Guest Post by Molly Rookwood
What Are You Going to Do with that English Degree?
Ah, the age-old question. If you were (or are, or might be) an English major, you’ve heard it from someone in your life. Maybe your parents, maybe their IT friend, maybe someone entirely irrelevant to you who should probably mind their own business. So how do you answer? What do you say when someone asks what you’re going to do with your English degree?
What else was I going to do?
I always knew that I’d be an English major. Books were my thing. They were what I loved, what I was good at. I was never going to major in science or computers, and the thought of getting a business degree made me want to die inside.
(For the record, I did diversify and major in something else, too. I studied Early Modern Europe, making my English degree inarguably the more practical of my majors.)
For those of us who were always going to study English, the question can feel pretty personal. It’s not just “How are you going to make lots of money and win at capitalism by reading books?” It’s also “The thing you love most and are best at isn’t as valuable as studying STEM.”
People should study what they love. Most people who want to be English majors are not well suited for a business or computer science degree. Book people should study books, and computer people should study computers.
English degrees prepare you for whatever path you take in life.
At this point, it’s pretty well established that almost any BA needs to be followed up with additional training, whether through a Masters degree or professional development or specialized training. People with an undergraduate degree in psychology don’t immediately get to be therapists. Therefore, your undergrad is really about preparing you for specializing for a career after you graduate.
If your BA is not what is actually going to get you a job, then shouldn’t it be something you love? And furthermore, shouldn’t it be something that sets you up beautifully for a wide range of more specialized training?
Find me a career that doesn’t require some amount of writing or critical thinking. Whatever path you go down, you’ll need to write coherently and communicate effectively, and that is exactly what an English degree teaches you to do. Sure, you also read Dickens, but the Dickens-reading is how you learn to read and write and think critically. And those are skills we all need.
What can’t you do with an English degree?
Early in my English degree, I remember an excellent professor turning the question on its head. It’s not “what can you do?” but rather “what can’t you do?” With an English degree, you could go on to be a copywriter at an advertising firm. You could teach. You could write books or government reports or scientific papers. You could edit them.
You could get a Master's degree in something completely different if you want to, because you’re only twenty-one and have your whole life ahead of you, and your English degree will still have set you up as a writer and thinker and communicator.
I took the English-major-iest approach. I studied publishing and became an editor. I work with short- and long-form fiction writers, and I spend my days working with words and reading and writing. It’s not always fun, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. What did I do with my English degree? I embraced it fully and made a whole life out of it.
The world needs more English majors.
Arts education was once the highest accomplishment a student could hope for. The great universities of the world were founded to teach people philosophy (and Christianity, but we’ll leave that aside). Once upon a time, the highest good you could achieve was to be a writer and reader and thinker.
These days, the focus is on STEM. We’re all told that the “useful” degrees are ones that work with computers or science, that our English degrees are not useful or productive or money-making.
(I personally have a lot of thoughts on why “useful” and “productive” and “money-making” are not the goals we should be working toward. Winning at capitalism shouldn’t be the end goal of our lives.)
I wouldn’t want to live in a world where everyone was a computer scientist. (No offence to computer scientists! You’re lovely people, I’m sure.) In order for the world to have art and music and books, and all the things that make life enjoyable outside of work, we need people who study the “less useful” disciplines and produce the things that we need to live, rather than the things we need to just be alive.
More English majors means more critical thinkers. More empaths. More communicators. More creators.
What are you going to do with that English degree? You’ll make the world a little bit better and more thoughtful and more creative, one word at a time.