To Be or Not To Be an English Major
I don’t know if this has been asked previously and if so, I am sorry! I am in my second year of college and stumped on what to do major/career wise. No one supports me in just going for English but writing is where I feel home. It’s what I do. I’m not decent at anything else. I’m so confused on how to go about my college life. One of my teachers who is also helping me with my schedule basically told me that writing is a waste of time and that I should go for something “real”.
Ahhhh, now this is a question I can answer (sort of). As someone who graduated with an English degree this last May I feel I have some insights to share! Observe above, my degree that just came in the mail!
First and foremost, I hate your teacher who said that writing is a “waste of time”. I cannot tell you how happy it’s made my employers that I know how to write, and what a rare commodity that is these days. That person is an idiot.
However, if your professor had said, “You need to have a backup plan because writing is very, very rarely a profession by which you can support yourself”, then I would have agreed with him/her. Royalty rates for writers who publish traditionally are tiny. To put things in perspective: You could be on the bestseller list because you sold 30,000 copies of your book (because the market is so saturated)—if you’re even making 10% of that (which is a good deal for a new writer), you just made, wow, $3000! Even successful authors don’t make very much money, and becoming a successful author is really hard (I once saw this post about the probability of getting your book published based on the average number of query letters that agents receive vs. how many writers they then represent vs. how many of those get picked up by publishers, and the probability was tiny… if anyone knows what post I’m talking about, let me know!).
I don’t know if you want to potentially work in publishing, but being an English Major doesn’t totally prepare you for that, either. I did a post on that a while ago that might be helpful.
The other thing to consider is that being an English major doesn’t necessarily even mean that you’ll be learning how to write! I can only speak for UNC-Chapel Hill, where I went, but the only thing about being an English Major that made me a better writer is that I had maybe a slightly higher volume of essays to write than other (liberal arts) majors. But history and anthro and poli sci and religion majors write a ton too! What made me a good writer was minoring in creative writing.
But! I hope I haven’t scared you off yet. Don’t stress out. Unless you study something really specialized, or go to graduate school, you’re probably going to end up having some jobs after college that have nothing to do with your major. Especially if you study liberal arts. I studied English and I’m currently doing marketing for a financial company. Go figure!
Something I wish that someone had told me when I was in school was that it’s not what you major in, it’s what you know how to do. When companies are looking at your resume, they’re not thinking, “What did he/she major in?” (…again, this probably applies more to liberal arts). They’re thinking, “What skills does she have?”
So here’s my advice to you (and my advice to everyone, on everything): Go with your gut! You declare that English Major, girl! But make sure that while you’re in school, you’re learning other marketable skills. I also majored in German, so it’s always good to know another language, and I was the creative director of our campus magazine so I learned InDesign and Photoshop. But I wish I had done more!! I wish I’d learned more web development and marketing skills, because that’s all where it’s at.
Also! Here’s what some followers had to say:
I got bullied out of my “impractical” writing ambitions by a “realistic” guidance counselor. I majored in my backup plan, because it allegedly paid well, and then got trapped living that backup plan without ever getting to even try to follow my dreams. I cry myself to sleep nearly every night because I hate every minute of my job. I would literally rather scoop dog poop for a living, or flip burgers, or do factory work. Take the risk, write, don’t get trapped in a soul sucking cubicle.
To speak on the English major question, I would add this: Many popular authors weren’t English majors. Writing is a skill/talent that can grow and develop from a broad array of influences. And also note that some English curriculums will sharpen your analysis skills yet do nothing for your creativity. So major in whatever you want; you are not bound to English. Write on the side, find a creative writing group, or maybe consider minoring in English. I falsely assumed that English was the best.
Unfortunately I got trapped in accounting, and I work between 80 and 90 hours a week. By the time I get off work at night, I’m too exhausted to do anything but sleep, and I tried getting up an hour earlier to write before work for a while, but cutting my sleep back to 3 hours a night made psycho from the sleep deprivation. I don’t do much of anything in my free time, except sometimes on Sunday night I get all depressive and go into the accounting tag and try to warn others.
In response to the question of whether or not to be an English major, let me tell you: I’ve faced that stupid guidance counselor, too; the one who is bitter that she was never encouraged to follow her own dreams. I am currently working at the Writing Center at my university and I get paid to talk about writing. If you’re passionate about writing, follow it; you will definitely find some job with an English degree! And if you’re considering being a teacher, try getting a job at a Writing Center!
I’m currently an English major and we do A LOT of literature analysis and very little formal composition. So if you like reading and you like arguing about the 7 different things a word could mean and how it links a text to culture/politics/etc., it’s definitely the way to go. And I do think it makes you a better writer, because in learning how to decode the devices and structures, you learn how that texts can be put together. You also learn all the diff. ways a text can be read.
Re: the to be/not to be an English major: Remember that, oftentimes, graduate school programs do not require any specific liberal arts major in order for you to be considered as a candidate! If you’re interested in staying in academia, but you want to appease the ‘rents/ensure you have a backup plan (jobs are scarce in the university system as well), it’s very possible to major in something practical, but take enough credits in other areas to qualify for a PhD program.
I’m a plain old English degree holder, myself. I wish something like this blog existed for me when I was in school. I honestly think we start kids off too early to choose their careers. It’s too much pressure for an 18-22 year old. Either way, I knew that I loved reading, I knew I loved writing, and I knew that I loved editing. Still, it took me six years post-college to figure this next part out, but that love of editing I had spilled over into video editing. It was something I did for fun for my friends in bands. I never even realized that it was a real job. It never occurred to me that there are people in this world who make money cutting movies, TV shows, commercials, etc. together.
A part of me feels dumb because of that, but the fact of the matter is that I needed all of those years to figure this stuff out. More than anything, I feel as though we need to encourage kids to take some time after high school to get themselves out in the so-called “real world,” let it bite them in the ass a few times, and that’s how they’ll figure themselves out.
I didn’t know who I was as a person until I was 25-26 years old. I didn’t muster up the courage to change my life until I was 27, so while I feel late in the game at times, I also know that I never would have gotten here (back in school, learning how do something I’m GENUINELY interested in doing for the rest of my life) if it weren’t for all of the crap I’ve gone through over the past six years.
And who knows? Maybe this is just my journey. Maybe it’s not right for everyone, because we all know there are those special kids in the world who seem to have it all figured out (but trust me, they don’t), and most people seem to survive the way things are done now, but I still can’t help but feel like there is too much pressure put upon kids to pick a career right after high school. Even more than that, there is far too much pressure put upon kids to pick a career that “pays well.”
On being an English major: I got very lucky in that I knew what I wanted to do when I left high school and I had incredibly supportive parents who told me to go for what I loved rather than what “paid well.” What you need to know is, ultimately, you’ll be most productive and best enjoy something that you love. Look into what options you have as an English major; you’ll find that having a plan will make things easier to decide.
Afraid I don’t have much good news. I graduated from the University of Georgia in Dec 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts in English Lit. I was working part time at Toys R Us but it suddenly closed. I applied to every single editing job and magazine job I could find but didn’t get diddly squat. Moved to Ocala, FL & am currently writing novels and working at a copy center. Wish I had something inspirational to say but it’s hard to find work in w/o knowing ppl in the business. Keep your heads up, kids.
If any followers have anything to add to this post, tell us in an ask!
This post will be indexed on our Advice page, under the category “The Writer’s Life”.
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