Rules for English Majors: What to do with an English degree

One of the favorite questions to ask a college student is, “So, what’s your major?” This is usually followed by, “What are your plans after you graduate?”

With today’s talk about student-loan debt bubbles, high unemployment or under-employment rates for recent graduates, and the rising cost of a college education, the value of a college degree is under serious scrutiny. Combine this with the outcry for STEM-H degrees (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and health), and, in the eyes of some, earning a degree in the liberal arts seems downright irresponsible and short-sighted. These days, if your answer to that first question is “English,” you’re bound to get a few eye rolls or sarcastic responses. I’ve even heard people go so far as to say that we shouldn’t give out federal loans to people majoring in the liberal arts, or that we should charge these students higher interest rates because they’re “higher risk” for defaulting on their loans. Bull.

Majoring in English does mean a lower expected salary than, say, electrical engineering. I know. I’m a communication/creative writing graduate married to a computer-science guy. But a degree in English doesn’t doom one to a life of poverty, bankruptcy, or defaulted student loans. Here are some rules to ensure you get the most out of your degree.

Rules for English majors:

Rule No. 1: Know the market.

Know what skills employers are looking for and what you can do with your degree. A mechanical engineering major generally goes on to become an engineer, but English is broader. You may find yourself double-majoring or choosing a minor to ensure you have the skills the market will require of you. Studying Melville is great, but don’t underestimate the value of knowing how to build a website, write a grant proposal, or pen an engaging feature article.

Don’t wait until you’re a senior. As soon as you declare your major, start doing research. Talk to your career services office, peruse the internet, seek out advice from professors or working professionals. If you’re in your last semester when you realize you don’t have the necessary skills, it’s going to be a bumpy road post-graduation.

Rule No. 2: Become tech-savvy.

The way we consume information is changing, so English majors seeking to remain competitive will need to understand how to write and prepare content for the web, including learning about content management systems and HTML or CSS.

When I taught PR writing, I always emphasized to my students the importance of becoming tech-savvy. Learning content-management systems, understanding at least basic HTML or CSS, and honing multimedia skills give you a leg up on those who only know how to write. Many jobs in journalism or public relations now require not only writing skills, but tech skills as well. Being an English major is no excuse for not learning these skills.

Rule No. 3: Beware excessive debt.

You’re an English major, so I’m assuming you are a creative, forward-thinking, analytical person capable of seeing the big picture. The average debt load for undergraduates is somewhere around $25,000 today. That’s reasonable. If you take out more than that for an English degree, you could be setting yourself up for a world of hurt. Many jobs in this field don’t pay much more than that for an annual starting salary. I highly recommend choosing your field of study based on your strengths and passions, but tempered with knowledge of your career outlook.

If you plan on going to graduate school but already have a massive debt load, take a few years to work and pay it down. Take out the smallest amount of loans possible. You can cancel any excess awarded amounts beyond what you need for tuition and fees, room and board, and books. If you can work during the summer (even in addition to an internship), try to live off that money during the school year.

This advice goes for everybody, regardless of their major. Always borrow the minimum you’ll need. You’ll thank me later.

So, what can you do with an English degree?

Teach: No matter your major, you need to know the job market you’ll be entering. When I declared that I wanted to major in English, I encountered people who urged me to study education. Their reasoning? “There will always be a demand for teachers.” Except, in today’s economy, schools are cutting jobs, combining districts, and feeling the pinch. It’s hard to find a teaching job, especially in English.

If you want to become a college professor, by all means, go for it. But be prepared for a highly competitive job market. There are way more English Ph.D.s than there are tenure-track jobs. And being an adjunct doesn’t bring home very much bacon. I know; I’ve done it–fortunately, merely to supplement my income.

The bottom line? If you want to be an English teacher or professor, be prepared for a highly competitive workforce: lots of qualified candidates, few positions. If you want to be a professor, you have to publish, attend conferences, moderate or speak on panels, etc., etc. Work your butt off to be at the top of your field. Know that not everybody gets to teach Shakespeare or Dickens. If you go to grad school, choose fields of study based on what the market demand is, not just what you love.

As someone who has an M.F.A., I recommend some serious consideration before attending grad school. Remember that some of the best teachers worked in industry before they went on to earn an advanced degree. I’ve been fortunate to find a job that allows me to write. And I don’t have regrets about earning my master’s degree. I met wonderful people and had eye-opening, life-changing experiences. In short, I loved grad school. That degree taught me how to write, and I’m eternally grateful for it. But I’m not going to lie and say that everyone I know feels the same way.

Write: Yes, this is a valid career path–in ways that might surprise you.

The creative side: Very, very few people make a living from writing poetry. It’s easier to make money writing fiction because there’s greater demand, but the chances that you’ll leave college and become a best-selling author are about as high as me sprouting wings so I can fly to work. Most authors toil in another occupation for years before making enough money to pursue their passion. They work as teachers, as bankers, as engineers and scientists and on and on. Anyone pursuing a fiction career best have a back-up plan.

The technical side: However, there are other writing paths that are far more lucrative and easier to break into. English majors don’t have to limit themselves to literary analysis and perfecting metered verse. Make sure you load up on technical and professional writing courses. Companies need people to write everything from technical documents to marketing copy to web content to user manuals. The best people to explain how to use a software program aren’t often the people who designed it. Don’t underestimate the value of people who know how to convey complex or extremely technical information effectively and concisely.

If you want to write, build a portfolio. Show up at your college newspaper and join the staff. Do internships. Every organization needs communicators, whether it’s a nonprofit, a corporation, a university–even a political campaign. A summer internship at a daily newspaper, a magazine, or in corporate communications builds your resume and provides a glimpse into what organizations are looking for out of employees.

Learn as many forms of writing as possible. Write poems and short stories, by all means, but don’t stop there. Write news releases, feature articles, technical copy, web content. Play with learning to build a website. Take a course in multimedia. The more versatile you are, the better.

Other career paths you might choose:

  • Law (Caveat: You may need to double major or minor in a field like political science, history, etc.)
  • Business (Caveat: Again, a double major or minor may be necessary, but the skills you learn related to communication, analysis, and technical writing are in demand in many fields. Earning an M.B.A. is a pricey undertaking, so if you choose that route, have a plan.)
  • Library science (Caveat: Salaries in this field tend to be low and an M.L.S. is generally required.)
  • Today’s English major may need to arrive on the job scene with multimedia skills in hand.

    Public relations (Caveat: Many PR jobs require technical skills, such as understanding of social media marketing, web content management, or multimedia skills.)

  • Editing (In public relations, at a publishing house, a newspaper or magazine, etc. I work as an assistant editor for a university, so don’t rule out university administration as a career path.)
  • English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor (Caveat: May require specialized coursework, an advanced degree, or foreign-language skills.)

And just because it’s not listed here doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Majoring in English doesn’t doom you to life as a pauper. In the current economic climate, everyone, regardless of their major, needs to have a plan. If you’re studying English, what’s your plan? For those of you who’ve already been through college, what advice do you have for humanities majors?

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