By Marisa Sloan
Welcome back to our careers class, English majors!
So now that we’ve established that you need to find what you want from a career rather than mold yourself into one, it’s time to address the obstacles to finding that fulfillment.
There is no linear path
Whether you’re relatively early in your college career or graduating soon, it has probably struck you that English, like many degrees in the humanities, does not provide a linear career path. Our job title is not in the name of the degree like it is in, say, criminal justice or computer science. This ostensible lack of direct application creates an extra challenge in selling ourselves to employers, who want an immediate articulation of what candidates can do (and how those skills benefit those who are hiring).
STEM majors get spared a lot of discouragement. After all, if you went to medical school you would probably never have an interviewer skeptically ask why you majored in biology. You also wouldn’t have to deal with grimacing relatives trying to caution you against becoming a starving novelist (hint: you won’t be), or pursuing a “useless” degree.
Before everyone starts phoning their academic advisor, chew on this: 75% of people with STEM degrees do not work in a STEM profession. Why is that?
It’s because your degree does not define you. Your personality and skillset are much better indicators of how you will be successful in your profession. Let’s examine some of the reasons why such a reality goes unacknowledged.
The abstract and the practical
As abstract thinkers, we find it hard to distill our degree down to specific business objectives. If an employer is looking to hire a data analyst experienced in financial systems, they might not be moved by the value of your literature studies in which you consider the ethical concerns of intersecting technology and finance in Western culture. Granted, you could respond in turn that English majors are among the best researchers with a demonstrated ability to think analytically.
But the point is that sometimes you have to work harder than a STEM major to market your skills, despite having vibrant stories to tell.
As an English major, your practical skills are contained within high-level thinking. Consider the following personal and professional qualities:
- You solve large-scale problems of character development and narrative structure. Then you dissect your sentences line by line, and word by word.
- You absorb constructive criticism into your natural workflow. No sore losers here.
- You manage projects that last from months to a year, and then evaluate the strengths and weaknesses afterward through quantitative (numbers) and qualitative (perception) data.
- You manage your time. Sometimes inspiration strikes in the midnight hour and you know exactly what to write. But you budget your time in case it doesn’t.
- You think critically about the research you gather. You know better than to lazily pluck quotes from sources that would damage your employer’s credibility.
- You collaborate with others to spread or refute ideas, tactfully, and learn the art of persuasion.
- You synthesize information and articulate it in a way that your audience, your stakeholders, understands. Based on your delivery, you develop the leadership skills to cultivate trust too.
- You consider multiple perspectives. You can mediate conflict to sustain a supportive and collaborative work environment rather than a competitive, toxic one.
- You are a versatile communicator. With little instruction, you can jump from news writing to poetry to product copy because you notice patterns between genres, and adapt your voice accordingly.
That sounds practical to me.
You are more than a skillset
There is no denying that we live in a market that, at least on the surface, caters to hard skills rather than transferable ones. However, it has been acknowledged in recent years that the empathy, soft skills, and general adaptability of English majors are necessary in the tech world. You can apply this logic to health care too. There will always be a need for medical and technical writers as well as communicators to liaison between a company and the general public. Anyone can learn software. Communication is the lifeblood of human civilization and growth.
Most liberal arts students are communicators, so what makes English special?
English prepares you for any industry. Your creative writing, literature, and rhetoric and composition classes teach you to understand people-their thought processes, their biases, and their motivations. You’ve probed the depths of the human condition in order to understand how a lattice of experiences makes us into who we are.
By understanding people (i.e. your audience), you can connect them to yourself and the wider world through written and verbal communication.
The stories you tell, and believe in yourself, that bring value to people’s lives is what will keep people coming back to you or your organization again and again. What differentiates you as an English major is that you have the essential ingredient: the human element. Your ability to humanize via storytelling is what enables marketing and business principles to be effective, and what motivates people to buy a piece of technology at all.
A good example of a humanized brand is Ben & Jerry’s. Why should a diehard Halo Top lover like myself convert to these quirky cartons?
Ben and Jerry’s told the story of how it spent millions in premiums in order support small-scale farmers in developing nations as part of their stance on fair trade. They also partnered with groups interested in climate change education and related forms of advocacy. If that’s not enough to tug at your heart strings, the business is a staunch supporter of LGBT rights. Ben and Jerry’s understands its audience and their values, and in response crafts the stories that maintain customer loyalty.
As illustrated by the Ben and Jerry’s example, as an English major you are not required to tell stories within the traditional contexts of teaching and publishing. There are so many ways English majors bring value into the world. Ball State alums have pursued digital strategy, law, management, marketing, and even acupuncture!
So what do you do now?
If you still feel insecure about the nonlinear (but much more versatile) path of an English major, remember that as markets change and technologies advance, some jobs and practices will simply go extinct. For example, traditional advertising doesn’t work on millennials and younger audiences (we pay to not listen to ads now). Additionally, as someone who comes from a long line of glass molders, I can attest that automation has significantly reduced the concentration of people in factory work. Some job titles might not even exist 10 years from now.
The way we define work, and the work we do, will never be immune to societal change.
But if you have robust research and critical thinking skills, coupled with a strong work ethic, you can learn and adapt to any market. This is what it means to be an English major.
Marisa Sloan is a senior from Winchester, IN, majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing. She also has minors in art history and professional writing/emerging media. She is a member of Jacket Copy Creative. A writer and graphic designer turned marketer, she is interested in pursuing positions in marketing and communications, especially roles in copywriting, content marketing, strategy, and user experience design. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.
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