What Can I do with … an English Major? Interviews

Can all that reading and writing English majors do actually lead to a career?!

I’m not the first and I definitely won’t be the last person whose given thought to the job prospects of English majors.  But at least I know I’m in good company. 

According to Urban Dictionary, an English major is “someone who should change majors” or “someone who is well versed in useless information.”

Despite that cynical view, even Urban Dictionary struggles with what to do with the English major. In fact, the most popular entry is actually quite a bit more upbeat.  It says: “Along with Philosophy and Int’l Relations, English is arguably the most difficult college major in the Humanities. English majors read and write far more than any other major, and often suffer from severe caffeine addiction (or worse), insomnia, and manic depression.”

It goes on to add, “Despite what lobotomized Business Majors believe, English majors (like many humanities majors) seek graduate school enrollment and end up with J.D.s, M.B.A.s, L.L.M.s, or Ph.D.s. Best of all, they actually learn how to think and generally live rewarding lives because of that.”

So which is it?  Are English majors the future leaders of America or are they destined to be the future basement dwellers of their parents’ formerly empty nest? 

I reached out to several English professors and career counselors at colleges across the country to weigh in.  Their answers contained equal parts of insight and sarcasm, but they also provided a valuable prism to view the reality and the possibility for English majors, and other students of life.

What’s below: How studying reading and writing can actually get you a job; How an astronaut, a musician, and a spy can all share the same educational background; Why haters hate on studying English; and What’s so great about majoring a language you already speak.

Q: How do you respond to the claim that being an English major makes it difficult or impossible to find a job?

Dana Williams, PhD, Chairs the Department of English at Howard University in Washington, DC.

Dana Williams, PhD – English Department Chair, Howard University:  English majors can have careers in a variety of fields.  Students who write well, exhibit critical thinking and analysis skills, and research meaningfully find it far less difficult to find a job than one might imagine. So, it is a myth, indeed.

Deborah Andrews, PhD – Professor of English, University of Delaware:  English majors are readers and their reading skills translate well into an ability to read a marketplace, read the culture of an organization, read job ads and know how to respond effectively to them. They adapt well to new territories because they have learned to read the worlds imagined in novels and short stories and to watch how characters have responded to their environments. English majors are also writers, and good writing gains attention in a crowded field of candidates for jobs.

Bill Walsh, PhD – Professor of English, Butler University:  An English major is not job specific, but rather than seeing that as a liability, it is an asset—try any field you want.  English majors are smart, they learn, they communicate; I tell employers to use them, but don’t bore them or they are gone.

Siobhan Carroll, PhD – Professor of English, University of Delaware:  Being *any* kind of major right now is tough.  To get a job, you have to do more than just point to a major on your resume.  You need to have mastered your major’s requisite skills.  You need to work hard.  You need to network. You need to keep learning. And that’s as true of English majors as it is of computer science majors.

Siobhan Carroll, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Delaware.

Your best chance of getting a job is to be the strongest candidate in your area.  So if you have the talent and disposition to be a great aerospace engineer – go be an aerospace engineer.  And if your talents and passion incline you to be an English major, embrace that, and work hard to be the best in your chosen field.

Dennis Berthold, PhD – Professor of English, Texas A&M University:  It’s true that it’s harder to get a first job that is as remunerative and secure as those won by majors in Business, Engineering, and some science fields.  But down the road many good jobs in multiple fields open up for our majors, particularly in management, development, government, education, and other areas that require leadership and flexibility. 

Q: How did this myth about English majors become so prevalent?

Kevin Dettmar, PhD – Professor of English, Pomona College:  In a culture as business-oriented as ours is and perhaps has always been, there will always be plenty of fun poked at those who use their education simply to learn rather than to train.

Dr. Andrews (UDel): I don’t think it is a myth!  The English major has indeed been seen, at least recently, as a kind of  default option for people who like to read and can’t do chemistry, or engineering, or math, or economics, or other, more career-oriented endeavors.  But that’s recent and perhaps a result of a decline in the  perceived relevance of the humanities and the liberal arts in general.  It was not always so, and it probably isn’t so where the liberal arts thrive, in first-rate colleges and universities.

Bill Walsh, PhD, a Professor of English at Butler University in Indiana, doesn’t think much of the haters.

Dr. Walsh (Butler):  I think it’s because being an English major is so much fun. Whenever someone talks about the real world, I know they hate their job.

Dr. Berthold (TAMU):  You know the song “What do you do with a BA in English” from the Broadway musical “Avenue Q”?  It says it all:  English is for dilettantes; it has no practical purpose, it’s even a little bit snobby, a default major for students who can’t cut it elsewhere.  And there is some truth to those canards!  As universities and businesses embrace the realities of rapid change, they know that lifelong learning is the most important skill you can get out of college, not knowledge of a particular discipline. 

With the rise of digital humanities, a field that embraces technology and tradition, English departments can demonstrate the importance of reading, writing, research, and learning skills that accompany the English major in ways that were not possible before.  And honestly, the traditional curriculum in English has not helped to dispel the myth, nor has our own penchant for theoretical jargon and impenetrable prose.  We’ve been in a wilderness of theory since the 1970s and are gradually mapping new paths that will make tangible use of the skills our best graduates share.

Valerie Balester, PhD – Professor of English, Texas A&M University:  Hmmm, I don’t really know, but it could be because in the last 20 years or so, people have more and more regarded college as vocational, a place to get a job rather than a place to get an education.  So jobs that lead directly to higher-level pay (like engineering or accounting) are more valued. Also, it may be because English majors have to find their way—except for education jobs or publishing, people don’t usually advertise for English majors.

Q: What skills do you think students develop as English majors?

Kevin Dettmar, PhD, Chairs the Department of English at Pomona College in California.

Dr. Dettmar (Pomona):  Critical thinking, effective writing, and imaginative sympathy.

Dr. Andrews (UDel):  We’ve tried to enhance those skills that help English majors find jobs and, more important, create good lives for themselves and their communities.  We also have a concentration in professional writing, with courses that prepare students for careers as writers in such expected (if perhaps shrinking) fields as publishing and corporate public relations.  Creative students with some marketing or other technical understanding are also finding careers in medical writing, software development, and new media start-ups.

Valia Glytsis – English Major, Executive Leadership Coach: At the end of the day, an English degree is all about exploring the depth of language.  My first job out of college was with a children’s accessory company.  I was brought on as a Marketing associate.  Marketing was a natural extension of an English degree because I was able to write press releases, create copy for our brochures and catalogs, do in-depth research on competitors and the marketplace overall. The root of all transactions in business today are based in our common language.  I believe an English degree can be leveraged and aligned with any career aspirations.  The most critical players on a team are those who are able to communicate and convey a powerful point of view. What more appropriate degree than one that taught you to do this from Day 1?

Dr. Carroll (UDel): Our program produces smart, hard-working graduates who excel at two of the most in-demand skills in the marketplace – analysis and written communication.  In literary studies (my area) we push students to master difficult material and communicate it so that it can be understood by different audiences.  Our program also offers students training in teaching, in tech-writing, in film studies, in journalism and in creative writing.

Valia Glytsis became an Executive Leadership Coach after majoring in English at Georgetown.

Dr. Berthold (TAMU): Writing, research, redacting complex narratives into comprehensible arguments, discovering fresh ideas in old material, lifelong learning, communication, critical thinking, independence, and creativity.

Q: What’s the most interesting career you’ve seen among former English majors?

James Seyfer, MA – Career Advisor and Governmental Liaison, University of Iowa: A few years ago, an Iowa student was an intern at National Geographic where she had a variety of editorial, writing and administrative tasks including researching international publishers, editing articles, writing captions, selecting media and publication photos, creating and sending marketing materials, contributing to the National Geographic photo blog and writing articles for the magazine’s website. She currently works for an organization that handles the international exchange of scholars and university administrators.

Dennis Berthold, PhD is a Professor of English at Texas A&M University.

Dr. Berthold (TAMU):  Robert Earle Keen is now a successful Texas singer-songwriterwhose lyrics and balladic style certainly owe a lot to the English literary tradition.  Others include teaching English abroad such as in Vietnam, China, and Mexico.  These aren’t permanent, but often lead to other jobs that require international experience.

Dr. Walsh (Butler):  Look at the varied careers on the Butler site. Ted Stone (Class of 2006) has worked for J.P. Morgan Chase in Senior Client Services in Indianapolis, Indiana, and has taught writing at Southside Community School in Tucson, Arizona.  He is now a Community Relations Manager working for Sony Online Entertainment in Austin, Texas.

Most interesting jobs, I know — CIA.  Megan E. (Class of 2003) attended the London College of Communications and earned a master’s degree in book publishing. She saw an ad for the CIA and applied on a whim, six months later, Megan started her first day at the George Bush Center of Intelligence in Washington, D.C., as Publications Officer.

Q: What other interesting careers have you seen English majors make?

Dr. Carroll (UDel):  I’ve only taught here for 3 years, but I’d say the job that made me go “huh” when I heard it was a former student who became a program director at a community center, and put her major to use in designing lit courses for seniors.  I know some writers for video games – including one person who got her start doing a blog written in the voice of different characters. I think that’s pretty cool.

Debby Andrews, PhD, directs the Center for Material Culture Studies at UDel.

Dr. Andrews (UDel):  The ones working for start-up social media companies seem to be pretty happy about what they’re doing. Several graduates are free-lancing (sometimes through technical writing agencies) and enjoy the variety that such work brings.

Addye Buckley-Burnell, LPC – Assistant Director of Career Development, Auburn University:  I have met with English majors in just about every career field.  In my last position, I worked with two English majors; one went into student affairs and is now an academic advisor at a university in Wisconsin, the other is a career counselor in Missouri.  Although these careers don’t scream English major, they both find ways to use their love of English in their work by creating the office newsletter, editing handouts, and even creating end-of-year reports.  I have also seen English majors working as grant writers for non-profits, event planners, public relations areas, and some even going into finance.

Dr. Dettmar (Pomona):  Our students really go everywhere. Many go into education; some into business; many into the law; some into medicine.  And some, most recently Kyle Beachy, turn their love of writing into a career.

Dr. Berthold (TAMU):  Many go on to graduate degrees in other fields, from MBAs and law degrees to education. These are the folks I follow most closely, and they include a bank executive, a pro bono lawyer, and several college administrators.

Q: What’s the coolest thing about being an English major?

Dr. Dettmar (Pomona):  It sounds old-fashioned, but there’s nothing like bonding with other folks by discussing a book that’s meant a lot to you. I get to do that for a living: it’s the richest life I can imagine.

Valerie Balester, PhD, is Executive Director of the University Writing Center and an Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University.

Dr. Balester (TAMU):  Being able to read poetry and novels and say you are working.

Dr. Williams (Howard):  The peer group among English majors is fabulous. Students learn, read, think together. They grow together, and they experience DC, Howard, cultural events and co-curricular activities together. They are carefully mentored and advised, so they leave Howard fully prepared to take on the world in meaningful ways and to pursue whatever career path they chose.

Dr. Carroll (UDel):  I think everyone has a different answer to this question.  For me, it’s the opportunity to read and write and think hard about the stories that move people.  And to learn about foreign cultures – including, say, the culture of eighteenth-century Britain – through the lens of literature and film.

Dr. Berthold (TAMU):  You get to read the best literature ever written and learn how to understand it at a deep personal and social level.  It can change your life.

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One Response to What Can I do with … an English Major? Interviews

  1. mary beth butler says:

    I have 2 degrees in English from TAMU. I have had jobs in university administration since the week I got my BA. It can happen!

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