From Great Expectations
to Sense & Sensibility

Career Advocacy with a Humanities Degree

There is a question every English major has heard a million times, one that most of us hate, that bruises our tender literary hearts:

“What are you going to do? Teach?”

I gave a talk recently to a room of English students and faculty at my undergraduate alma mater, SUNY Plattsburgh, and asked the audience if any of them had ever been confronted with that question. Nearly everyone raised a hand.

Now, this is not to say that there is anything wrong with being a teacher. Quite the contrary, education is a wonderful field filled with selfless, vastly underappreciated practitioners. If any among you want to take on this necessary and rewarding work, please go for it. But that question is loaded, and its effects can be detrimental to a budding career. It is a symptom of a greater issue: Everyone thinks English majors (or history majors, or philosophy majors — most of the humanities get thrown into the same pile of flawed expectations) are prepared exclusively for a career in teaching. After all, what can you really do with a B.A. in English other than teach people how to read and write?

The reality is that my fellow English majors build careers in all kinds of areas, ranging from business to communications to law. We are trained in some of the most valued skill sets on the job market, and yet we can’t seem to break down this systemic misunderstanding of our abilities. The English major has a PR problem, and our graduates are suffering for it.

The English major
has a PR problem.

So as a former English major, and one who even went on to do something as frivolous as obtaining a graduate degree in writing, let me do my part to shift the dialogue. I will say this quite clearly: Humanities majors are great employees. True, we don’t have a clear career path set before us like the pre-med majors or the folks over in the accounting department — but that’s actually a good thing. We have options, and our skills are translatable in a way that the modern economy necessitates. Hiring managers, however, do not always understand our value. That means we need to be prepared to speak about our talents in a professional context. We need to advocate for our careers, and clarify our capabilities.

Hiring managers…do not always
understand our value.

Not sure how to do that? You’re not alone. Career prep is rarely integrated among literature and writing courses. Here are a few talking points to get you started:

Writing

We’ll start with the obvious one. English majors can write. It’s kind of our forte. But why is it important to be a good writer?

Remember that time is money — and confusion is a time vampire. With that in mind, employees who can communicate with clarity are essential to any organization. You can say what needs to be said, and you don’t create chaos by provoking misunderstanding. Furthermore, English majors are experts at adapting their writing style for a specific audience or format. We can switch from persuasive, fact-based essays to lyrical prose in the time it takes to grab a coffee between classes. That sort of flexibility is important in the workplace, where you will need to communicate with everyone from coworkers to CEOs.

Reading Comprehension

Did you know that law schools love English majors? It’s true! And a lot of that love is due to our reading ability. We are well acquainted with late night novels, Shakespearean tomes, and loads of boring pages we never wanted to see in the first place. We can read a LOT, often quickly, and we can understand what we read in a way that makes it applicable on a larger scale. In a lot of ways, reading is the written word’s equivalent of listening — and everyone likes to work with a good listener.

Critical Thinking

All of those papers your professors assigned weren’t meant to torture you. Rather, they were a measurable way to assess your critical thinking skills. You need to be able to take in information and establish an opinion based on the material at hand. Then, you need to be able to express that opinion intelligently. In the classroom, that kind of higher-level thinking will get you an A. In the workplace, it will get you promoted.

Research

Remember cringing when you saw that research paper assignment on the syllabus? Email that professor now and thank her. The hours you spent in the library, scouring the shelves and Google-searching obscure topics, were some of the best preparation for entry-level work in a number of fields. Your boss will, at some point, need to collect a bunch of data and present it to the VIPs. But your boss probably won’t be the one collecting all of that fascinating info. That’s where you, at the assistant or associate level, will likely be knee-deep in the company database or locating competitive data online. You’ll have to find everything your boss needs to know, and you’ll often be asked to present it in a layman-friendly format. Perhaps you’ll even need to be persuasive. Sound familiar?

Empathy

Reading builds empathy, awareness, and diversity of thought. For many English majors, our first introductions to cultures beyond our own were in the pages of a good book. We traveled the world between two covers, heard snippets of other languages, saw a variety of family dynamics and relationships at all levels of functionality. We learned about sports we don’t play and music we don’t listen to. We experienced lives that were very different from what we would normally encounter. Office types call that cross-cultural competence, and it’s a big deal.

Criticism

English majors are all too familiar with the critical workshop setting. We have sat in a circle, seen our work handed around the room and desecrated by red ink, and we have quietly accepted comments from our peers and teachers. It’s hard. Very hard. And a lot of people are really, really bad at it. In fact, you’d be surprised at just how badly some professionals take criticism.

As an English major, you know that constructive feedback is not a personal attack, but an opportunity to gain insight into your work and improve future drafts. Corporate America has a similar ritual, called a performance review. It usually happens at least once a year, and your boss may tell you things about yourself you don’t want to hear. You need to respond calmly, with respect for a professional opinion that differs from your own, and with an ability to determine quality advice from bullying nonsense. It’s a talent in its own right, and English majors have a leg up in the process.

Conversely, we are usually better than most at delivering criticism. Having felt the harsh sting of someone disliking a project you’re passionate about, we tend to be tactful with our suggestions. The truth hurts, but English majors at least know when to carry a Band-Aid and some anti-septic spray. We’re also pretty good at metaphor.

So the next time someone asks, “What are you going to do? Teach?” you know what to do. Look them straight in the eye and speak with confidence: “I’m an English major. I can do anything.”

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