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There once was a party at my university where the theme was to dress up as yourself in 10 years. Some showed up dressed as business executives, others as lab scientists. More than one English major showed up to this party dressed as a vagrant, bearing signs reading “Will critique Faulkner for food.”
This story is a classic example of the dark humor with which English majors often regard their own futures. The popular lore is that most English majors end up as teachers, or vying for the dwindling number of jobs in publishing and journalism.
However, while there are few vocations targeted specifically at English majors, the skills learned studying English qualify graduates for a wide variety of jobs in different areas, especially with the increased demand for strong writers on the Internet.
During your years as an English major you’ve been studying works of literature and the ways in which they relate to their historical and cultural settings. That is, the ways in which pieces of literature – poetry, essays, fiction, plays, etc. – speak as products of their time and place, and the importance of that voice in understanding the cultural climate of the time Further, you have communicated those meanings to others both orally and through writing. Chances are you’ve been specializing in works from Britain, Ireland, North America, and other English-speaking countries, but you also may have taken some courses in film studies or creative writing as well.
In the 2009-2010 academic year, 53,231 or 3.2% of bachelor’s degrees went to English majors (source). While the number of English degrees awarded is slightly up from ten years ago and has stayed between 50,000 and 55,000 over the past ten years, the percentage of degrees that are English degrees has dropped slightly from 4.05% in the 1999-2000 academic year, primarily because more degrees overall are being awarded.
In order to best demonstrate your employability as an English major, it’s important to break down your four years of classes in terms of skills and achievements. This is the language that employers speak. While an employer may not be looking for someone who has effectively tracked class identity throughout Mansfield Park, they may be looking for a strong writer capable of thorough research. To help you think about your education in these terms, here are some common skills that English majors have to offer in the workplace:
The most obvious skill associated with the English major is that of writing. English majors are typically assigned papers less dependent on research and more on the writer’s own argument and analysis. English majors develop a distinct voice in their writing and often write more concisely than their peers. Many industries and job positions require some amount of high-quality text to be written on a regular basis, and English majors can write with the best of them.
Hand-in-hand with the high standard of writing in the English department is the skill of editing. English majors learn proofreading and editing skills from going over their own and each other’s papers. Additionally, many English majors work for campus publications in some sort of editing capacity. These skills of soliciting content, copy-editing, managing other writers, meeting deadlines and putting together a finished product are equally valid in any industry that puts out a product containing text at any point.
Many English classes are discussion based, which teaches English majors valuable oral communication skills. English majors are forced to present new ideas in class, respond to others and defend their own ideas. These skills are valuable in meetings for any job, and make English majors particularly adept at coordinating with higher-ups and co-workers.
The core task of the English major is to read a text, quickly analyze the salient points, and come up with something coherent and valuable to say about it. English majors are used to working with a wide array of information and vague criteria and striking out in a single direction with a precise argument. The ability to decide on a course of action based on varied or incomplete information is a valuable management skill, as well as a useful skill in startups or other careers with a high degree of individual responsibility.
Depending on your other interests and experiences, you might have acquired additional skills through your English major.
Completing a senior thesis or independent study requires seeing a project of several months through from beginning to end. This probably involved setting deadlines and achievable goals, reporting on your progress, and holding yourself accountable. All of these skills are valuable job skills in any industry.
A concentration in creative writing gives the ability to evoke an image or a world in a reader’s mind. This skill is useful not only in writing careers but in marketing and advertising where creating a certain impression is the goal.
Working with campus publications (often newspaper, yearbook, and literary magazine, though some colleges have others) shows the ability to set and stick to deadlines, as well as working with collaborators and contributors. Almost every job requires these skills, and this doesn’t even get into skills you acquire with a specific position within a publication.
Median Pay: $27,000
Publishing makes good use of the English major’s spectrum of communication skills: writing for promotional materials and publication descriptions as well as written and oral communication with authors, distributors, printers, transporters, and everyone else that contributes to book production. Knowledge of Adobe InDesign or similar publishing software is vital to many parts of the publishing process. Publishing companies also frequently rely on new hires to increase the digital presence of the publisher through social media and book and author websites.
Web Content Creator
Median Pay: $26,000
Many modern businesses (One Day, One Job included) thrive by generating unique and interesting content for the internet on a regular basis. This content gets people on to the site from search engines, and since just about every business wants more search engine traffic, content writers are in high-demand these days. Learning a little about Search Engine Optimization can go a long way in terms of getting a job writing for the internet. Traditional print advertising and direct mail marketing also continue to need talented writers, although most writing jobs involve writing web content these days.
Median Pay: $35,000
The English major’s editing skills can be put to work for almost any publication that reaches a wide audience. There’s copy-editing, for those good at catching punctuation and grammar mistakes, fact-checking for the more research oriented, and also higher level editorial work, usually at the assistant level to start. Editorial work can include managing writers, suggesting stories, working with writers on shaping a piece for publication and more. All of these responsibilities make use of the English major’s excellent communication skills and conceptual thinking born from choosing paper topics from vague criteria.
A knowledge of Adobe InDesign, Photoshop, and Web Design can make English majors much more employable in a number of fields. These skills can be developed many places online, many of them for free.
You might already know how to use Microsoft Word from writing papers, but knowing how to use the rest of the Office suite (especially Excel) can give you a leg up.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a valuable skill for any writer producing content on the web. You can learn more about SEO from Seomoz. Social media knowledge is also good to have, and you can start by creating a professional social media presence for yourself.
Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is still an essential style guide on proper writing for any field. Depending on what field you want to work in, you may want to familiarize yourself with the AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style.
If you’re looking to start a career in writing, make sure you’re writing on a regular basis, either for your own blog or for a site that will publish you. Don’t worry too much about if/how much you’re paid early on. The most important thing is to have solid writing clips to use in your application for a job you really want.