So, what do you do with an English degree?

One of my favorite professors once made an excellent point. No ivy league school offers a degree in business. Now, this is particularly relevant to my university because we have a fairly prestigious (and grossly popular) business school that attracts a lot of students, but what matters to everyone else is that the degrees ivy league schools do offer are quite often in the humanities. The humanities encompass everything from history to political science to art to literature. And the great thing? You can almost literally do anything with a humanities degree.

It’s my biggest pet peeve to announce to someone that I’m an English major (technically double major, as English literature and creative writing are separate degrees at my university, and I’m doing both) and have them immediately respond with: “Oh, so you’re going to teach.”

And when I politely tell them “never in a million years” they give be that terrible confused stare and ask “well then what are you going to do?”.

It’s true that a lot of the more thought of careers in English are not going to make you a lot of money. We all know that teachers are the most terribly paid of our sort, and people who work in publishing are just slightly ahead of them on the pay-ladder. But there’s so much more you can do with an English degree. We go on to work in business, to be writers in professional spheres, to lead nonprofits and become lawyers. And this isn’t because we get taught a lot of diverse material in our classes. It’s because we’re given some of the most useful skills that translate perfectly into the professional world, and they boil down to two basic concepts: critical thinking and communication.

Critical Thinking

In my literature classes, I spend much of my time thinking deeply about various texts – from fiction to poetry to nonfiction and beyond – from every aspect. I survey what’s on the surface down to the ideas and themes buried underneath. I connect pieces to other works I’ve read and draw conclusions between them.

I’m a problem solver and a creative thinker who can draw complex conclusions from complex material and think on a high level.


One of the most important skills anyone in the professional world can have is the ability to write in a clear and concise manner. You wouldn’t believe the amount of people who can’t write a simple email. In my creative writing classes I spend my time weaving stories, but in my literature classes I convey my ideas to an audience in a way that allows them to understand in a simple and effective way.

I’m a communicator who can convey ideas in both simple and complex manners, for a variety of audiences in a variety of contexts.

Of course, we gain a whole host of other experience by learning to think in new and different ways, and in a variety of contexts. These allow us to go into careers we’re more specifically trained to do – writing, editing, teaching – as well as those we have gained the skills to manage – law, politics, business, and a hundred other things.

So the next time someone gives you a condescending look for saying you are/want to be/are thinking about seeking a degree in English and asks what you think you’re going to do with it you can give them a smile and tell them: anything I want. do

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3 Responses

  1. Lava says:

    This is a great post, Lauren! I do agree that studying English opens up so many avenues. In countries where English is not the primary language, people study English and take up translation related jobs.

    One of the potential writing related jobs I’m looking into is science writing, which is quite tangential, but something to look at if one likes science.

  2. Ionut says:

    As Lava said before me, this post is very inspiring and helpful. It’s very good that there are people dissipating the myth that with an English degree all you can do is to teach. I also start college this year and I will study English and German language and literature. I was hope to get a job as an editor or something like that in the publishing industry even if nor English nor German are my native languages. I could also get into translation.

    However I have a little question. I’ve hear many people including you of course saying that you can get into business with such a degree and no matter how hard I’ve tried to think about what use could they be in business I couldn’t find anything.
    So my question is what kind of business could find useful an English degree and can you get into business only with the English degree or do you have to study something else as well?

  3. Twit says:

    People *always* ask me if I’m going to teach. Or be a journalist. I think I’d rather clean public toilets than teach.

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