The Pros(e) of Being an English Major

By  |  0 Comments

I’ll never forget the discussion I had at my dentist the summer before I went off to college. It was a pretty typical pre-college conversation… until my dental hygienist began criticizing me mid teeth-cleaning.

“So, what are you going to study in school?”

“English.”

“Do you want to be an English teacher?”

“No…?”

“Well then what are you going to do with a degree in English? You’re going to pay to go to Notre Dame just to get an unemployable degree?” *laughs*  Wow, hysterical.

I don’t think she was trying to hurt my feelings, but as an English Major it’s frustrating to hear that I have no future and that I’m wasting my degree. No matter how hard we try, English majors are constantly stigmatized by misconceptions that delegitimize the major.

1. “English majors don’t have marketable skills.”

On the contrary, communication skills are valuable in literally every field. English majors work tirelessly on voicing and backing up their opinions. Articulating your ideas and what you mean is the key to success in any job.

In a 2012 interview, Notre Dame English grad, former CIO at Coca-Cola and current Principal of PwC Rob Cain said, “You know, I’m in a relationship role. And I’m in a people role. I’m in a role that requires critical thinking and creative solutions to business problems. I’ve not met anyone yet in the business world that couldn’t be trained in whatever we wanted to train them in, whether it’s finance or technology or accounting. But you can’t really train critical thinking.” Studying English provides a skill set distinct from many other disciplines, and critical thinking is one that many recognize as useful and “marketable.”

2. “English majors just talk out of their a**.”

I think you’re confusing us with philosophy majors. English majors actually support their analyses. We have to establish credibility when writing, and there’s still a code of conduct to follow to prove our opinions.

Maureen Baska, a career coach at the University of Notre Dame, describes exactly what critical thinking entails. “English majors learn how to analyze and interpret texts subjectively, identifying themes and underlying meanings. They then synthesize this information to create new meanings and craft arguments. All of this requires a heightened sense of creativity and well-honed research skills.”

3. “So are you going to become a teacher?”

Preferably not. I plan on leaving school and staying out.

According to Baska, “There’s no one set path for an English major. A common misconception is that if you major in English you’re destined to become a teacher – which is a wonderful career path if it matches with your values, interests, personality and skills. English alumni from ND have taken very unique paths over the years, from communications and business areas to law, medicine, and beyond.”

4. “Is English all you’re going to study?”

Although English can stand on its own just fine, it can also play well with others.

Dr. Lena Hill is the director of English Undergraduate Studies at the University of Iowa, and proves just how versatile it is. “At the University of Iowa, students most often pair their English major with Journalism and Mass Communication, Art and Art History, Cinema and Theatre Arts,” Hill said. “Unusual majors that tend to work well with English include computer science, pre-med and other sciences because although there are numerous websites and journals devoted to these areas, many people who major in these fields aren’t strong writers.”

5. “Good luck finding an exciting job after college.”

It’s your responsibility to find an exciting job—not your major’s. Dr. Hill remembers one success story highlighting an English major who lives an incredible life.

“He refused to settle for a writing job that did not fulfill his dream, so after graduation, he moved to New York. After working in a pizzeria and following whatever lead he could find, he’s now interviewing everyone from Nicki Minaj to Justin Bieber and he has been published in the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine and other places. He is living his dream!” Hill said.

6. “English majors are just losers who stay inside and read all day.”

Stereotyping people based on their major is basically just assuming that what they study defines them. Are all CS majors huge computer nerds? (Well, maybe.)

“The stereotype of the introverted bookworm is the most outdated misconception,” Hill said. “Our students are not only committed to making their classes spaces for lively debate and intellectual exchange, they are also busy changing the world around them.”

7. “All English majors do is read. They don’t actually have to think.

Yes, we read a lot. Duh–math majors do a lot of math problems. It makes sense. But reading with purpose and care takes time and thought, and reading with a critical lens takes notes scribbled in the margins and highlighting galore. All this is how we learn.

Rebecca Arnall, an English graduate from the University of Georgia and current law student at Notre Dame reinforces this idea. “There’s the engagement with different narrative forms that allows the English major to participate in arguably the most ancient pursuit: searching for the elements of a good story,” Arnall said. Reading is the backbone of nearly all learning, and it requires more than the just the A’s and B’s we learned in kindergarten.

8. “English majors don’t learn anything practical.”

Actually, literature covers basically anything you could imagine. Reading allows you to experience different time periods, personalities and cultures that go far outside of our teeny, tiny worlds.

“I enjoyed being immersed in a period of time through reading and subsequently deconstructing the psyche driving the era. So many little things have passed out of our collective consciousness and vocabulary that were commonplace parts of conversation in literature,” Arnall said. “For instance, ‘phrenology,’ ‘chiffarobe’ and ‘hansoms’ all used to be parts of everyday life, but without reading, we would really have no way of knowing these things in any context.”

9. “Do you think you’re going to be successful with an English degree?”

Success is completely subjective. Of course if you go to med school you have a certain career path that’s guaranteed some success, but with an English degree you get to decide how you want to be successful. There are plenty of English majors who find happiness and stability, which in my book qualifies as success.

Baska cites Notre Dame English grads like Paul Appleby, who became an award-winning opera singer and Linda Gase, who became a TV writer and producer for well-known shows like Switched at Birth and Army Wives. English majors can achieve success… basically anywhere.

10. “I like to read, but majoring in English is useless.”

You shouldn’t be afraid to study what you love.

“I would encourage a prospective student who loves English but is worried about getting a job after graduation that an English major is a win-now and win-later major: Students deeply enjoy their literature and writing classes as they matriculate through our major while they simultaneously gain a variety of skills that can be tailored to a particular employer’s need,” Hill said. Useless? As if.

Choosing a major you don’t like or letting stereotypes decide what you study will lead to a miserable four years of college. Many English majors vouch for the field and prove that success is far more dependent on how hard you’re willing to work than what’s on your college diploma.

I’m confident in my own choice, and choose to ignore anyone who has predetermined my failure. As T-Swift once said “haters gunna hate”.

Sophomore at my home under the Dome, AKA the University of Notre Dame. Love running, water skiing, writing and watching Christmas movies all year long. Dream date is Seth Cohen circa 2004.

Enter our Monthly Giveaway

Win $100 for YOU & $100 for your student org. Sign up to enter our monthly giveaway.