When I started college, I wanted to be a diplomat, so I studied Russian and Economics. By the end of my first year, my GPA was sinking as low as a Soviet submarine, so I fled to the safe harbor of my native language and became an English major. It was known then as the I-can’t-get-a-job major.
Having gone straight on to a graduate program in Literature and then becoming a professor, I can’t say that I have too much personal experience in the broad applicability of an English degree: I pretty much stayed in the harbor, but I have a lot of experience advising my beloved English majors, watching them go out into the world and succeed in a wide range of entry-level jobs.
Here are the 3 things English majors learn that help them succeed:
English majors develop stamina. With at least four writing and literature classes per semester, not to mention dozens of papers and presentations, English majors get extraordinary, exhausting training. The demands of their course load and the kinds of critical thinking we ask them to do, such as analyzing alternative viewpoints, spotting patterns and synthesizing ideas from multiple texts (often across different historical periods and cultures), require intensive thought and work. Their stamina can be useful in a wide range of workplaces, especially ones that require employees to thrive in a fast-paced environment with high expectations.
English majors are experts in time management. The heavy reading and writing required for an English major also requires understanding of how to manage time. (I sometimes joke that I majored in the first 100 pages of the great works of English literature, since I was juggling a sport, the school paper and a wee bit of beer drinking.) Good time management skills are essential to understanding how to steer a project toward a successful conclusion.
English majors know how to be objective. Students of literature, while they might heavily identify with certain characters from time to time, know that in order to analyze the text they must remove themselves, hover over it a bit and think about it objectively. This can be a supremely useful skill not only in analyzing material, but also in a workplace, where there are sure to be a range of characters, some heroic, some villainous and all with their own unique point of view.
Being an English major is no longer the I-can’t-get-a-job major: Even the FBI recruits English majors at my school! Plus, you will always have the best toasts for your friends’ weddings and know the perfect quote for a colleague or family member in a tricky situation. It will, however, ruin the Internet for you because the grammar out there is atrocious.
Caroline Reitz is an Associate Professor of English at John Jay College and the CUNY Graduate Center.