Jonathan Wlodarski is pursuing a Ph.D. in English and teaches introductory-level English courses.
According to a 2018 report from Inside Higher Ed, the number of Engish majors nationwide has dropped 20% since 2012, part of a larger downward trend that started in 1993. As more students pursue STEM majors to increase their career and salary prospects, students are turning away from traditional humanities programs like English degrees.
Whether or not it's true, conventional wisdom holds that humanities programs don't offer good job prospects. The end result: English departments across the country are revamping their course offerings and focusing their curricula on transferable job skills.
The Value of an English Degree
Though it's true that English majors earn less on average than those in STEM fields, the myth of the woeful, unemployed humanities graduate is exactly that — a myth. A 2018 study from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences dispels the notion that English BA grads are significantly less satisfied with their careers than other majors; survey responses indicate roughly the same levels of happiness with benefits, job security, and advancement potential as workers with degrees in other fields.
However, a 2018 report from Burning Glass reveals that 29% of English graduates are underemployed, meaning they take jobs that don't require the degree they just completed and that don't pay at a level commensurate with their education. According to the same analysis, a surprising 31% of business majors are also underemployed, indicating that career-focused majors don't always yield better employment outcomes than liberal arts degrees.
[Employers] in recent years prioritize candidates with traits like creativity, critical thinking, and adaptability — exactly the kinds of skills students learn in expository writing and literature analysis classes.
The report suggests that the curricula of majors like business might put students at a disadvantage on the job market. Many of the fields with low rates of underemployment, like engineering and nursing, teach students "hard" skills — the practical how-tos of drawing blood, for example. Humanities programs, by comparison, often teach students "soft" skills — things like clarity of communication and analytical thinking.
According to Burning Glass, business programs may fail to impart both hard and soft skills to their students. This leaves students responsible for developing skills on their own and applying them to their professional experiences.
Thus, it's the soft skills that lend an English degree its value in the marketplace. According to Monster, employers in recent years prioritize candidates with traits like creativity, critical thinking, and adaptability — exactly the kinds of skills students learn in expository writing and literature analysis classes.
What to Do With an English Degree
If you choose to major in English, expect to hear a lot of people — family, friends, even strangers — ask what you plan to do once you graduate. Since it's up to you to shape your own career path following graduation, it may be difficult to answer that question. But don't fret too much; English majors have a variety of career options available to them.
Careers With an English Degree
Many English departments have begun offering classes — and sometimes whole specialization tracks — in professional and technical writing. These courses teach students skills that transfer easily to jobs outside the classroom. Students who study professional and technical writing can find English degree jobs writing technical manuals, creating copy for websites, managing social media accounts, or writing press releases.
Jobs You Can Get With an English Degree
- Teaching in K-12 classrooms
- Teaching English abroad
- Private tutoring
- Communication or public relations roles
- Social media management
- Content creation and management for websites
- Professional or technical writing for companies
- Editorial roles at traditional and digital media companies
- Self-publishing through Amazon and other websites
- Script writing for podcasts, web series, video games, or film/television
- Proposal/grant writing for companies or nonprofit organizations
- Freelance writing or editing
Majoring in English can also lead to careers in education. Of course, graduates with a bachelor's in English can find work in K-12 classrooms, usually after pursuing a state certification or a master's degree in education, but those interested in more international endeavors can also find work teaching English abroad. Countries like Spain, France, and China offer well-paying jobs for college graduates who move overseas to teach English.
English degrees can also prepare students for work in a number of creative fields. With the advent of digital self-publishing, for instance, a growing number of writers have found success selling their fiction on websites like Amazon. Others may find work writing for scripted podcasts, web series, video games, or the film and television industries.
Pursuing Graduate Degrees in English
Many schools offer graduate degrees in English, though there are a number of different types of degrees and paths.
Students interested in creative writing can pursue a master of fine arts (MFA) degree. These programs lead you through workshops where fellow students read and critique your writing. Though programs like these are not required to become a published writer, they can help you improve your skills and develop a network of peers invested in aiding your growth as a writer.
[Ph.D.] programs are valuable for those who want to pursue careers as English or literature professors in the field. … Though Ph.D. programs help students develop expertise, these degrees don't always translate to career prospects outside academia.
Some institutions also offer a master of arts (MA) in English education, which is ideal for students interested in becoming high school teachers. Depending on your state's requirements, pursuing an MA through a local university's English department may provide you with certification or lead to boosted salary prospects.
Research-heavy institutions typically offer Ph.D. in English programs, with subfields like literature, rhetoric, and composition. These programs are valuable for those who want to pursue careers as English or literature professors in the field. These schools typically offer a master's-level version of the degree as well, which can be useful for students who are interested in the depth and rigor of Ph.D. programs but aren't sure they want to commit to 5-7 years of further study. Though Ph.D. programs help students develop expertise, these degrees don't always translate to career prospects outside academia.
Is an English Degree Worth It?
Ultimately, each student must determine whether they believe pursuing a degree in English is worth it for them. For many students (and their parents), the definition of "worth it" may be narrowly defined by the return on investment: How much money did you spend to earn this degree, and how much money will you make once you've graduated? It's true that an English major's post-college paychecks aren't as dazzling as those offered by other careers, but that doesn't mean the degree is valueless.
For starters, if you want to pursue certain jobs, a BA in English is absolutely the degree for you: An English degree can directly prepare you for careers in instructional work, like teaching and editing, or exciting creative opportunities across a variety of media. Students who seek work in other fields can also benefit greatly from the skills an English curriculum offers because companies increasingly desire professionals with strong communication and critical thinking abilities.
If a good salary is what you want most, you should still be careful about making decisions based purely on salary projections. While a field might be in demand when you choose a major, that doesn't guarantee the field will remain in demand over the lifetime of your career. Students promised a high-paying job after graduation may be left under- or even unemployed if they don't have more general skills that can weather labor market fluctuations.
In the final analysis, students who pursue English degrees become versatile employees who can creatively apply their communication skills and critical thinking to jobs in almost every industry.
For example, the American Pharmacists Association notes that 10 years ago, becoming a pharmacist was a lucrative career due to shortages in the field, but a surplus of students pursuing Pharm.D. degrees has led to predictions of a 10% unemployment rate by 2021 — a number that could grow by as much as 2% each year after that.
The skills imparted by an English degree, by comparison, are not subject to the trends of the marketplace in the same way as careers like engineering and medicine, which require industry-specific skills. Even if you end up pursuing a field rooted in hard skills, you might consider a minor or double major in English to ensure your skills are transferable across industries.
In the final analysis, students who pursue English degrees become versatile employees who can creatively apply their communication skills and critical thinking to jobs in almost every industry. Knowing how to ask the right questions and communicate effectively are important skills that employers value.
Though it's hard to measure the market value of an English degree, the demand for English writing abilities is clear. And that's to say nothing of the personal enrichment that comes with studying the English language or the creativity that it sparks, either in your own writing or in a professional environment. Because of these and many other factors, the value of a degree in English is immeasurable.