Do What You Love: Common Myths About English Degrees

(Fair warning: There is some, er… okay, lots of swearing in this post.)

Today I woke up, checked Twitter, and found that my feed was filled with angry readers, writers, employers, and current and former English majors responding to a certain famous author’s suggestion that English degrees are worthless. And I got mad too, because what she said is downright insulting and ignorant.

A young writer asked Diana Gabaldon, author of the beloved Outlander series, what she would suggest to incoming college students who want a degree to open up job options and supplement their creative writing until they could become professional writers. The student said they were leaning towards an English degree because, naturally, they love reading.

Gabaldon’s response was that “English degree = Want fries with that?”

*Sigh*

I respect Diana Gabaldon, don’t get me wrong. She’s a great writer (from what I’ve heard, that is — I haven’t read Outlander, but obviously it’s very successful and my book club friends rave about her all the time).

Still, I’m gonna have to call bullshit on this one.

Now I don’t expect Gabaldon to read my blog. I’m a complete stranger to her — worse, a stranger on the Internet. But this post isn’t for her. This post is for people like the student who asked her this question, students who want to be full-time writers but also want to get a college education in case it takes them a long time to establish a writing career. Students who want a “backup plan,” so to speak, and who know that they will likely need a degree to get a full-time job that they would genuinely like to do.

I was in that position once. From what I gathered of Gabaldon’s life through her Tweets, she never was. According to Wikipedia, she has a degree in Zoology, so she never faced the struggle that English majors (and other majors in the Humanities) often face. And following that first Tweet of hers, she Tweeted back to another fan who said that their English degree helped them get a copyediting job. Her response: Wonderful, sweety, but she got a copyediting job early on in her career without an English degree. Good for her. She gets a Cookie of Condescension for being so, well… condescending.

But guess what? The first Outlander book was published in 1991. That is over twenty-five years ago. Which means Gabaldon hasn’t had to look for a new job since at least the ’90s, if not earlier.

The job market has changed drastically since then. Most employers require their applicants to have college degrees now. The job hunting process is completely different from what it was over two and a half decades ago.

In January of this year, I finished graduate school and busied myself hunting for a full-time job. And if you want to be a copyeditor, then you should know: 99.99% of the copyeditor job offers that I encountered in my search required at least a Bachelor’s degree, preferably in English or Communications. Yes, even jobs that only included copyediting advertisements or obituaries, and not full-length novels or short stories.

I received a Bachelor’s in both English and Creative Writing, with a minor in Classics, in the spring of 2015. Those three subjects are considered “worthless” by many, including some people in my own family. Common things I heard throughout my education were:

  1. You’re going to end up flipping burgers.
  2. What can you do with an English degree? Nothing, really.
  3. Good luck with that “writing” thing. (*insert know-it-all chuckle here*)
  4. You should have majored in something useful. You could be an [engineer/doctor/nurse/etc.], you’d actually make money.
  5. Nobody even reads anymore. You’re a dying breed.
  6. English programs are so easy. What are you gonna do with that, write little poems about flowers and expect to make millions? I’d like to see these English majors go to med school like me. It’s hard work and actually saves lives and contributes to society, and I’ll be living in style. (Yes, I actually know someone who said this, as if fiction doesn’t save lives too.)

I heard basically the same things throughout my graduate school experience as well, studying Information & Library Science. (Except for that last one — although, yes, there is a misconception that being a librarian is “easy,” just like writing a novel is “easy.” Yeah. Okay. Try it, ya fuckers.)

And I’m here to tell you: All of those “arguments” are fucking lies.

For one thing, we live in an age of literacy. We’re constantly reading — reading on our phones, on our Kindles and Nooks, on our computers. Reading actual books. There are still libraries and book clubs, and writers and readers alike are valuable to our society. And now, with the rise of fake news, it’s important for people to have reading and comprehension skills (skills which an English degree will build — see below).

And the truth is, people from all walks of life may end up flipping burgers. The job market sucks. I know engineers and lawyers who are struggling to find jobs in their fields. Hell, I have a Master’s degree in LIS, but I’m not employed as a librarian right now because libraries (at least near me) aren’t hiring either (and in fact are facing a severe budget cut in NYS; NYS residents, you can petition against this here). Maybe you will end up flipping burgers for a little while, but it’s not because you have an English degree; it’s because the economy is a shitshow right now and you’ve got bills to pay, because the generation before us fed us all these lies about how you “need” to go to college to survive at all, because “everyone’s doing it and competition blahblahblah” — which is fairly true because lots of jobs require degrees, but not all of them, and now we’re all drowning in student debt.

*Takes a deep breath*

ANYWAY.

I got lucky. I have an English degree, and I have a job in the English field as a full-time copyeditor. My job comes with healthcare benefits. It was a hard job to find, and still I don’t even edit fiction, just obituaries, so it’s not really my ideal copyediting job.

I’m not going to lie to you and promise that you’ll get a job, especially your dream job, right out of college. Because I don’t know what the field will look like four years from now. Shit, with Trump as president, I don’t know how ANY field will look four hours from now. Any second now he could be like, “Doctors are fake news!” because he and the GOP want people to stop believing that they need health care, and suddenly everyone will stop going to get checkups or life-saving surgeries and doctors will be put out of business and everyone will die and then there will be no employers or employees left and the human race will go extinct and the world will explode.

*Takes another deep breath*

My point is, everyone is struggling these days. So you might as well do what you love.

DO NOT choose a field just because it will “make you money.” DO NOT reject what would make you happy just because your family or friends or even authors you look up to say it is “useless.”

Study what interests you. Study what you love. Then do what you can to find a job that makes you happy and provides you with a decent income while you write in your downtime.

With an English degree, you can become a teacher or a professor. You can be a copyeditor, like me. You can go into journalism. You can be a freelance writer. You can become a comedian, or a playwright, or a screenwriter. You can become a civil service worker. You can work for law firms or businesses, or even go on to law school, and so much more. You can start a literary magazine, or join the team of one that is already well-established. Shit, you could be a Supreme Court Justice (I learned that from a Snapple cap two days ago, no lie.)

Because an English program doesn’t just teach you “how to read books.” It teaches you:

  1. How to think critically, analyze, and assess situations in order to form opinions
  2. Empathy
  3. Public speaking
  4. Comprehension skills
  5. Communication skills
  6. Rhetoric
  7. Writing skills

And the great thing? Many employers know this. They know the value of an English degree, despite the common myths about such programs being a “waste of time.”

So if you want to go to college and you’re leaning towards an English/Literature or Creative Writing program, please don’t be discouraged because of the things you hear non-English majors say about it. Listen to people who have actually gone through the program, figure out what they’re doing with their lives, talk to the professors about your options.

“But Lee Ann,” I hear you saying, “they’re biased! They’ll sell the English program to me because they want my money, those greedy bastards!”

Not biased: experienced. They’ve gone through the schooling and they’ve reaped the rewards of the field. Most, if not all of them, will hit you with a healthy dose of reality balanced with a little optimism.

Yes, you may encounter some graduates who are stuck working retail and/or fast food to pay student loans back. And I’m sure you’ll hear that there are plenty of alumni who feel underpaid. Heck, we all know that even professors have to work multiple jobs to support themselves. You probably won’t be makin’ the big bucks. But you’ll encounter people like that in every field because, like I said, our economy is fucked. I firmly believe you will find that the majority do not regret doing what they love, and that they feel that an English degree expanded their job options significantly.

Not everyone is meant to be a doctor. Not everyone wants to be a lawyer. Do not choose a subject you have zero interest in and condemn yourself to a miserable undergrad experience just because there are people *outside of the field!!!!* telling you that the field is a failing waste of time. Their opinions ain’t shit, because they don’t know shit and should stick to their own lanes! That’s like Donald Trump saying The New York Times and Washington Post are “failing” even though he has zero insight into their subscription rates and doesn’t know a thing about how newspapers work. LIES!!!

That being said, I feel that it’s fair for you to know that last year, Penguin dropped its degree requirements for applicants. So sure, there are some opportunities in the field for those without degrees. But that’s ONE publishing company, and they’re pretty frickin’ popular. So you can bet your butt there’s a ton of competition for those positions. Like I said, I was just job hunting back in January and most of the job postings listed a BA/BS requirement.

Additionally, I know that the end goal is to be a writer, to publish a book or multiple books. Remember that whatever “day job” you choose, it isn’t what you (hopefully) will be doing for the rest of your life. Ideally someday you’ll be able to support yourself as a full-time writer. Maybe you don’t need a college education to do this. Maybe you’d be perfectly content working retail full-time, or carrying two jobs until you publish that book. That’s okay too. College isn’t for everyone.

Still, if you are going to get a college degree, that doesn’t mean you should study something that you hate. No, study something you love almost as much as Creative Writing, if not equally.

And if your college offers it, just study Creative Writing straight up alongside English! Because you’ll learn things through a Creative Writing program that you won’t learn from an English program. Creative Writing will teach you to view a story through a writer’s eye; English will show you the reader’s perspective. This will be valuable come time for you to sit down and write your novel/short story/poem. When you get to the editing step, you’ll be able to pick out themes, to analyze what would and wouldn’t work for readers, etc. (But still have someone else read it before you declare it “DONE” and send it out to agents/publishers!)

But I digress.

If you want to be a writer and you want to go to college, if you have the means to afford a college education, if you want to study English and/or Creative Writing: do it. It’s a worthwhile experience. I promise. If you want to pad that English degree with a second major like I did, if there is room in your schedule to add a major without weighing you down with any extra semesters (and thus driving up your debt), if there is another subject you love that will not make you stressed and anxious for the next four years: do that too (yes, even if that second major is Creative Writing or Fine Arts or something else considered “~*stupid and frivolous*~” — it doesn’t have to be Accounting or Biology or anything you genuinely don’t understand and/or have absolutely no interest in). Getting any degree, if you have the money for it, can’t hurt; it can only open up your job options.

Just be true to yourself.

Do what you love.

And fuck the naysayers!

As always, feel free to leave comments below, especially if you have experience in an English undergraduate program.

Read on, write on!

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2 thoughts on “Do What You Love: Common Myths About English Degrees

  1. Love this very thorough defense of English majors. I definitely rolled my eyes when I saw Gabaldon’s tweet this morning. I majored in English and people were so rude about it. One man even asked me if I planned to teach or planned to get married once I graduated (very Laura Ingalls Wilder). Since, I’ve worked for minimum wage, I’ve worked for free (unpaid internships!), and I’ve worked for a higher pay rate then I could have imagined. Now, I’m professor and creative writing teacher. I don’t think my degree held me back at all, and study what I loved helped me figure out what I *wanted* to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading, and for the input! There’s such a huge misunderstanding that people with English degrees never have fulfilling careers. Plus what Gabaldon said was pretty insulting to people in the fast food industry.

      Like

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