“My Passion for Literature Succumbed to Reality,” writes Bianca Vivion Brooks in an op-ed in The New York Times. While Brooks loves majoring in English—the reading, the writing, the thinking, the discussions—her family sacrificed for her to go to college and count on her to help out after graduating. She needs a decent, steady income. She can’t pretend, just because she loves English, that money doesn’t matter. Hoping to bolster her job prospects, she switched her major to another field.
Many people majoring in English or interested in majoring in English face the same dilemma. On one hand, we value the depth of thought and perspective, the ability to understand ourselves and other people, the skills in communicating and interpreting, the creativity, and more that a degree in English can cultivate. On the other hand, we want to (or want students to) go on from college to find remunerative work. Can English majors get both? Despite the doubts of Brooks and others, the answer is emphatically “yes!”
Over the past several years, I’ve collected stories and advice from well over a hundred duly employed English majors (see “Want a Job with that English Degree?”). Overwhelmingly, they share that their degrees have helped them find meaning as well as money. According to multiple surveys, most employers in the U.S. positively want to hire college graduates with the kinds of skills fostered in English and other liberal arts—with skills in writing and communicating most important of all. But perhaps the most convincing evidence about English majors’ financial prospects comes from recent data on employment and earnings from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. That data, analyzed in several reports, overturns some of the most widespread stereotypes about English majors with the following facts.
English Majors Hardly Ever End Up Serving Coffee. Perhaps no stereotype about English majors has a firmer place in folks’ imaginations than the idea that English majors end up as baristas. In actuality, fewer than 1% of people with a bachelor’s degree in English spend any time working in food service at all during the bulk of their careers (ages 27-66). Moreover, even during the first few years after college (ages 22-26), not even 5% do so (Robert Matz’s “The Myth of the English Major Barista”).
English Majors Get Jobs. If English majors aren’t serving coffee, then, as the next big stereotype goes, they must be writing a novel in their parents’ basements, with no job. In contrast, even in the wake of the Great Recession when unemployment for English majors peaked (2009-2010), recent graduates (ages 22-26) with a degree in English faced an unemployment rate of just above 9%—not as good as some other majors, admittedly, but better than the national average and far better than the average for, say, recent high school graduates. Moreover, that rate improves as the economy recovers and with additional experience and with additional education, dropping, in 2011-2012, as low as 3.4% for English majors with a graduate degree and between ages 35-54 (Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce’s From Hard Times to Better Times: College Majors, Unemployment, and Earnings).
English Majors Work in a Wide Range of Fields. The common idea of teaching as the default career for English majors is only partially accurate. A little over one fifth of English majors do go into education (including middle and high school, college, and libraries). But almost another fifth go into various sorts of management (including becoming 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; others become police officers. The list goes on (George Mason University’s English Department’s “English Major Career Outcomes”).
English Majors Make Decent Money. Another rumor has English majors, those who find jobs, just barely scraping by. Again, the data show otherwise. In 2013, humanities and liberal arts majors (including English majors) who recently entered the workforce (ages 21-24) earned a median of $30,000 a year, not a lot to live on but not bad for starting out either. For more established English majors (ages 25-59), the median annual earnings jumped to $53,000. Of course, some earned more than the median, while others earned less. Among established English majors, those in the top quarter of earners earned more than $80,000—not shabby at all—while those in the bottom quarter still earned up to almost $40,000 (Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce’s The Economic Value of College Majors).
English Majors Are Likely to Go to Graduate School. People often don’t realize how readily an English degree can serve as a stepping stone. Close to half of English majors (43.2%) go on from the bachelor’s degree to earn a higher degree, and a higher salary. In 2013, having a graduate degree brought English majors’ median annual earnings up to $68,000—with the most financially successful quarter of these folks earning more than $110,000 and the least successful quarter still earning up to almost $50,000 (The Economic Value of College Majors).
In light of the numbers, the stereotypes plaguing English majors, and leading Bianca Vivion Brooks to switch degrees, turn out to be flat out wrong. Although some face bumps in the road, as some students in any major do, English majors not only can but overwhelmingly do find good jobs with the degree they love. Those who want a broad and deep education in writing, language, literature, and culture, without fearing for their financial futures, will be hard pressed to find a better major than English.