English majors get good jobs too

Colby Echo (Prof. Aaron Hanlon)

Professor Hanlon discusses the merits of the English major

It’s amazing how much of “common knowledge” is actually wrong:

“You lose most of your body heat through your head.” Wrong.

“Bats are blind.” Nope.

“We only use 10 percent of our brains.” False.

Another zombie myth that ambles on with incredible tenacity is that majoring in English will leave you unemployed and broke, or that the English major is irrelevant or “useless” in the working world. Like other myths, this one persists because people mindlessly repeat it without bothering to scrutinize it.

The idea that English majors are unemployable — or even especially less employable than lots of other majors in the natural and social sciences — is wrong. As The Atlantic put it a few years ago in an article titled “The Best Argument for Studying English? The Employment Numbers,” “only people who don’t understand statistics would question the value of an English degree.”

First, let’s look at those unemployment numbers, because the myth says English majors don’t get jobs. According to the latest (2015) comprehensive report by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, the national unemployment rate in 2012 for recent college graduates with a degree in English was 8.8 percent. That’s a lower unemployment rate than recent graduates in economics (9.8 percent) and political science and government (10.9 percent). And it’s not far off from accounting (8.2 percent) or biology (8 percent). I note these comparisons with “practical” majors not to suggest a hierarchy of value based on unemployment rates. Rather, I want to point out that this is a pretty tight grouping of unemployment rates between 8–10.9 percent, so if you really love English, economics, government, or biology, you shouldn’t presuppose that any of these is a radically unsafe choice over the others. Yet only one of these majors, English, gets wrongly maligned as being “impractical.”

Next, let’s consider salaries. Here the data are pretty clear that English majors usually start off making less than many of their peers, but close the earnings gap convincingly over time. The median pay (nationally) for recent English graduates in 2012 was $32,000. Compare that with economics ($47,000); political science and government ($38,000); accounting ($45,000); and biology ($32,000 — exactly the same as English majors).

It’s clear that if you’re basing your choice of major on starting salary alone, you’re in better shape with an economics or accounting degree. But if you’re taking the long view of earning potential, you should know that English (and other humanities) majors catch up. According to a joint study by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and the National Association of American Colleges and Universities, humanities majors typically start off making less than their peers in professional and pre-professional degree programs, but eventually eclipse professional degree holders in peak earning years. Further, according to reports by the National Association of College Employers, median starting salary for English majors increased by 18.6 percent from the graduating class of 2014 to the graduating class of 2015. This increase in starting salary for English majors makes sense in light of the Association of American Colleges and Universities “Liberal Arts Graduates and Employment: Setting the Record Straight” report, which finds that while 16 percent of surveyed employers are looking for knowledge and skills that apply to a specific field or position, 55 percent want graduates who can demonstrate both field-specific and broader knowledge and skills.

In light of these developments, it’s not surprising that venture capitalists like Scott Hartley have begun to recognize the value of the English major. Hartley’s recent book, The Fuzzie and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World (2017), is full of stories about entrepreneurs and CEOs who were English majors, including Salesforce co-founder Parker Harris (a Middlebury graduate), and Jack Ma, one of the richest people in the world, co-founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group, a multinational tech conglomerate. Speaking of richest people in the world, you might have realized I’ve left out comparisons with majors like computer science or chemical engineering, which tend to top the earnings charts, and have lower unemployment rates for recent graduates (computer science, at 7.4 percent, is lower than English at 8.8 percent, though perhaps not so much lower than you’d think). That’s because I’m not telling you to major in English to get rich.

If earning a high salary, particularly early in your career, is your most important criterion for choosing a major, English is fine, but it’s certainly not the best. There are plenty of big-time CEOs who studied English — like former Disney CEO Michael Eisner — though the Fortune 500 list is largely populated by people with business and engineering degrees. I’m arguing, rather, that concerns about employment and salary shouldn’t stop you from choosing the English major. Yes, I have a personal interest in having more English majors — and in our majors and our faculty getting the respect we deserve — but my interests and my feelings are not the basis of my claims. You should feel free to choose the English major without panicking about your professional future because the employment data bear this out.

Having a degree from Colby is already a significant advantage for all of our graduates, which means you’ll likely outperform the median regardless of what you study here. For me, the most important thing is what you learn here, what kind of person you learn how to be, what kind of knowledge and understanding and wisdom you develop. We in English have plenty of that to offer. If you take us up on that offer, do so knowing that your employment prospects are bright.

Aaron R. Hanlon is an Assistant Professor of English at Colby College.