What Can You Do with an English Degree?

For many college students, wondering whether they’ll end up in a career that “uses their degree” is a source of anxiety.

In my case, I earned a Bachelor’s degree, and later a Master’s, in English. Now I’m a communications and public relations professional, spending my workdays doing things like writing news releases and pitching stories to reporters and editors. Sounds like a predictable outcome for an English major, doesn’t it?

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Maybe so. But the path to where I am now has been anything but a straight line. And I’ve arrived in a much different place than, as a college student, I thought I would.

Ironically, my earliest serious sense as a child of the direction my career would take was probably closer to where I’ve ended up. I remember quite vividly a career exercise from junior high. It was an annual ritual for the eighth graders at my school, called the Job-O-Finder–a four-page self-assessment printed on green card stock. Students completed an in-depth set of questions that were scored to derive a ranked list of occupations that best matched their profile of interests and aptitudes.

One of my top-ranking occupations was Newspaper Reporter. It was unexpected, but the idea intrigued me so much that I don’t even remember what other jobs showed up on my list. The “journalism bug” bit me and drove my occupational ambitions for the next several years.

I entered high school still thinking that I wanted to be a journalist, and signed up for the first-year journalism course in my sophomore year. But I wasn’t a very diligent student at the time, and my work proved erratic. Looking back, I must have really frustrated my journalism teacher. He recognized that I had some talent and creativity, and he constantly told me that I “should” be an A student rather than the underachieving C student that I was.

Nevertheless, he gave me permission to take the second year of journalism. It was more of a practicum than an instructional class, with a much smaller group of students left to their own devices to run the school newspaper. But the lack of structure was not a good match for who I was at the time, so my contribution was minimal. By the end of high school, I had all but given up on the idea of becoming a journalist. And it wasn’t until after a shaky start in college that I finally became the A student that my high school journalism teacher thought I should be.

Mostly on the virtue of SAT scores rather than grades, I was fortunate enough to be accepted to the flagship campus of my state’s university system. I started as business administration major, a choice made on the advice of my parents. I had only the vaguest sense of what a business major would end up doing for a living.

I changed majors a couple of times before I happened to take, in the second semester of my sophomore year, an English course on the 19th century British novel. The instructor was impressed with my papers and essay exams and suggested that I consider majoring in English.

This appealed to me immediately, as I had always been attracted to literature, dabbling from an early age with writing short stories. My father was an English teacher, with massive shelves in our basement filled with The Great Books. As a kid I raided those shelves frequently and got an earlier start than many on reading the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. So my instructor was telling me something I already wanted to hear.

He had ready answers to my skeptical questions about career prospects for an English major, especially one with no particular interest in going on to grad school. He painted a rosy picture about English graduates who had gone on to jobs in publishing, technical writing, advertising, journalism, and a range of related fields, in a variety government agencies, corporations, and nonprofits.

What he was saying was true, and I was predisposed to believing it. The disconnect was my own fault-I didn’t pay enough attention to what he also told me about the importance of gaining practical experience through an internship or co-op program while still in college.

Even if I had paid better attention, it’s unlikely that I would have been able to pursue an internship or co-op anyway-at least not without delaying my graduation. Going into my junior year, I was choosing a new major that would require a heavy reading load, essentially compressing four years worth of English coursework into two years. And I was financing my education through a combination of work and loans, so I didn’t have much extra time on my hands. But, again out if naivety, I wasn’t too worried. I figured that if I studied hard and earned top grades, landing one of those “jobs for English majors” would take care of itself.

However, once I graduated, I found that this was far from the truth. Throughout my college career, I had commuted to school daily from my parent’s home. So I had little sense of anything that happened on campus outside of the classroom and the library, including on-campus job recruiting for graduating seniors. I didn’t get started on a job search until after graduation, which was my first bad move. And once I started, my search consisted almost exclusively of responding to classified listings in the Washington Post for editorial jobs-my second bad move.

I had no practice in job interview skills to speak of, nor any particular sense that any such practice was necessary, thinking that my high grades and paper credentials should speak for themselves. Nor did I understand the competition I was up against in the Washington job market. I hadn’t given much thought to the reality that people like me were a dime a dozen in the Washington area, which was crawling with liberal arts grads with high grades and resumes that boasted of “excellent written and verbal communications skills.”

And to make things even tougher, many of those people had gone to more prestigious colleges, had gained impressive marketable skills through such experiences as congressional staff internships, and had far better social connections-of which I had none to speak of.

After months of sending out dozens of resumes and winging my way through interviews, I was offered an entry-level editorial position with a specialized business publisher, transcribing information verbatim from government reports for republication in expensive subscription newsletters. The work struck me as very mundane, and the starting wage was about the same as what I was earning as a security guard.

In hindsight, perhaps I should have taken it-anything for that first foot in the door. But at the time it didn’t seem too appealing. So instead, I did what a lot of academically successful but otherwise clueless twentysomethings do when they find themselves in that sort of predicament: I decided to go to grad school.

I started grad school thinking that I would probably go all the way to a PhD and become an English professor, an idea that had begun to cross my mind anyway toward the end of my undergraduate career. But when I registered for the orientation for new graduate students, I happened to select a session on non-academic career options for those earning graduate degrees in the liberal arts.

It was an eye-opener. Among the covered topics was breaking into the publishing field in Washington D.C., which is in fact one of the strongest markets in the country for those seeking editorial work. The seminar leader, who was head of the university’s career development center, talked a lot about trade associations, of which there are thousands in Washington, as a common career entry path for liberal arts grads. He said that those who started in such entry level positions as “legislative tracker” or “membership development associate” would often find step-up opportunities in such areas as lobbying, public relations, or publishing.

That seminar stuck in my mind through my first year of grad school, during which I completed about half of the coursework toward my Master’s in English. By the end of that year the “poverty of student life” had really begun to wear in on me. I was tired of never having any money, so I decided that I wanted to work full time in a “real job” and finish my Master’s on a part-time basis.

Remembering what I had learned earlier about Washington nonprofits, I zeroed in on an association that appealed to me because they happened to publish a consumer magazine. I viewed the magazine as a potential path toward my youthful dream of a journalism career.

It wasn’t until after I had accepted an entry level editorial job in a different department that I learned that the association, during a financially trying time a couple of years back, had sold the magazine to a private publisher.

It was disappointing, but I wasn’t too upset. I grew to like the job, the organizational environment, and my colleagues. The starting pay wasn’t bad compared to what I had seen of entry-level publishing salaries, although I gradually learned that the increases and promotions I could expect would do little to elevate me much beyond entry-level pay.

Nevertheless, I stayed there for many years, moving through five progressively responsible jobs, eventually finding myself in marketing management. While far from affluent, I had by then gained a rich variety of skills that served me well when I finally entered the higher-paying for-profit sector.

My path hasn’t been easy or straightforward, and there are many different directions I could have chosen that would probably have produced bigger financial rewards much sooner. But I can’t really say that I regret my choices. I like where I’ve ended up. And, perhaps unlike many people at mid-career, I feel that my most rewarding experiences and challenges still lie ahead in my professional adventure.

So what’s my advice to students considering a degree in English or another liberal arts field? If–and only if–you have a passion for a liberal arts field that is so strong that you can’t imagine studying anything else, then go for it.

Yes, a liberal arts education can lead to a rewarding career. But please be smarter than I was about planning ahead. It will make your path smoother and your progress faster. If at all possible, do a double major, with a second field that clearly demonstrates marketable skills. Do anything you can to gain practical experience through such opportunities as co-ops and internships. Take full advantage of resources at your college or university, such as career counseling and on-campus recruiting. And start working on your job search early, well before taking your walk at commencement.