Posts in the “what can you do with an English major?” series continue to be popular, so as the spring semester begins, it seems like time for an update. The good news is: English majors can still do ANYTHING they want to do—with the judicious application of some initiative to find internships or acquire any “practical” job skills they can, savvy self-marketing, and taking advantage of any opportunities to learn the latest technical skills.
S.L, a senior English major, just posted a link to an article on the advantages of being an English major, both for students and for career-seekers. Margaret Garcia-Couoh points out it’s cheaper to major in English to begin with, because the textbooks are less expensive and frequently available used. There are other advantages:
While in college, you tend to be less depressed as an English or World Lit major—saving you valuable cash money that could otherwise be squandered on therapy. You get to read Crime and Punishment, so you don’t need therapy. Dostoevsky spells it out for you….
After college, says Garcia-Cuouh, you’re better prepared for the real world:
Heads up on the Surreal. Let’s face it. Life after college becomes this weird surreal madness of social networking, begging for work, allegiances that might go nowhere and the randomness of landing a job because you sat next to the right person on a plane even though you know next to nothing about the job the nice man in the suit wants to give you. Only great literature prepares you for the absurd.
(Actually, that’s much like what I tell the general curriculum intro. to lit. and lit. survey classes when they get that “Why do we have to be reading poetry when we could be taking [statistics/biology/marketing/physics]?” look.)
Some of our recent English major graduates have gotten jobs in human resources, technical editing and working for the state department of health and human services, as well as teaching, law, and graduate school. Another area English majors might consider: Business analysis. Follow the link to learn more about the field and why English majors might do well in it.
Advice from the big-league humanities programs regarding graduate school is “just don’t go.”
Most undergraduates don’t realize that there is a shrinking percentage of positions in the humanities that offer job security, benefits, and a livable salary (though it is generally much lower than salaries in other fields requiring as many years of training). They don’t know that you probably will have to accept living almost anywhere, and that you must also go through a six-year probationary period at the end of which you may be fired for any number of reasons and find yourself exiled from the profession. They seem to think becoming a humanities professor is a reliable prospect — a more responsible and secure choice than, say, attempting to make it as a freelance writer, or an actor, or a professional athlete — and, as a result, they don’t make any fallback plans until it is too late.
“Don’t go” may be overstating things a bit, but Benton is right, at least, that if English majors do get into graduate school, they should be realistic about their expectations and have “fallback plans”—even M.A.s and Ph.D.s can find “real world” jobs. And in a previous column, Benton argues for the value of graduate humanities education that is viewed as a good in itself, rather than narrowly focused on preparation for a certain kind of university teaching career:
What if, instead, you had pursued a Ph.D. simply out of a desire to learn, and with the expectation that you would have to develop an independent career path—instead of twisting yourself into some version of what the ever-changing academic job market seems to want? What if graduate students were not entirely dependent on a system of hierarchical publications, institutions, and professorial sponsors? How would things change if students were suddenly empowered to demand support for opportunities that really exist and for ideas that are currently not offered a space in the established academic system?
A generation of graduate students with no aspirations to become professors might finally bring about changes that have been needed since the profession ran off the cliff at full speed back in the early 70s.
That day may never come, but undergraduate English (and even history) majors still have the option of approaching their studies in this way, demanding support for internships that will help them make connections with future employers, and taking electives in technologies or business skills that will also give them a broader base.