Blog: So You Want Study English

This is the first a few short pieces I'll be adding to this site, focusing on "writing life" topics. It seemed natural to start by entering the discussion of majoring in English because, for many of us, that's perhaps when we begin to lay down the substantial foundation of a writing life.


This topic has also been on my mind in the wake of 1) finishing grad school, 2) diving deeper into my professional life, and 3) going back to my alma mater to talk to current students about what lies beyond college.

If you are anxious about your decision to get a bachelor's degree in English, a simple Google search will yield plenty of think pieces that discuss the "value" of this degree and the likelihood of having a successful career. I'm not aiming to recreate those arguments; people with degrees in the humanities--from English to history to philosophy--get jobs every day and have fulfilling careers and lives. That truth isn't all that remarkable.

Rather, I wanted to talk a little more specifically about the how in all this. If your English professors are like the ones I had, they are 1) awesome and 2) regularly extol the virtues of their field, urging you to follow your interests and to rest assured in your eminent professional success. 

But still, it can feel like a leap of faith, right?

I say this as a first-generation college student from a working class family who was fortunate to attend a great private college. I didn't have to deal with parents pressuring me to major in "something practical"; I was already putting that pressure on myself.

Between my psychology and literature classes, I quickly came to my first conclusion about college and majors: if you like what you are studying, you'll not only enjoy your coursework more, you'll likely excel in it. I loved reading Shakespeare, and I loved the clean lines of social sciences.

Speaking from the other side of the equation, my brief stint as a freshman composition instructor illustrated the same truth: many of my students were being felt familial and/or societal pressure to pursue something "practical," which didn't always align with their passions. Some were ok with this and pointed to the bottom line of wanting financial security. I understood and truly respected that.

Others, however, pursued "practical" majors like pre-med/sciences and business -- and also happened to hate chemistry and have low confidence in their math skills. I hoped those were the ones who would shift into a major that better fit their talents and interests.

The other important point I wished I had taken to heart and tried to impart on my students is this: your college major does not decide your fate. Certainly, it's a decision that you ideally make after careful thought and reflection. But it in no way determines the course of your personal and professional life in the concrete ways we might imagine it does. 

What I do think is important to emphasize is that getting your B.A. doesn't guarantee you a job. Honestly, it doesn't guarantee you much of anything. What I discovered is that I needed experience on top of a degree to make myself a viable candidate. It's great if you know how to read and write papers and function inside a classroom, but what people want to glean from your resume is that you know how to function in a professional context.

What do I mean by "experience"? I mean internships (Can you write blogs, tweets, and newsletter content? SOLD). Volunteer opportunities (Ever heard of Catchafire?). I mean doing your homework: researching jobs, shadowing professionals, interviewing people who have jobs that sound cool to you (Don't be shy - people love talking about themselves). I mean thinking deeply and broadly about what you want out of life after college, which comes at you fast.

People often assume that those who major in English want to teach. Maybe you want to teach: cool. If you don't, you still have a wealth of options. Maybe being a lifelong scholar makes you heart sing; in that case, go to grad school and get psyched about research (and teaching). Think about marketing and communications, think about copywriting and content production, think about journalism, think about corporate internal and external communications, think about the nonprofit world, think about political campaigns and art galleries. Just think - your skills as a critical thinker and writer would be valued and could flourish in a lot of contexts.

During my MFA program, when I realized I didn't want to live the life of an academic and needed experience beyond teaching to put on my resume, I ended up cobbling together a myriad of odd jobs: I freelanced food and travel articles for a small website. I started editing someone's scholarly manuscript. I took professional development classes on HTML, social media, and copywriting. I got an internship with a food tour company, during which I wrote long and short pieces for the company's blog, newsletter, and Facebook page. When all was said and done, I was primed to go into an interview for an entry-level marketing position with a nonprofit and say, "I can do this job, and here's proof." People want proof.

And that's just my personal experience. If you're thinking about majoring in English and know it's what you love and what will make you happy in college - which is a major investment of time, emotions, and money - it's worth considering and pursuing. Make the most of those four years in and outside of the classroom to set yourself up for success when you transition to that next step, whether it's grad school, a job, a fellowship, or another cool adventure.

Any thoughts? Share them! 

Paige SullivanComment