The English Major as a Strategic Career Move

Posted February 21, 2013

There comes a time in every young English major’s life when someone, somewhere, at some time cracks, “You want fries with that?” Classist implications of the “joke” aside, it also happens to be a fallacy. Graduates with a bachelor’s in English have plenty more skills and available opportunities than the stereotypes imply. Even in a society where the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields receive all the funding, attention, and federal support, the bibliophiles out there still offer plenty of valuable perks to their employers.

Despite this STEM-focused environment, 28% percent of humanities liberal arts bachelor’s degrees conferred are in English language and literature. In 2009, this meant a total of about 925,073 graduates. Along with their fellow humanities and liberal arts majors, 80% enjoy full-time jobs. The unemployed only make up 7% of the English major demographics, which remains in congruence with the national average across disciplines. Forty-one percent move up to graduate programs, which increased their salaries by 48% over their counterparts with bachelor’s degrees. Seeing as how the average annual salary for English majors with full-time employment is $48,000, that uptick isn’t too shabby at all. Even without a master’s or a Ph.D., the literary-minded pull in far more money than society tends to say they do.

More than Just Teaching and Writing

Education and writing careers may seem like the obvious paths for English majors — but that shouldn’t leave the ones gunning for something else entirely feeling locked out.

“Our majors really can do most anything that they are interested in,” Katherine Teasdale, University of Michigan Department of English Language and Literature Undergraduate Administrator, says. As one of the top programs in the subject, its alumni move on to “entry level jobs at magazines, television, radio, social media, research institutions, academia, sales and promotions, marketing. It’s also a great preparation for professional careers [law, medicine].” From there, to some even more impressive opportunities, as their stellar post-graduation profiles reveal.

“According to [our] March 2012 survey of 2,200 employers, ‘oral & written communications’ was the second most popular search term employers used when reviewing resumes for positions designed for recent college grads; 45% of employers search for this term, which gives English majors an advantage,” notes Jennifer Grasz, Vice President of Corporate Communications at CareerBuilder.com. And it is this knack for conveying ideas that lead employers from a staggering amount of industries to find them such appealing recruits.

The Social Media Draw

Literary types might have their pick of far more careers than most people tend to assume, but their knack for clearly conveying ideas and thinking creatively make social media a significantly possible fit.

“English majors are definitely appealing when it comes to hiring for a social media position because it’s so important for a social marketer to tell a story really well,” explains Kristina Allen, a social media specialist at Green Dot Advertising. “That being said, in all aspects of online marketing — including social marketing — it’s really important to be data-driven and analytical. You have to understand how to tell a story that not only resonates with the audience but that also drives leads, sales, and increased branding.”

But she does issue a fair warning for those considering the field without any training beyond what they pick up in the classroom. “It’s unlikely that I would hire an English major for a social media management position if he or she didn’t have a background in data-driven marketing. However, I would encourage English majors interested in moving into the social media field to gain internship, volunteer, or entry-level experience in the field.”

Michelle Beckham-Corbin, the President & Chief Digital Marketing Strategist of C3: Creating Connections Consulting and a veteran of sales and marketing at Procter & Gamble, also understands the appeal.

“The explosion in digital communication today requires great content in the form of blog posts, Facebook Page Updates, Tweets or any other social media platform written expression. Marketers develop great content and engagement strategies, but the written word has to be effective at sparking that connection,” she says. “This is the sweet spot for English majors who have excellent command of language, nuance, tone and audience.”

Like Allen, she believes that many “do not have enough of a business background” to fully thrive as social media specialists. However, Beckham-Corbin adds, “While some companies might be in search of strict copywriters, I think the vast majority would find that some social media marketing experience and a healthy amount of social media networking savvy combined with a degree in English would be the preferred candidate profile.”

What Schools Do … And Should Do

What makes University of Michigan such a well-respected institution for English majors is the intense level of care it puts into ensuring post-graduation employment. “We promote many fields beyond the traditional ones (teaching, editing, publishing),” Teasdale says. At the school’s career center, they explicitly pitch many different expected and unexpected employment options. Counselors work directly with students to “help to identify the skills that our liberal arts students develop and how important they are, and how they translate into our current job market.” This increases their opportunities to better hone any additional skills prior to entering the work force, which, in turn, increases their employment opportunities.

Along with this personalized assistance meant to guide English majors towards success in myriad fields, Michigan’s “Undergraduate English Association also offers a Career Panel every year where they have people from many career fields, including, medicine, business, public relations, politics, and social media.” Promoting the degree’s flexibility remains a core priority when it comes to showcasing all the available options, alongside the usual aims.

“To think critically about a text teaches skills of close reading and analysis, which translates to the real world by having the ability to read and translate meaning to the ‘real world,’” Teasdale adds. Written and verbal discussions central to an English degree directly feed into the communication skills so demanded by employers.

University of California at Berkeley, another top-ranked English program, also stands out as one with phenomenal outreach. Like Michigan, alumni succeed in multiple industries because the support structure exposes them to multiple industries. Its recently-launched Chernin Mentorship Program brings together faculty, undergraduates, and graduates in a regular forum. Discussions range from in-depth literary critiques to writer’s forums to exchanges over harnessing an English degree in different fields; considering Berkeley’s status, the resources available through Chernin are exceptionally intelligent and leave students well-prepared for whatever career challenges they face.

Run by the students themselves, the English Undergraduate Association functions as another outlet supporting varied career choices. Its programming options include a literary magazine (The Folio), staged performances, and celebrations of alumni in the arts and sciences alike. Participants plan events, talk books, and exchange resources to assist one another’s professional and personal interests before and after graduation.

Becoming Well-Rounded Outside the Classroom

When colleges and universities can’t nurture more specific career skills, it’s up to the student to take charge and create their own opportunities. This might mean filling up their elective slots with business courses or internships.

“I would suggest taking a course or two in general marketing or advertising and digital marketing to give them a broader range of knowledge and a competitive edge when searching for a business writing position,” advises Beckham-Corbin.

Allen praises internships especially, “I would encourage English majors interested in moving into the social media field to gain internship, volunteer or entry-level experience in the field.” Students should not shy away from applying to these positions because they think their literary leanings will prove detrimental.

“Our applications at Green Dot Advertising are still mostly from people with degrees in marketing, business, public relations, and communication,” she adds. “I would like to see more English majors applying for our internship positions because I feel if an English major can learn to perform and love data analysis they would be a great fit for social marketing roles.”

When searching for open intern slots, take risks and see which businesses embrace the communications and English majors. It may very well prove exactly what the student needs to wind up in their chosen industry.

It takes some savvy, some creativity, and some luck, but they can certainly build themselves up outside the aforementioned channels. “In terms of real world skills, look for those opportunities that will help you showcase your writing expertise,” Grasz advises. “Outside of formal internships, contribute to blogs or write one yourself. Offer to write an internal newsletter for a company or provide communications support through volunteering. Seeing your writing abilities outside of the classroom is a big selling point to employers.”

These strategies not only cultivate the business and marketing acumen they need in the corporate world, but illustrate the very innovative initiatives potential employers love to see.

Despite the jokes, the snark, and the misunderstandings surrounding English degrees, graduates in the field open up plenty of viable career opportunities. Social media and other marketing-oriented departments find their communication skills superb. Pursuing paths beyond the standard writing and teaching require a little extra oomph, but hiring bodies pay much closer attention to the students who display it. Whether this additional training comes courtesy of the schools themselves, some bootstrap-pulling, or a blend of the two depends on the situation. But for English majors yearning for a shot at the business world, their goals are by no means as invalid as those nasty little rumors imply.

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