Voices and Ideas

What Can You Do with an English Major?

By Jacqueline Wong

I’m sure most English majors like me have often been the butt of others’ jokes.  In fact, if I had a dime for every time I heard “what are you going to do with an English degree?” I would have more money than any of the “practical skills” majors at my school would ever make.  These snarky comments reveal the misconception that English degrees are useless and not profitable.  And this is further reinforced by the current educational emphasis towards the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields over the humanities.  However, and much to my relief, a recent slew of articles in periodicals from The Atlantic to The New York Times address and defend the value of the English major.  Championing the empathetic and analytical skills English majors learn, these authors show just how versatile and essential the English major is within the workforce and society. 

As Mark Edmundson of The Chronicle of Higher Education writes: “becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all—being a human being.”  As English majors, we are taught to read and write in a way that analyzes characters’ motives, thoughts, and feelings.  We have the privilege of being exposed to a variety of works, reading about people from all kinds of backgrounds.  In trying to understand why characters are the way they are, English majors are taught to develop empathy for others.  The characters in our texts can serve as case studies of real humans, and trying to understand these characters allows us to better understand others.  Thus, along with being introduced to multiple lives within the human experience, this empathetic approach in our major makes us open and receptive of others’ backgrounds and viewpoints. 

Our sensitivity towards the human experience also makes us more attuned to the nuances of the English language.  By understanding the value of words, English majors are better adept at interpreting and analyzing texts in critical ways.  This gives us the ability to understand how ideas are connected between each other, as well as within a larger picture.  In other words, we know how to think.  Bruna Martinuzzi mentions in “Why English Majors Are the Hot New Hire” that “English majors are taught to deconstruct and analyze a problem, and package their conclusion so others can understand their line of thought.”  Thus, not only do we possess critical reading and thinking skills, we have been extensively trained to write and communicate our thoughts in a clear, cogent, and logical manner. 

Even prominent members in non-strictly English fields argue that these empathetic and analytical skills are valuable in the workplace.  For example, Forbes Magazine writer George Anders claims “we still need people to step into the situations where -- to put it bluntly -- my team’s algorithms don’t mesh with your team’s algorithms. In such situations the human touch is essential.”  The idea that English majors are necessary and in demand within the workplace is further supported by a 2013 study in The Atlantic that shows how the unemployment rate for English majors is actually no worse than the unemployment rate for more “lucrative” majors, such as economics and computer science.  Where English majors faced 9.8 percent unemployment, economics and computer science majors faced 10.4 and 8.7 percent unemployment, respectively.  This proves that the English degree a versatile set of skills that are in demand and applicable in any profession. 

As Yale Creative Writing Professor Verilyn Klinkenborg argues in an opinion piece for The New York Times: “Former English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career, and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise.”  For example, English majors can fall into business, politics, the media, humanitarian work, etc.  And the list goes on supporting the idea that the skills English majors develop are essential in any field.  So instead of asking, What can you do as an English major?, I ask instead, What can’t you do as an English major?

Jacqueline Wong is a junior at the University of California Riverside majoring in English. The University of California Riverside is home to the Iota of California Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.


(Posted on 5/20/2014 )