Selling Out?: Getting a “Real Job” as an English Major

“What’re you gonna do with that?” I heard this question many times throughout my educational career as an English major — eventually I would just respond with a blank smile and allowed the inquirer to speculate on their own. “Ooooh, a teacher?!?!” They would smile wide and nod: a self-congratulation as they had brilliantly rationalized why anyone would choose to gruel over the humanities as their field of study. And of all humanities studies — English! You can’t write code or do surgery or found the next brilliant tech innovation with an English degree!

“I’ll just be broke or homeless, I guess,” I would say sometimes, watching the look of inquisitiveness move into either mild shock or annoyance. After all, that’s what it seemed their question was leading into. Why put myself through 4 long years of school just to read?

No one is ever asked what they’re going to do with a Computer Science or Medical degree, because those indicate specific career fields after graduation. Even some art degrees have logical trajectories: the exploding world of technology and entertainment will always have a designated home for designers, illustrators, and musicians. But for the humanities it’s not always quite clear. I’m looking at you, students of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and of course, English. If you look so disdained and irritated at the thought of teaching, what the hell are you going to do with your life? You can’t highlight and discuss Dostoevsky for rent or bulk quinoa, you know. In this economy??

During the very last months of college I found myself wildly panicking over what was to come after graduation. I had seen the light after long, stressful nights of postcolonial essays and cursing Descarte, but what exactly was it that awaited me outside the tunnel? I had worked at Starbucks and as a math tutor for most of my time at university, but now I had to leave the lull of part-time work and join the work force as a full-fledged, blazer wearing adult. I began the arduous task of filling out applications and writing enthusiastic-but-not-desperate cover letters. The more company websites and Glassdoor reviews I read, the more I began to doubt and question myself. Just who the hell did I think I was, trying to penetrate into these money-flooded, world-changing industries with but a mere English degree?

The first thing I learned was that job applications are nothing but a numbers game. That posting on LinkedIn might have been there for weeks by the time your grubby hands clicked on it — imagine all the other souls that have already applied and posted their resumes and cover letters and hopes and dreams.

So you’re probably 189th in line to interview for a decent paying job in the Financial District with great benefits and catered lunches, and I’m sorry to say that statistically you are unlikely to even get an in-person interview. Maybe the recruiter won’t even see your profile. Don’t fret, dear friend. Remember the numbers and do not put all of your eggs (and your hopes and dreams) into one catered lunch basket. Take advantage of the “Easy Apply” button and up your game. The more applications you put out, the more likely you’re going to get a call. The more calls and interviews you’re granted, the more likely you’re gonna get a job. 

If you’re feeling as insecure as I was about your major, don’t. The education section in your resume is only what, 3-5 lines? There is an entire 8 1/2 x 11 sheet (or A4 if you’re not American) on which you can paint the intelligent, competent, and hard-working individual you are. The skills you learn as a humanities major are useful and important, but you have to know how to market them to fit corporate expectations and needs. For example, my long, grueling nights over analytical essays and presentations became:

  • Efficient and thorough analysis of written text
  • Effective written and oral communication on different scopes and levels of detail

It’s all about selling your skills and customizing your resume and cover letter to fit the job application. Technical writer? Emphasize your quick and accurate copywriting/editing skills. Project coordinator? Highlight your communication skills and the high- and low-level detail work you put into that senior thesis.

That being said, I’m going to have to get honest with you, fellow humanities major. Unless you’re intensely brilliant and prolific, Hermione Granger incarnate, or you were able to land and work unpaid internships during college, I’m sorry to say that you are probably not going to be a tenured museum curator at the Smithsonian or a publishing editor at Random House right after graduation. If you have the financial means to do so, put in that entry-level time at creative companies and work your way up. If you do need to make that cash, maybe take some time in another industry while you keep working on your creative pursuits. I say this because unfortunately, you will probably have to weigh in between having a higher, secure salary versus lower pay while working on your passion project and dream career.

I personally had to choose between taking a lower paid entry-level position at a small publishing company and a higher paid position in an industry I don’t love. Call me a sell out, but I chose the higher paid position for now because I want to build up financial security while I keep looking for better paid creative work and endeavoring on my own passion projects (like this godforsaken manuscript). At first I felt guilty because I gave up the opportunity to work in literature for a corporate job, but I can still love books and writing while paying my bills and building my savings.

So yes, I did get a real, big-girl job with my English degree! I am not finished with my education and constantly scour free classes on Udacity and Coursera to learn new skills (Mandarin and Python just because they’re interesting) but I am proud of my education and what I’ve learned. I like the work I’ve found and admit to settling, but I’m also on a constant lookout for transitioning into creative work. Do not fret, dear English major. The world is abundant and full of jobs: careers that you will either love or careers that you can take for the time being while you gain more editing experience and/or finish that manuscript (finish it, dammit!).