Photo: Halfpoint/Shutterstock

Why Majoring in English Isn't a Waste of Time

by Eva Sandoval Mar 12, 2012
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.

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?”

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.

Discover Matador