An English Degree and a Life of Uncertainty

Q: What’s the difference between an English major and a large pizza?

A: A large pizza can feed a family of four.

The above is a joke was one that was often shared among my friends during my last year of college. As our graduation date neared, all of us were nervous about graduating and entering the real world because, unlike those with degrees in accounting, business, or chemistry, we had no sure job prospects. Aside from teaching, no one really knew how to turn their English degree into a full-time job.

I was reminded of this after reading an article that Hit Coffee posted about English majors received advice on how to make the move from college to the real world.

English majors at the University [of Illinois] received real-world advice from an alumus and author about making the transition from college to career. On Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Robert Prescott delivered a presentation to over 35 people called “Hiring Humanists: Strategies for Cooperation Between Humanities Departments and Career Services.”

To choose the English major is to embrace uncertainty,” Prescott said. “The humanities do not directly train you for one specific job. They are giving you a skill set and then you have to determine out of all of that forest which tree you’re going to climb.”

Though I think getting advice on how to make the transition from academia to the job market is helpful to those pursing English and other worthless* degrees, I think they’d be better served if you had someone with real world experience talking to them. According to the article, “64 percent of English graduates work in business, 10 percent work in the government and 27 percent work in education, with less than 1 percent holding Ph.D.’s.” Yet they two people they have talk to them is an author and someone with a PhD in English—statically the least two likely occupations for English majors. It would be much more useful to these students to have someone who works in business, education (not at the college level), and government tell them how they used their skills to get their current jobs.

I suggest this because it sounds like the advice students are getting isn’t very helpful.

According to Prescott, an English major teaches students analytical, oral communication, interpersonal, writing, research and computer skills. These skills help students grow as people and citizens by giving them the ability to project themselves into a situation, state opinions and argue and build empathy and collegiality.

Try telling an employer that you can protect yourself into situations, state opinions, argue and build empathy and collegiality and see how far it gets you.

Instead of spewing academic gobbledygook at them, get some real world professionals in front of these kids who can give some useful advice. I guarantee someone in the business world could tell them how to turn their skills into real experience than someone with a PhD who sounds like he has little, if any, experience outside the confines academia. It’s one thing to tell students that an English degree teaches certain skills, but it’s something else to hear about it from someone who’s actually turned those skills into something an employer will value.

For example, if I had to talk to a room full of anxious English majors, I’d could tell them how started out as a technical writer, made the transition to a marketing/copy writer, what employers look if they want to consider these options as a career path. And for all the wannabe authors, I could tell them that an English degree doesn’t matter that much when it comes to getting published or having a successful writing career. Some friends I graduated with could tell similar stories.

Of course any degree only goes so far. Your future is what YOU make it. And as you get along in your career, you’ll find that most people don’t care what your degree is in. Still, advice from real world professionals might make the transition easier as students with an English degree leave campus and step into real world.

* To be fair, a bachelor’s degree in English is worth more in the marketplace than a bachelor’s degree in sociology, women’s studies, art history, psychology, philosophy, music therapy, Star Wars studies, and religion.