According to The Atlantic, unemployment for English degree holders is pretty comparable to all other majors. In fact, it is only 0.1% greater than unemployment for holders of computer and math degrees.
However, in the first 3 years after getting my English B.A., I changed jobs so much I started calling myself a “Professional Job Hopper” when asked what I did for a living. (Not to future employers, however… I don’t suggest doing this). I’ve done a variety of jobs on the spectrum of relevancy to my skills and desired field and am currently happily employed as a content creator and copywriter.
Despite the increasingly pervasive propaganda that liberal arts degrees are worthless, I don’t regret my degree choice. Even the less relevant jobs were important steps in my career and taught me these 7 important lessons that all English majors should know before they look for that first job after college.
1. Degrees Don’t Get Jobs, People Get Jobs
The biggest oversight people make when they dismiss English degrees as not being career-viable is that they are expecting their degree to get them a job. If you expect your degree to go out and get you a job, you are in for a sore disappointment upon graduation, whatever your major.
What degrees do is give you a set of knowledge and skills that can contribute to your marketability. You marketing your skills, whether that includes a degree or not, is what gets you a job. Sure, some skills or degrees, like chemical engineering, are more specific and lead more readily to one specific job title than others (i.e., chemical engineer), but come on, you’re an English major. You can be a little more creative than that.
2. You Have to Be a Self-Starter
I didn’t understand why potential employers didn’t give me a chance to fail at a job before dismissing my application. In reality, it’s because there are applicants who have already proven they won’t fail by demonstrating the use of skills the employer is looking for through experience and references. You have to take charge of your own career. Future employers don’t know how brilliant you are and they’re not teachers who are personally invested in how well you do. After growing up in a system that gives you gold stars for effort, this can come as a shock.
It’s a complete mindset shift from school life. Instead of being coaxed into what you’re supposed to produce, you have to start with something to offer and demonstrate it. I got tired of waiting for someone to give me the kind of job I wanted and started giving myself the kind of projects I wished someone else would. I took small, low-paying side jobs for experience. I worked on a lot of personal writing and website projects that I could point potential employers to.
A lot of those projects failed miserably or went nowhere or were just excruciating to complete, (one such project included writing explicit dating website ads complete with offensive content like, “do you want a sexy older man to seduce you? Join today for exclusive access to tons of hot men.” And I almost didn’t get paid, but that’s another story). However, if I didn’t have those examples of my work to point future employers to, I wouldn’t have the job I do now. (I did NOT use the porn site content in my portfolio). Plus, demonstrating self-motivation is a seller by itself. (But for real, don’t write porn ads).
3. You Gain Versatile and Marketable Skills Beyond Reading and Writing
Lucky for you, an English degree cultivates exactly the critical thinking and creative skills you need to get the kinds of jobs that the degree lends itself to. (Funny how that works, right?) Effective communication is one of the most important skills employers are looking for. English majors learn both how to literally and metaphorically read and understand the intent behind words, as well as to effectively, verbally and in writing, communicate their point of view. This skill-set is incredibly important (and increasingly rare). There is an incredible amount of bad writing out there, even in the professional sphere.
According to NPR, more medial schools are looking for English majors because they are more well-rounded individuals (than typical pre-med students) and are able to communicate better with patients. Likewise, the US News & World Report advises English as a great undergraduate degree for law school, since law schools value those critical thinking and analytics skills.
However, even if you’re not looking at law or medicine as a career, this data is telling, as more people and businesses are recognizing the benefit of individuals with this education.
4. You Have More Career Flexibility Than Any Other Major
As an English major, you have the unique position of flexibility that other majors don’t have because of the versatility of your skills that can easily translate between multiple types of jobs. If you’re the type of person that needs to be closely guided or micro-managed to know what to do, then English might not be the major for you. However, if you like to have more autonomy and space for ideas and out-of-the-box thinking, it definitely is! And with flexibility of types of jobs comes versatility of lifestyle options, whether that be self-employment, 9 to 5 office work, or high-pressure media work.
The most obvious advantage of this is that you’re not locked into a specific career path that you may or may not know much about the reality of at the time you declare a major. If a chemical engineer decides a year into their first engineering job that it’s not for them, they are looking at a very drastic career change that will likely involve going back to school.
On the contrary, if I, as a copywriter, decide I don’t like marketing or just want to try something new mid-career, I can transition much more easily into technical writing, go back to freelancing a variety of content (no more porn ads), or explore something entirely different. The creativity, writing, and analytical skills are much more translatable across fields than most degree plans.
5. You Got An Education, Not Just a Degree
On that note, the skills don’t just translate to jobs, they translate to all aspects of life. The reading, analyzing, and exploring you do throughout your English education give you a greater world view and perspective. They teach you how to communicate on a social level, understand the people around you, and solve problems with critical thinking. These lessons are essential regardless of what you do after school. Even if you decide your true passion is physics and go back to school years after graduating (which is totally a viable option—you’re not locked in forever), you will use the lessons you learned in getting an English education for the rest of your life.
6. You Have to Be Open to Options Outside of Your Dream Job
Okay, time for some real talk. If you’re getting an English degree because you think you’re going to be an editor for a major publishing house or write best-selling novels, you might be in the wrong major. (Actually, you might be on the wrong planet). I’m not trying to crush your dreams—definitely have the dream and maybe even take steps to achieve that dream (I mean, someone gets to be a Random House editor, maybe it’s you [it’s not]).
For instance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for editors is -2%. In cases like those, you might have more success starting with your plan B, which might include getting a job that helps cultivate some editing skills. It doesn’t mean you have given up on “Plan A: Be A Best-Selling Novelist,” it just means you are more actively working on plan B, which hopefully includes a way to feed yourself.
In reality, there are plenty of jobs that use editing and writing skills in professional and more realistic settings, and you might even be happier with them lifestyle-wise than you would be in a more high-pressure situation.
7. Never Close Any Door
Don’t rule any options out. When I didn’t get a writing job immediately after graduation, I felt like a failure. I used to call the same newspaper asking about freelance opportunities on a weekly basis. (I no longer believe “persistence” is as ground-breaking as people tell you it is). Shoot in as many directions as you can. Consider paths you wouldn’t have before. Continue to cultivate your hobbies like fiction-writing or photography or whatever else you like to do because you never know how those skills are going to help you later in your career. Maybe you actually will publish a best-seller or find your way into the literary world (or start your own literary publication) or who knows what. (And some won’t help you at all. For instance, I will never ever figure out how to take good photos no matter how much I love trying).
Embrace the uncertainty and don’t beat yourself up when you don’t have immediate success. And even if your hobbies don’t turn lucrative, they increase your marketable skills and contribute to a fulfilling and satisfying life. Which, by the way, I would argue, so does an English degree.