Making a New Myth about English Majors

The myth that English majors have no prospects in the job market is more than pervasive, it has become the framework for the way people studying English talk about their choice in major, that is to say defensively. Students don’t talk about studying English without justifying their choice, explaining their career plan, or in some way tackling the elephant that pops up in every room the moment majoring in English is brought up, the question “What are you going to do with a degree in English?” I used to jump to my own academic defense in the same breath that I announced my major.

In a way, it’s understandable. English majors do not have obviously profitable skills in the same way students studying accounting or biochemistry do. For English majors there is always some level explanation required when marketing oneself.

And it is not as if students with other majors (even other non-humanities majors) are never asked what career they plan to pursue. There is, however, a difference in the way that these non-humanities students are asked about their career options. Most non-humanities majors are asked “What do you want to do with ____ major?” The important word here is “want.” With other majors there is a greater perception of choice. The common discourse about these students is ‘of course a pre-med or economics student will find a job.’ The question is only about where. This is not the case with English majors. When I am asked, “What are you going to do with and English degree?” it is a challenge to me to defend my choice in the face of capitalistic myths about the usefulness of English. It is a quiz to see whether I have a plan for my future. The implication is that if I do not have such a plan, then I will not find a job.

What I found fascinating about the interviews we conducted on Alumni Weekend was that while English alumni struggled at first to find work, almost all of them seemed to somewhat figure out their path relatively quickly. Of course, there is no cookie-cutter path for English grads, so every interview was different from the others. Still, all four of the interviewees were able to pursue their interests and find jobs, if not careers. This success rate—four out of four interviewees finding work relative to their interests—may be attributed to the fact that only driven, out-going alumni volunteered to be interviewed. This possibility should not dampen the outlook of English majors, though because while it may not be true that all that you have to do in order to find a career in your field is want it enough, there is certainly a better job market for English majors than the common myth has us believe. The story society does not tell English majors—or anyone else—is that there are jobs out there that require reading and writing skills, jobs that most of us have ever heard of or thought were necessary.

So while the point of this post is not to say that we live in a Utopia in which there is a profession for every possible interest and an unlimited job market waiting for liberal arts graduates, there is a problem with our current rhetoric about English majors and liberal arts in general, namely that it is unnecessarily negative. After just six interviews (two of which were pilots) I can tell that the story we tell students about English alumni job prospects is skewed at least to some degree. We will not all graduate college to work in coffee shops as the stereotype would have us believe is the hard, fixed truth.