compelling, straightforward way is essential. I now have a number of roles including writing and managing grants, handling the organization’s financials, and preparing reports for board and funders.” He also now takes part in hiring decisions and looks for “communication and critical thinking skills, attitude, and experience much more than having a degree that perfectly fits the position.”
Consulting: Emma Rose (Duquesne University, 1995) majored in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing, even though her father wanted her to major in business. But then, not knowing what to do with her English degree, she writes, “I had to get creative (ha!).” She worked at help desk at a print shop. She taught herself HTML to build a website. She began traveling and found work as a technical writer for a translation company. She did a stint in web design and marketing. She then went back to school to earn a master’s in Technical Communication, which led her to work as “a consultant helping companies bring user research and design into their web and mobile projects.” She highlights that even though this job didn’t exist when she was in college, her English major nonetheless prepared her for it in several key ways. She writes, “Majoring in English gave me the opportunities to engage with big picture ideas, express my creativity and hone my writing skills and do lots and lots of writing. I think all of these characteristics has helped me tremendously in my life and career.” To this day, even though she works for businesses, Emma remains “so glad” she majored in English instead of business.
Entrepreneur: Another English major (Southeastern, 2006) worked in insurance, then moved into accounts payable, and then opened their own coffee shop and bar. Each step was taken “out of economic necessity.” By having majored in English, they share, “I take more time to see the story of my own life and others that probably appears to be day to day monotony. I try to take the time to break out of habit. I am able to apply critical thought and empathy in business situations rather than a strictly ‘numbers’ approach.” They advise, “Liberal arts and business are not opposed. Rather the things we learn in the humanities ought to follow us everywhere we go.”
Product development: Damian Rollison (UC Berkeley, 1995) works for online marketing company as director of product development. While he did also go on to graduate school, he emphasizes the role his English major plays in his current work. In addition to writing columns in industry publications and speaking at conferences, at this company, he writes, he serves as “a kind of bridge” between technical folks and others. He approaches his work in a way “heavily informed” by his English major. He sees product development as “all about synthesizing ideas and needs from various constituents in the company into a coherent narrative.” He connects this directly to his study of English: “when Rene Girard said literary criticism was a way of formalizing implicit or half-explicit systems in literature, that type of mental activity actually describes my job rather well.” For Damian, the tech sector offers “many interesting opportunities to solve difficult, engaging problems.” Among other things, English majors can “help software developers turn ideas into products.”
Religious ministry: Alissa Anderson (Calvin College, 2010) did go on to graduate studies in English after finishing her English major, intending to go through a doctorate, but then felt called to move out of academia into a different field: the Episcopal priesthood. She worked as a nanny and copy editor for some time before enrolling in seminary. Her English major in her work in many ways: “I’m a strong writer, which has helped me in pretty much every activity I’ve undertaken. In my church work, I write sermons, newsletter articles, emails, grants, and more. I’m also a strong reader—this helps in preparing for sermons and analyzing text, but having a strong foundation in reading is also great (and necessary) for me recreationally.” She also continues to do a copy editing on the side for additional income.
Publishing: Meagan (State University of New York at Potsdam, 2007) did an internship with a local literary agent for her English major during college. The experience working with the agent in reviewing manuscripts, assembling pitches to send to publishers, and completing other “day to day business things” helped her see “that publishing was where I wanted to be.” After graduating, she got a job with a small publishing house as a technical editor, editing government regulations. After working on that for a couple years, she moved over into academic publishing. She now works as a learning technology consultant for the publisher McGraw-Hill. She shares, “The ability to communicate effectively in writing and speech has become invaluable.” Other things she developed during her English major that have helped her include “the ability to place value on critical thinking and debate, and to always keep an open mind” and to recognize how many things are “open to interpretation.”
5. Money Matters
So we’ve established that you can get a job—a good, meaningful job—with an English major. At the same time, according to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, it is also true that people with English majors earn, on average, less money over the long term than people with degrees in some other fields. If making money is your primary concern—that is, making a lot rather than enough—you will want to take this into consideration. Of course, the critical thinking skills you can pick up in an English degree will help you consider a few other things too. To begin with, the fact that English majors earn less on average doesn’t mean every English major earns less. Included in the average are English majors who earn less, English majors who earn more, and English majors who earn about the same amount as others. Also, as Robert Matz wisely observes, “It would probably be better”—financially and otherwise— “to end up a successful English major than an unsuccessful business major.” Doing something you’re not interested in for the money but then not making much money would be a double loss. And lack of interest, in fact, may very well make it less likely for you to succeed. As Steven Pearlstein observes, parents often pressure children not to major in English or other liberal arts or humanities. But it appears that “those who chose majors simply to please their parents are more likely to give up or burn out.” If that’s the case during college, it may very well apply all the more after college.
While you should certainly consider money in picking a major, let’s be clear that the financial math isn’t completely straightforward. It’s not that one major makes you rich while the other leaves you penniless. We’re talking about averages for people who work in given fields, where you might or might not fall in line with what’s typical, depending on how well you do. Just as importantly, we’re talking about a relatively small difference percentage-wise, where, for instance, you might make 10% or 20% more or less over your lifetime, not the difference between poverty or wealth. Finally, it’s crucial to remember that, no matter how the numbers fall, money is not the only part of the equation. As Pearlstein puts it so well, “the meaning of life” is not “maximizing lifetime income.”
6. Meaning Matters More
I did not know what I would find when I began this project learning about jobs for English majors. I had heard that all the jokes about English majors being unemployed or underpaid were exaggerations. What I’ve learned from the statistics I’ve cited above has more than confirmed that: once again, you can get a good job with an English major. But in my survey of English majors who are working in a range of fields, I also learned some things I did not expect—although I should have. In reading through the responses, I felt so honored to have so many people, most of them perfect strangers, share something of the story of their lives with me. And that, exactly, is what these stories were. They weren’t about “jobs” or “careers” only. They were stories about making a living, journeys of struggles, creativity, unexpected twists and turns, finding meaningful work and making a difference. I share the following things they said, highlighting how an English major has meant for them not just the ability to get a job but also and more importantly the ability to live a more meaningful life:
Jim Chevallier (Bard College, 1972) offers this advice: “Pay attention to what actually energizes you in Life . . . better to work at something that truly engages you, even for less money, than to trudge along unhappily at something you hate.”
Lindsey (Ohio State University) switched her major to English because “chemistry broke my soul.”
Rachel Lowen (Grove City College, 2006) finds the greatest value of her English major in what it has done for her in her life outside of work: “English literature is my true love when it comes to learning, and though it has not always been monetarily lucrative, it has led me to a richer and fuller life in the last ten years than some are given in a lifetime. Reading is a comfort to me in sickness and health, my books have traveled the world with me and provided me with familiar traces of home and ‘fantasy’ home, and I believe that all good writers teach us a little more about humanity each time we open a book.”
One of my own students, Christian Faux (Southeastern University, 2015), shares that studying English helped him “broaden my perspective on life in general.”
Samantha Hebel (Cornell College, 2012) finds the same thing: “Getting my English degree provided me an understanding of a huge range of world concepts. When you major in English, you aren’t just learning how to read or write, you are learning how to critically analyze a piece of work. You are learning how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand their perspective which increases empathy. When you read, you are exploring worlds and beliefs beyond what exist in your current frame of mind and gain a global and historical perspective of social issues and how we live today.”
An English major from Mary Washington College offers, “The important thing is to love what you do and to do it well.”
David Norling (California State, 1985) describes how his English major spoke to his “desire to be human being rather than a human doing.”
Doug Sikkema (Redeemer University, 2006 for a BA and 2007 for an MA) reflects on how his study informs both his work and his life: “Apart from bringing literature (and history and philosophy) into my work life as something I can ‘use’, I also couldn’t imagine a life without the company of books and authors simply for their own goodness. They are such a key part to a rich, and full life.”
Anne Ehlers (Bryan Mawr College, 1986) similarly found her English major useful for both work—as a “proofreader/tech writer for a government contractor, including onsite at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center”—and life: “Literature deals with the stuff of life itself, strengthens and deepens empathy, and helps us to see beyond the bottom line.”
Kimberly (Santa Clara University) shares how her English has benefited her relationally: “In my personal life, I also married an English graduate and fellow bibliophile. We have an unending source of conversation topics based upon what we read!”
A graduate from St. Meinrad College likewise shares how an English major benefits them relationally, this time with a child rather than a partner: “I read Shakespeare to my son when he was little (5 years old). He is now a creative writing major (has written a novel, 6 plays, and a collection of short stories). He begins his PhD in the Fall of 2016.”
Brenda Mary Cook, having finished school in 1959, looks back on how “a delight in English Literature . . . sustained me in good times and bad.”
Elizabeth (University of Maryland, 2015) finds her English major useful in both work and life: “Most of the skills that you use in class, critical thinking, research, writing, and discussion, are vitally important for any job. In addition, it’s important to truly listen to and understand the voices of our collective past. While the skills that we learn as English majors translate well into the business world, that is not the only reason that we chose our major. The study of thoughts and ideas is valuable in itself, not just because we can make a profit from it. It’s important to be well rounded, and the questions raised in a literary format about ethics, philosophy, religion, and the very nature of humanity, are all the more important as our society becomes more dependent on the technical sciences.”
In short, money matters. But, these English majors all agree, it’s not everything. Meaning matters too—matters more.
7. How to Prepare
If you choose to major in English, you need to take steps to prepare for the workplace. The fact that there are jobs, good jobs, to be had doesn’t mean you will automatically be hired just because you earn a degree. (The same applies in any field, of course.) As Samantha Hebel, an English major who graduated from Cornell College in 2012, advises, “your degree is about getting out what you put it. If you take the time to be intentional about your experience, the opportunities offered to you, and how you are making meaning of what you learn, you will be far ahead of the students who are just trying to get by until graduation.” I offer the following advice from what I’ve learned in undertaking this project.
Start preparing for the workplace long before you graduate. Instead of finding yourself at the end of your degree desperately needing work and not knowing where to start, start thinking about work early in your college career. By the time you start actually looking for jobs, sending out your resume, and scheduling interviews, you should, ideally, already have spent years preparing for work, gaining relevant experience, and developing useful skills. (However, if you’ve already graduated, or are about to, and are just now coming across this advice, don’t despair. Just start catching up.)
If you do not know what you want to do, actively explore multiple possible careers. Keep an antenna open to possible lines of work. Keep a mental (or actual) log of the things that people do that you hadn’t thought of before or that strike your fancy even a bit. Actively research the careers that most catch your imagination. Talk to people you meet about the kinds of work they do. Perhaps even ask some people in various fields if you can take them for coffee and ask them about their work or even shadow them at their jobs for a day. Purposefully plan your community service, internships, extracurriculars, and so forth to try out various lines of work to see how they suit you. As you explore, realize that you may well find the kind work you enjoy (e.g. writing) in fields you might not expect (e.g. technology). Be open to serendipity, those chance encounters that take you unexpected places. But don’t wait for those chance encounters to come to you: go out into the world and be involved, awake, attentive, purposeful in putting yourself in new situations.
If you do already know (or think you know) what you want to do, start building toward that line of work. Knowing what you want to do helps you focus your efforts. You can make sure to choose internships, coursework, extracurriculars, and part-time jobs not just based on what comes across your path but rather based on what will give you experience directly relevant to the kind of work you want to do and what will help you get to know people working in the field who, later on, will be able to give you leads for jobs or put in a good word for you.
Know that you don’t have to have just one job for the rest of your life. Very few people do. Since your first job will not be your last job, it also doesn’t have to be your dream job. Most people move upward and onward to related (or not-so-related) jobs. It’s okay to do a job you don’t love for a while. Jess, graduating as an English major from The College of New Jersey in 2006, explains it well: “Developing a career path is a lot like dating—you go through a lot of not-so-great ones to figure out what you don’t want and what you do want. Even if you don’t end up where you thought you would, sometimes you end up somewhere better.” Get used to the idea of working your way up, moving around, not having your whole career figured out with your first job. You should start exploring jobs long before you graduate, but you don’t have to stop exploring jobs once you get that first one. Even if you are sure that you know what you want to do, remember that the world changes—and so will you. The job you want now might not exist in ten or fifteen years, or you might not want it anymore, or you might want something else more. So even if you are preparing for one specific job, keep your mind open to the possibility of moving into other jobs in the future, should obstacles or opportunities direct. As Alan Torrise, an English major who graduated from Drew University in 1981, puts it, “Be adaptable.”
Do well in college, striving not merely for good grades but for deep learning. You need to purposefully develop skills. Especially work on your writing—in every course, and outside of courses. Also work on conversation, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, analysis, research, and self-assessment skills. Learn how to learn. Work to develop curiosity, creativity, empathy, and initiative. Your time in college is an opportunity to grow into a better person. What you can do and who you are will establish the basis for your career and your life, far more than what degree you earn.
Curate a professional web presence. You want people to be able to find you online, and you want what they find to help, not hurt, your career. You can set up polished-looking websites for free, where potential employers might stumble upon you or purposefully look you up, through sites like WordPress. (You can see my website as one example.) You can establish a professional network on social media, connecting with other people in the field. Of course, make sure not post embarrassing spring break pictures anywhere public—or anything else that might sabotage you. Definitely set up a LinkedIn account, which is the standard professional networking site. (Go ahead and connect with me, if you like, to get started.) And learn how to use your account effectively.
Develop professional relationships with your professors. If you develop connections with your professors, we will be able to guide you and encourage you and (as I’ve written about in a separate post) write you letters of recommendation.
Do an internship. Most English programs do not have internships built in. But internships offer a vital advantage on the job market. They give you real world work experience—an essential qualification. They help you make connections with people who might put in a good word for you or who might pass along to you opportunities or information about jobs. Also, internships allow you to explore whether you even want to work in a particular field. Finding out whether something is or is not for you can be of tremendous value. Finally, according to one survey, employers rate internships as the most important part of a resume, even over what you majored in or what your GPA is.
Do community service relevant to the kinds of work you’re interested in. Doing good simply for the sake of doing good is important. But doing good in a way that helps you explore careers, make contacts, and build experience—that’s even better. Volunteer for causes you are passionate—or at least curious—about, rather than just whatever comes up that you can use to meet community service requirements. As Emily, an English major who unexpectedly found her calling through volunteer work, shares, volunteering is “a good way to explore a career path without committing fully and it benefits your community. The only reason I was able to escape being an office drone was because I decided to volunteer for something that interested me. This catapulted me into a career that I would have never even considered.”
Make your extracurricular activities work for you. Be involved in things for fun and friendship—and for how they can help prepare you for work. Chess clubs, yearbooks, student newspapers, cultural diversity groups, student government, literary societies and so forth offer opportunities for developing skills and experiences that can be useful for your career, particularly if you undertake them intentionally with that as part of your purpose.
Consider picking up some specific technical skills, too. These skills might include computer programming, social media management, web design, or skills related to science or technology. You might pick these up through minoring or double majoring in a technical field or through teaching yourself on the side. As Goldie Blumenstyk notes, having some specific technical skills might make the difference in a liberal arts major getting a first job in a field outside of the liberal arts. According to an analysis of hundreds of thousands of job openings in IT Networking and Support, Sales, Marketing, General Business, Data Analysis and Management, Social Media, Graphic Design, and Computer Programing, having these kinds of skills makes a key difference. Also, if you don’t follow pick up these skills before your first job, keep in mind that plenty of people learn new skills and then switch careers. If you do that, you can put to good use what you can learned about how to learn in your English major.
Gather resources on job advice and job searches. If you gather resources about jobs over time, then you’ll have them when you need them, rather than scrambling for information and ideas at the last minute. You can keep a file on your computer or a folder in your email or tab for bookmarks on internet browser. This essay isn’t a bad start—nor are the various articles posted from time to time online about how English majors and other humanities and liberal arts majors can put their degrees to good use (including those I’ve linked to above). I would also strongly recommend reading Dear English Major on a regular basis, particularly the site’s interviews with English majors working in a wide range of careers. I would also definitely get a hold of the book by the editor of that site, Alyssa W. Christensen, From Graduation to Career Ready in 21 Days: A Guide for English Majors. Also recommended is Katharine Brooks’ You Majored in What? Mapping Your Way from Chaos to Career. You’ll want to know about (and learn how to use) job sites like Monster.com and others. As an English major, you might consider joining the Sigma Tau Delta honor society and taking advantage of its internship resources. You can also browse their blog whether you are a member or not. Your school likely has a career center that you ought to check out (like COMPASS at my university). (If you know other useful resources, I’d be grateful if you should share them with me.)
As you approach graduation, begin working on those specific skills needed for navigating the job market. Learn how to write a resume, one that’s skill based and flawlessly edited. Learn how to write a compelling cover letter. Get someone to practice mock interviews with you. (You can and should get help with these things, but you should also know enough about how to learn by now to be able to get started on your own, with some internet searches.) Know that English majors do have skills employers want but also know that the employers don’t always realize that. As Cathy Day shares, from a career counselor she spoke with, English majors students have a “unique burden” “to tell their stories to the employer rather than to assume that the employer understands what the student has to offer.” Learn how to “pitch” yourself, to explain in a clear, concise, compelling way how the experiences, skills, habits, and dispositions you’ve developed in your degree can benefit the organizations you’re looking to work for.
I majored in English (specifically English & Intercultural Studies). If I had to do it all over again, even if I couldn’t be a professor, I’d still major in English. In fact, what I’d do differently is take yet another English course instead of that one business class I took as an elective. Studying English—studying writing, literature, language, analysis, critical thinking, discussion, empathy, culture, and so forth—provides powerful opportunities for growing both professionally and personally. And, to say it loudly once again, there are jobs, good jobs, available for English majors. Whoever tells you otherwise has been misinformed. So if you’ve decided to major in English, don’t panic. (For the love of Douglas Adams, don’t panic!) But do start taking some practical steps to prepare yourself. You’re going to have to do a little work to get a job and build a meaningful career. (Put working on your writing at the top of the list!) Majoring in English isn’t just about preparing you for remunerative work; it’s also about preparing you for a meaningful life. Of course, work is an important part of life. So majoring in English prepares you for both: making a good living and making a good life.
Thanks to all those who completed my questionnaire, including those quoted above by name or anonymously. Thanks also to Susanmarie Harrington, Julie Gerdes, Amy Bratten, Neal Gill, and Aaron Singh for feedback that has improved this post.
Comments? I’d love to hear from you. What have I missed? What have I gotten wrong?
Image by Marc Brakels (CC BY-NC-ND 2010)