Previous Next

Photo by o5com

Yes, you can be successful with a literary background.

I AM NOT HERE to sell you on the merits of a bachelor’s degree in English. I am merely here to tell you that, contrary to popular belief, there are indeed professions that an English major does prepare a person for. I shall use myself as an example. Here is what I have “done” with my English major:

  • Editorial Assistant at a household name magazine in New York City
  • Editor at an advertising firm on New York City’s Park Avenue
  • Freelance Travel Writer

These are the English major-related things I have done for a paycheck; I don’t include Theater Critic and Aspiring Writer of Literary Fiction (first novel 98% completed — fingers crossed).

The question people usually ask the English major after “What are you going to do with that?” is generally “Does it pay?” It’s an appallingly rude question. My suspicion has long been that the question arises out of the asker’s need to comfort themselves that selling out was, indeed, the right choice. But I digress.

Fine. I myself make a little money. Each year I make more. Not that it’s any of your business. If I gave a crap about being rich I’d have become an investment banker…or a high class call girl.

Do I love what I do? Yes. And I loved being an English major. I love to read. I love to revise a sentence, pick apart copy, and pinpoint tropes and important literary themes; I can’t turn off that part of my brain even when I’m watching Madmen or reading e-mails from ex-boyfriends. And I can’t live without writing. This is my skill set.

Even if I never sell my novel, I’ll always be able to fall back on editing and teaching. And it’s not just me. A good number of my fellow English majors — the ones who were truly serious about it — are creative writing teachers, adjunct literary professors, and published authors today.

If one is not keen to go into Academia, there is also the publishing world and journalism: while living in New York City, I was surrounded by former English majors who made a living — sometimes handsomely — as journalists, magazine editors, publishing assistants, and literary agents. Yes, there’s little money to start. But, as with any career, if you stick around long enough, the money grows.

Photo by aroid

And let’s not forget the actual writing. Many people (like myself) who major in English harbor literary dreams. Do you need to have been an English major to become a writer? No, but knowing the canon of the literary world you one day hope to join certainly doesn’t hurt.

Alas, there are no job ads that read: Wanted! Best-selling American novelist! Work from home. Perks include fame, respect, and statues sculpted in your honor. We’ll take anyone. $100,000k a year to start. Making a healthy living in creative fields is admittedly a long shot, but it’s by no means impossible.

Just visit your local bookstore. Turn on the TV. Crack open a magazine. Someone’s writing all those books, articles, and TV and movie scripts. But they’re not doing it by sitting around and bitching about the impossibility of achieving lofty goals.

Just last year, two of my former co-workers went to the Prime Time Emmys for their work on 30 Rock. Another woman we used to work with just got her big break — a six-figure book deal. I first met these people ten years ago, when we all worked for a start-up in Chinatown. For the record, saying, “That website only pays $15 per article? Screw you guys, I’m going home” does not constitute “trying” to be a writer. My friend who has the new book deal wrote six novels, all of which were rejected, before “making it.”

Every dream worth having requires time, hard work, talent, a thick skin, and dedication.

So what can you do with a BA in English? To sum up:

  • English Teacher
  • Literacy Teacher
  • ESL Teacher
  • Creative Writing Teacher
  • Professor of Literature
  • Professor of Writing
  • Literary Scholar
  • Magazine Editor
  • Literary Journal Editor
  • Periodical Writer
  • Literary Critic
  • Publishing Liaison
  • Literary Agent
  • Novelist
  • Poet
  • Ghostwriter
  • Screenwriter

Any other questions? Actually, wait…I have a question for you. Those of you, that is, who majored in English and are guilty of spreading the same old slander about our course of study. I’ve seen it dozens of times: pleasant chatter about college days past and then, the inevitable question…What did you study? A shrug of the shoulders, an apologetic grimace, and an eye roll: “I was an English major. But, you know, what do you do with that?”

Photo by Sterlic

My hot question for all of you: if you didn’t want to be a writer, journalist, literary scholar, publishing liaison, literary agent, or literature/English/writing teacher then why the hell did you pick English as a major? It’s not like you didn’t know what people say about us. I mean, you wouldn’t go to medical school if you didn’t want to be a doctor, right?

I understand if you took a real, prolonged stab at a literary-type career and gave up — rejection and hunger suck — but there are other jobs in the literary field to pick from. But if you went straight from your graduation ceremony to working Customer Service at Sears, then what did you expect?

Maybe you were young and intimidated by the world at large. The English major is often viewed as a haven for “confused” college students who simply want a “light” course of study.

Yes, I see how that works. Because reading hundreds of pages a week and churning out dozens of papers based on new and inventive ways to pick apart old texts is totally easy if you don’t already have a passion for that sort of thing.

If that was you — poor, scared teenage you — and you’re still bitching about it, then I have two words for you, my false friend: grow up. If you don’t know what your English major was for, you picked the wrong major and that’s no one’s fault but yours. Or you were too weak to give the literary life a real try. Again, that’s on you.

A college degree does not entitle you to anything but the printed paper. Like anything else in this world, you only get out what you put in.

Career Advice

 

About The Author

Eva Sandoval

Eva is an American freelance travel writer who has lived in four countries in the past four years. She likes to write about her daily humiliations as an expat. She is currently living - and driving very badly - in Terracina, Italy.

More By This Author

view all →
  • rchrd881

    The problem isn’t the usefulness of the degree.  The problem is how many more English majors we (don’t) need.  Considering the wages, one might suggest that we’ve more than enough.

  • Drea

    I think the problem is that the purpose of university has been perverted.  University is supposed to be the highest level of education.  It was about really learning, not getting a job.  Anyone who comments on how an English degree is not lucrative obviously doesn’t understand that distinction and if they have a problem with that then they are welcome to major in something else and stop concerning themselves with what someone else wants to do with their education and life.

    • Guest

      Let us know how successfully that learning without the getting a job bit repays $60-100k in student loan debt.

      • Drea

        That is a completely different issue.  That is a level of debt that a lot of people would have problem replaying.  We completely fail when it comes to educating people about how to avoid and responsibly deal with monetary issues like that.  As someone with a degree in the hard science I have just as difficult a time as my friends with liberal arts degree while a friend with an English degree is now a salaried manager only two years after finishing undergrad.  It’s not just about the degree and the money.  It’s also time, place and who you know and how you make the most of what you’ve decided to do.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Laura-Hamilton/37109244 Laura Hamilton

         There are other places in the world where you can get a degree and not have 100k in loan – ironically on a travel website you’re only thinking of North America. I have an MA in English from the University of St Andrews, and I write for an information guide in the Middle East. It’s a starting point for my career.

      • Nataly K

         Only in the USA. For some of the lucky ones, like us in Australia, student loans are subsidised by the government and can be paid over time (20-40 years) through a ‘taxation’ like system. Great article.

    • Josh

      Anybody who says that University is about learning and not getting a job clearly doesn’t understand how college works (or real life, for that matter).  College is a bundle, half of which is the educational aspect (and involves much more than simply books and grades).  The other half is the credential you receive, and this is AS IMPORTANT IF NOT MORE SO than the first half, because it’s the only way prospective peers and employers can evaluate you on an objective basis.  You could be Steven freaking Hawking but nobody is going to know it if you graduated with a B.A. in Communications from Podunktown State. 

      • Drea

        Actually historically university didn’t have anything to do with getting a job which is exactly what I was saying.  It was the privileged education of the elite who were already guaranteed work through their family.  As such there’s no reason to be insulting about anyone’s intention for getting an education that speaks to them.  There are plenty of people who do well without having a prestigious degree from some ivy league because they’ve figured out a different way to work the system.  It’s just that we now live in a society that privileges college as that thing you do when you’re done with high school in order to move on even though the reality of people’s experiences is much more diverse than that.

  • Opal

    Quite frankly, I think everyone could benefit from an English degree. Can’t tell you how many of my friends who majored in business and science have difficulty writing formal letters or conducting research. I’m and account executive in the business world making great pay, and I majored in English. Those who go through the program know it’s value. Not only does it give you great technical writing a research skills, it challenges your thinking. Which is why a quarter of the students often drop out of the major. English tends to incorporate other majors philosophies: history, psychology, science, human development, political science, etc. Point being, it makes you a well rounded and skilled individual with the ability to work through problems with awareness and greater understanding. Sure, I could have majored in business and ended up exactly where I’m at, but I have no doubt that English is what will get me ahead. Going back to the article, it’s all about the choices, hard work, and dedication. What you do with the major is unlimited.

  • Lauren Van Mullem

    You missed a few vocations there Eva. I’ve been making my living for five years primarily through writing for the web. Every business website you read with text that is interesting, fun, and engaging, and every marketing plan that seamlessly blends SEO with great content, is written by someone like me. It’s NOT just Novels, Academia, or Journalism anymore. We are living in a textual world, and I am a textual girl.

  • Juanna47

    I personally think that anyone who can write has an advantage in life. Writing is comprehending one’s own language, history , society etc etc etc…it is the basics of seeing creativity at work. Blessed are those who can write . To me they are artists who can paint without a brush.

  • Cosine

    What you do is make money on a hobby, which is perfectly fine. No need to counter a misguided question like “what can you do with that?” with hostility. If you truly love what you do, you don’t need to prove yourself to anybody. I love what I do, but society decided that it’s much harder to get where I am and that’s why my paycheck is probably more stable and higher. It’s not everything, but it is a huge motivator for a lot of people. You can’t walk around that.

  • parambyte

    one of the highest paying jobs is writing in advertising. agency copywriters get paid rather gorgeously, get to work on a variety of media (print, brochures, TV commercials, radio spots, internet ideas etc)  and get to work with some top talent.

    plus on the side, a good and passionate write can always blog. some bloggers make loads of money writing about things that interest them. look at jason kottke’s blog. I simply love reading his blog and he makes a living off it.

  • Rad

    And lets not forget.. I’m sitting in China doing some work and studying some Chinese. However, there are massive amounts of people studying English. Just about anyone with a degree can get a job teaching. However,  if you have an English degree, it would probably be rather simple to get a job teaching at a university, private lessons, or starting a company to teach.  This situation probably exists in many different places around the world.

  • Dan Wiencek

    This was one of the weirdest straw man/straw woman attacks I’ve ever read. So the globe is crawling with people who majored in English and now bitch about it? Guess I’m lucky to have never met one. The English majors who studied along with me went on to happy careers and have nothing but affection for their old course of study. In fact, if anyone is underselling the benefits of English education, it’s you. Every career option you list is either an academic position or a literary one (or the same role listed under different names, as in Creative Writing Teacher and Professor of Writing). What about marketing and advertising copywriting? Public relations? Research? Grant writing? These are a few of the career paths taken either by me or other English/writing majors I know. Being able to communicate well is one of the basic tools for success and it’s one possessed by surprisingly few people. That alone is argument in favor of the English major.

    • Eva Sandoval

       Dan – naturally, many people who majored in English go the Advertising/PR route (as I did). I just listed vocations that are directly related to studying literature.

    • Guest

      I totally agree. I’m glad you said something.

  • http://www.dangerous-business.com/ Amanda Williams

    A lot of people just don’t realize how marketable you are when you know how to WRITE. Companies of all sorts are always in need of people who know how to craft a good bit of writing. At least, that’s the argument I made to my parents after I decided to major in journalism in college.  ;)

  • http://twitter.com/conceptualcat Tim Tucker

    College as a system is broken. A High School education gets you a job at McDonalds and not much else. A college degree does help you get a higher quality job but the cost for that, “piece of paper” has become so prohibitive as to be crippling. It’s going to get much worse. College costs continue to rise much faster than inflation. Good thing we are throwing so much money into basketball. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1181723202 Lauren Quinn

    Great article Eva. I never considered majoring in anything other than English (well, Creative Writing), and I always assumed that I’d never be able to “do anything” with it, financially/job-wise. Which is why I was sure to work my way through university, not take out loans, and build a work experience in other fields while I was studying what I loved.

    But guess what? Despite my expectation that I’d be a waitress forever, I’m now totally supporting myself on jobs related to my English degree: freelance writing and English teaching. And since I didn’t have the funky monkey of student loan debt hanging over me, I was able to pick up and move across the world. So double win!

  • Hmmmm

    You can also be a translator/interpreter if English isn’t your mother tongue but you have a BA English :)

  • Ry

    Majoring in English  can also get you a travel writing job! something i’m sure most people on here would love to do!! as for me, i can only be a contributor on a travel blog for now. it’s still awesome to be able to write and have your articles featured somewhere! :) 

  • DaGreat

    Super great article!! I love medicine but knew I would HATE being a science major and always had the passion for literature and writing so I’m doing both, medicine and English. You can do ANYTHING with this major, it’s great! But you need the passion for it too, not just to take a “light” road in college. That equals a “light” road in life. English majors are the hustlers in college because when we get out, we have to find or create the job. It’s not packaged like nursing or engineering. Wake up people!

  • Laura

    I’m an English major, and I am actually entering into law school in the fall. While the list here is good, I would also argue that being an English major gives you vital analytical and close-reading tools that give you a huge advantage when studying law. It gave me a leg up when I was studying to obtain my paralegal certificate, and I did very well as a result! 

    • Eva Sandoval

       Completely agree, Laura. I just tried to keep my list of English major-related careers strictly to things that were directly related to the study of literature. But all the close reading and deconstruction English majors do is fantastic training for analysis in many different fields….

  • SkaieBird

    Though I was not an English major, I did graduate with a Speech Communication degree. I have to admit, though, that I wish I had continued studying English…I lasted only one semester, mainly because I didn’t have that passion you mentioned to pick apart and deeply analyze the giant catalog of works by historical literary masters. My passion was for music and the craft of song writing. Though the music department did have a class on Dylan about two inches thick, I opted for “performing” via speech and debate. Regardless, the path of creatives is a long and arduous one…but, who wants to live a safe life? I surely don’t! I’ve loved the scratching and clawing my way up the unstable ladder of the arts, it’s certainly not been a boring ascent. Currently, I am a full-time writer for a design blog and I’m a published songwriter for film and television. Oh, yeah, that’s what I mainly wanted to mention. BLOGGING. It’s fantastic and I recommend it to anyone who loves to put pen to paper…it’s even gratifying for a girl who loves to put mouth to mic!

  • Ian Unlofl

    “Not that it’s any of your business. If I gave a crap about being rich
    I’d have become an investment banker…or a high class call girl.”

    Yes, remarkable similarities on that front, many bankers and politicians have proven that they will do anything with their mouths for money.  If you can’t sell out AND follow your muse, then its a clear choice :)

  • Guest

    Truth of the matter is that an English major IS an easier major. Nothing is wrong with that being the truth. Other majors just as much critical thinking, analysis, and writing. Most science/engineering, business/finance, history, archaeology, etc. degrees require classes in english and social sciences to make them a well rounded student. The same can’t be said about requiring science, finance, etc courses for English majors. All English majors can’t even write well have limited themselves greatly in terms of financial gain while in the pursuit of their literary dreams. Knowing or practicing a hard science doesn’t automatically make you unable to succeed at an English major That is why people ask what you are going to do with that.

    • Guest

      Other majors *require* just as much…

  • Fifthrowscribbler

    This is awesome. I’m an incoming college freshman majoring in English. And I do have a passion for literature. :) 

  • josh_boldt

    I always advise people to major in English with a directed focus or a minor. It’s sometimes hard to translate our knowledge to the rest of the world. My story has unfortunately not gone as well as yours: Why Did I Get a Master’s Degree in English?

  • David Faught

    Business majors work for me. English gives you vision, and the ability to communicate that vision. It’s a shame that so many of my fellow English majors sell themselves short by confining their career aspirations to things that involve writing. English is a time honored major. You can do all sorts of things, like go into law, become prime minister of Great Britain, you know, stuff like that. And yes, you can make butt loads of money. Anyone can learn the skills of business, that’s why every major company has job training. Anyone who majors in business or accounting, if they are being honest, is in it for the money, and we should pity them. Especially since they often end up working for us! Sure, minor in something practical, and don’t be afraid to do something completely unrelated once you graduate. Your skills are in demand pretty much everywhere if you can demonstrate that you are well-rounded. But a solid liberal arts education, especially English, is time-tested for literally hundreds of years, and has not been found wanting.

  • Andrea Valentina

    Thank you :)

  • Jessica Dinger

    I loved to study English in Great Britain and I also enjoy teaching but my problem is that I am not a Native speaker. Despite having lived in Great Britain for 3 years and completed my degree there, I hardly have the opportunity to teach English. Many language schools only want to hire native speakers.

  • Denmark Aleluya

    Hello? I read this article like quite a few times already. I don’t know but I just simply love to read this particular article. I am an English major – not an AB – but a BS, well, in Education. Majoring in English is definitely a lot of fun and a completely treasuring experience. I’ve been having a lot of Literature classes which means that I’ve been reading a lot of short stories, poems, dramas (a little novel). At first, I thought getting English as a degree would give me a very difficult time but it was the other way around. I learned to love literature – wrote a lot of papers (much of these are critical analysis) and research papers. I’ve had major development in writing and speaking the language as well! Learning English is definitely one of the paramount concerns of people especially countries who aren’t that proficient in communicating. We are so living in globalization and English is one of it’s prerequisites to live, thrive and survive!

    • Eva Sandoval

      So glad you liked it!

  • Amber Mae Payson

    This article has truly swept me off my feet. Obviously, I’m in college. I aim to get an AA in journalism,(risky and pointless major) and continue my studies into English. Writing is my passion, the only thing I know I can do and enjoy doing. Everyone says the same sardonic remarks like, “well why not go
    into nursing?” Or “Journalism is a tough job market nowadays.” It’s true, I can’t even get a start at a internship because all of them want a computer wizz who doesn’t even know Ernest Hemingway but your,article holds an incredible,amount of truth to it. We writers can still do what,we love to do-read and write. I plan to do just that, if journalism goes nowhere within this final year in community college. A creative writing teacher is my way to go. As long as I can write to earn a pay check, mentally I can dwell in an utopia.

  • Vertelle Marie

    Hi. I am an BA English major with an emphasis in Professional writing. I was so elated when I came across this article, simply because I doubted whether it really would be of use. I knew that I could teach but this wasn’t the real reason for me pursuing my degree and it seemed like my only choice. After reading your article, I felt inspired to know that there isn’t a cap on the possibilities. Thanks!

  • Megan Fery

    Hi, I’m a junior in highs school right now and just wanted to let you know that your article brought tears to my eyes and has inspired me in too many ways to list! Thank you so much.

  • HereForIt

    This is the absolute tea! Spill it, girl! Spill that Lipton!

  • ganymede gumdrop

    This piece comes off as condescending to me. I applaud the success you’ve managed to have in your career post English degree but several of us are struggling to find positions and don’t have the literary haven of New York within close proximity. The truth is many editing job now require graphic design experience or web-based skills that the English degree doesn’t focus on. Many teaching jobs pay pennies and most internships pay nothing at all. For those who need to support themselves, this is an untenable position. Again, I applaud your success and hope you’re enjoying Italy but the idea that those who have been less successful need to “grow up” is insulting.

  • Marc VanTol

    I’m getting an english degree right now… And while i guess it’s all right, I really do hate it. It’s the volume of reading and writing that i find most vexing. Additionally, the exams are either easy, or total beasts that are only based on rote learning. I look forward to the day when i nail this bitch of a degree on my wall.

Sometimes even the bad boss can turn your life around.
You'll learn some valuable things about people in this line of work.
There will be a lot of uncertainty once you transition into freelancing.
You have to make freelancing into a full-time job, even when it isn’t.
As “my own boss,” I don’t have to ask myself if I can start work at 11:30 am.
As Ira Glass himself said, we're living in a golden age for audio producers.
You need to make sure you put in the time to do all these things in your profiles.
If you do work on the road, your tools are what allow you live “freely.”
“Which one is better, oDesk or Elance?” These are the answers.