Choosing an English major feels like jumping into a black hole when you realize that you won’t end up in a specific career. While engineering students go on to become engineers and students on a pre-med track become doctors, English majors become… Englishers? Unlike most majors, English seems like it may not take you anywhere. Those judgmental looks from family and friends add a cherry on top of all the anxiety.
But what exactly can an English major do for you?
1. Critical Thinking
Instead of wondering how Chaucer or Milton will ever land you a job, think about how analyzing those texts will. “The English major provides students with essential equipment for living in our increasingly challenging times: The ability to think critically; to collaboratively solve problems; to communicate across peoples and cultures; to address public exigencies; and to attune and respond to power, discourse and justice in ways that matter,” said UW-Madison assistant professor of composition and rhetoric Caroline Gottschalk Druschke. While non-English students might say the English major acts more like a glorified book club, the abstract skills it teaches translate directly into the workplace. Analyzing cryptic texts teaches you to see through legal documents. It teaches you to collaborate well as a diplomat by interpreting a foreign statement in the proper context. Learning to closely analyze the world will always stay with you and help you no matter what you choose to do.
2. Basic Grammar
Wouldn’t you hate it if a potential employer threw your resume in the trash just because you couldn’t spell? Above all else, the English major trains you to pay attention to grammar, sentence structure and diction. When your boss asks you to write a blog post, article, marketing statement, formal email or legal document, you won’t flounder when trying to differentiate “its” from “it’s” or “their” from “they’re.” The ability to vary your sentence structure also holds high value because if all of your sentences are short and brief, you might sound blunt. Or if all your sentences trend longer, you might lose your reader’s attention. Students might initially overlook these “basic” skills, but choosing when to end a sentence also controls how long you hold a reader’s attention. This can be essential for anyone wanting to go into marketing or publishing.
3. Research Skills
While you might not learn specific medical facts or code programs as an English major, proper research skills make you a coveted employee. “Unlike technical skills you can pick up quickly through job training, [abstract skills in English] are things that a candidate either does or doesn’t have and can make or break an interview,” said UW-Madison English department career and internship coordinator Sunny Chan. You can learn technical skills for each new job you encounter, and you can specialize your university experience to the specific path you choose. However, other majors might not spend as much time on something as straightforward as essay research, and, ironically enough, this applies to virtually every possible career out there.
4. Organized for Deadlines Under Pressure
Other majors tend to gear up for several midterms and a final, but English majors juggle these exams along with written exercises, hundreds of pages of reading each week and countless papers. In my personal experience, I’ve had a handful of non-English majors say I can afford to take a semester with the maximum number of credits just because my classes are “only English.” But taking 18 literature-heavy credits trains English majors to have a certain awareness of deadlines. You can’t skimp out on the overwhelming amount of reading, either, and do well in your classes. This enforces critical time management and a sense of patience employers will value in the outside world.
5. Launch the Next Best Story
If you’ve watched Stranger Things and wanted to throw your laptop across the room when Hopper goes into a creepy tunnel all alone, then imagine what you could do if you controlled the storyline. Instead of merely enjoying books and living vicariously through their authors, you can write your own stories. “English majors can become adept in understanding the roles that narratives play in shaping our lives (our histories and destinies, personal and collective),” said María DeGuzmán, professor of English and director of Latinx studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “This sort of training is vital to anyone wishing to become a writer of any kind, whether that be of fiction or non-fiction, screenplays, journalism, social justice advocacy, legal briefs, technical writing, grant writing, etc.” Majoring in English exposes you to the ways language, both fiction and nonfiction, holds a deeper meaning and shapes an audience’s perspective. If you’d rather not write the next The Hunger Games or Stranger Things, that’s OK, too. Lots of careers have a high demand for technical writing, making you the next most valuable employee.
6. Express Yourself Clearly
No employer will want to hire someone who can’t arrange a coherent statement. “The English major prepares students to be reflective readers, critical thinkers, articulate speakers, effective writers and to engage with many different social groups and arenas. All academic fields and employment sectors benefit from having participants who can speak and write articulately and interact well with others,” University of Iowa English Department Chair Claire Fox said. Those countless papers on Jane Austin and Samuel Richardson will finally pay off when you realize you can establish a clear thesis, several flushed out points, a counterargument and a conclusion that emphasizes why your ideas even matter in the first place.
7. Understand Other Viewpoints
Nearly all the texts English majors read come from other centuries, countries or perspectives. Consequently, their authors hold different views of the world. Analyzing these texts purely from a modern standpoint won’t explain the author’s motives or message. For example, judging the courtship in Pride and Prejudice as overly formal because it doesn’t fit modern dating. This forces English majors to step into the past. “In addition to the skills that an English major develops, I appreciate the opportunities that literary study and creative writing offer us to pause and appreciate the beauty and power of language, to create worlds, launch ideas, empathize with others and open a window onto the myriad dimensions of experience,” said Fox. No one experiences the world the same way. Assuming so perpetuates the very problem we see today: not enough representation.
8. Explore More Options
“Unlike degrees where the job afterwards is obvious, like medicine or engineering, people get the impression that English majors don’t get jobs because there aren’t many jobs explicitly earmarked for them. However, this also means they are well suited to a wide variety of jobs that look for candidates with communications, analysis, research and organizational skills,” said Chan. You can go into creative writing, teaching, journalism, public relations, translation, publishing, editing, screenwriting, marketing, politics and countless other careers. Don’t view the major’s open-endedness as a weight around your ankles; view it as more freedom.
9. Empathize Better
You might wonder why characters, especially fictional, even matter apart from serving as a good pastime and escape. For this very reason, though, the messages characters carry have the ability to worm into our lives even when we’re relaxing. Because we identify with characters like Katniss or Hopper, those messages carry more weight. “Empathy, I’d argue, is perhaps the most valuable resource we have and it is one that is in drastically and, for so many, life-threateningly short supply. And, so, I believe that literary acts of the imagination that develop empathy are noble and important and much harder to accomplish than most people will ever understand,” said UW-Madison English professor Judith Claire Mitchell. Creating characters that evoke empathy means creating a platform for your voice.
10. Change the World
We all have superheroes, no matter if they exist in Marvel or real life. But instead of idolizing someone else, learning how to write well teaches you to enact that change you want to see. “Authors can transcend their own time because they’re able to represent the human condition. I’ve always been told the world needs good writers,” said UW-Madison sophomore English major Katy Tyllo. You might think too many people crowd into the writing industry each year only to end up unemployed, but you can always get your voice out there. If you have a passion for women’s empowerment, minority representation or immigration reform, no one will hear you if you never speak or write. One well-written opinion can shape perspectives all across the world. And majoring in English will help you to take that leap.