What Do You Do With an English Degree?


When I went to college, I knew exactly what I wanted to be: aerospace engineer. I had three scholarships with the engineering school and was looking forward to designing jet fighters and space shuttles, and possibly also flying my creations and becoming a Jedi. Unfortunately, I quickly found I didn’t enjoy the company of the students or professors in the engineering school and bounced over to *drum roll* criminology. However, I didn’t really think that through, so I soon after found myself moving to English literature, the only subject I really enjoyed and was very good at.

And then I had to figure out what to do with an English degree.

Of course I had a plan. Sort of.

Plan A: Stay in school

I could have gotten my master’s degree, and my PhD, and become a professor of English literature and spent the rest of my life in college, around college-aged people, playing college politics, and trying not to go crazy. But as much as I truly enjoy teaching, the thought of being in college forever made me deathly ill. So I proceeded to…

Plan B: Get rich quick

My back-up plan was simple – write the Great American Novel and make a bajillion dollars, thus retiring at age 23 with more money than God. This was a solid plan, however roughly no one ever succeeds at it. And I had bills to pay. So that left…

Plan C: Get a real job

No problem, there must be jobs for English majors, right? I’ll just become an editorial assistant at one of the many large, prosperous publishing firms… oh. Right, well, uhm, executive assistant is a good job too.

Luckily, I translated my success as an assistant into an editorial role and spent many years publishing books, articles, and journals for some very interesting people.

Unfortunately, that job trained me for a fairly specific role, and not many companies publish their own books, so I then had to reinvent myself as a technical writer with expertise in computer science and health care. More or less. (Note: computer science and health care are super easy to master after a few hours on wikipedia.)

Plan D: Get more jobs

I learned from my first job transition that any position for a person with my background is going to be pretty narrow, and probably won’t help me smoothly transition to other positions in the future. So instead of waiting for my next job to get a little more experience, I started taking other jobs now.

There are tons of freelance opportunities for writers and editors, and if you can’t figure out how to Google “freelance writer jobs” then you have bigger problems than general career planning. Here’s what I landed, mostly by accident and without really trying:

  • Editing clinical research proposal responses. Sound like a mouthful? It is, but the work was straightforward and I learned a lot about cancer studies. I think my cousin arranged that one for me.
  • Editing books for local authors. I have no memory of how this one came about, but the publisher started sending authors to me to review their memoirs and local histories. I met some great people and helped to produce several books that I’m very proud of.
  • Editing books for a university institute. A friend from high school put me in touch with these folks, and I’ve gotten to read about finance, politics, war, and social issues for some very clever experts.
  • Writing articles for, well, this site. My wife mentioned this site to me and I decided to submit an article on a whim, and the editor liked it, and this is now my 18th article.
  • Writing business books. My article editor connected me to my new book editor, and my articles led to my book, and you get the picture. (The book comes out later this spring!)

Anyway, the point is that a degree in English does not necessarily offer the same sort of clear-cut career paths that accountants and doctors can look forward to. (Reminder: your career could range from 30 to 189 years in length, depending upon the state of the economy and frequency of zombie attacks. Plan accordingly.) But that doesn’t mean you are doomed to the life of a barista.

For some of you, the idea of freelancing as a way of life seems very obvious, but for some of us, it’s an alien landscape. When I was young, all the adults I knew worked for companies, in offices or shops, so I had no concept of what a freelancing career might look like, or even that it was an option for me. And that ignorance was a significant barrier at first.

But now I know exactly what you can do with an English degree, and I think I have a much brighter future than most Jedi. (Have you seen Episode III? It does not end well!)


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Joseph Lewis is a writer and editor who has worked in the public and private sectors, including military, health care, and technology firms. Visit Joe's site

Discussion

  1. Robert Kent on the 24th March

    Great article, but I think many Computer Science graduates (such as myself) will resent the implication that our years in college can be mastered in a few hours on wikipedia!

    • Joseph Lewis on the 7th April

      I may have been exaggerating for comedic effect.

  2. Jason Klug on the 24th March

    I had a similar start to yours (Engineering –> Undecided –> English), and I ultimately ended up starting a web development shop a few years after graduation.

    While the English major didn’t directly open any doors for me, it’s been extremely relevant in the communication aspect of every job I’ve had. More people need to learn to write effectively… it can open doors when other qualifications might not stand out on their own.

  3. Mike Abasov on the 25th March

    Go to Chine and teach school kids. Good money, easy job, as I’ve been told.

  4. reluctantMANGO on the 25th March

    Great article – from one English major to another :)

  5. Andy Griffiths on the 27th March

    Inspiring. I am currently trying to convince my partner to get into freelance writing. We are having a baby in May and she wants something to keep her sane while she is off on maternity. I have set her up a blog and am encouraging her to give it a go. she has a degree in English and her copywriting skills are good, she just needs some confidence really. I am going to forward her this article. Thanks

    • Joseph Lewis on the 7th April

      Good luck to her! It is definitely awkward when you first venture into the freelancer / self-employed world, but it gets easier very quickly. You only need a few streams of steady work to fill up your time and make some money!

  6. Haksa Selman on the 28th March

    Computer Science field can be mastered in few hours spending on Wiki? Doh … probably you are still not aware what Computer Science means. Anyway, d other words in your article deserve good words 😉

  7. dukebag on the 28th March

    Wow, nice article. I guess your writing ability shows here. :)

    Really enjoyed it. Definitely applies to more than English majors, even if only slightly.

    As someone else stated, I too started with engineering, hated my life, and am now opting between a “less-scientific” computer science program and business. A book I’m reading proclaims the 1-job career as extinct, and besides, I think floating around is more enjoyable anyhow. God I would not stand myself grinding into medical school and knowing what the rest of my life would consist of.

  8. Abdel-Rahman Hammoud on the 6th March

    I don’t know how you’ve convinced your parents to major in English literature. I am currently in the process. You see, english literature is my passion and through it I see myself as a professor in college as well as an author but some how my parents are still against it. Unfortunately, where I live, a parent’s word must be obeyed and if you stand in opposition, you WILL feel their wrath. Anyway, best of luck in the future.

  9. Cancerbaby80dk on the 7th March

    Totally inspired. I am at the starting line for the English degree. Never pursued college because I honesly had know idea what really interested me. Now after years of personal journaling, reading, research, and editing for others in the workplace, I know what I love. Construction Secretary is not it!
    Your article has just confirmed why my pursuit for the English degree is well worth it! Thanks!

  10. m on the 4th June

    These sound like jobs, not careers. It’s kind of sad that all the blood, sweat and tears I put into my English degree would get me the amazing, exclusive career as…a business assistant? Are you kidding? You don’t NEED an English degree for that. Or any degree. Same with any freelance job. As long as you’re good at what you do, they don’t give a crap if you have a masters in medieval English history. If this article was supposed to be inspiring, I think I just was pretty much scared out of finishing my degree. Unless you’re a teacher (a lot of people have the same idea as you, and trust me, there will always be someone better than you), you don’t really NEED it…I mean, I always see those online ads for freelance writers on every website I go to…..hardly seems like they’d be looking for a highly educated applicant. So there aren’t any careers REQUIRING an English degree?

    • Sam on the 5th July

      I feel your pain, I was thinking the same thing.

      I was an English Literature major mostly because I enjoyed the reading aspects of my classes….I’m not even much of a writer. So now that I’m graduated I feel quite lost. Worse of all in my job search it seems like most jobs care more about experience and could care less about a degree. Sadly for me I’ve worked at a bakery my whole time through college and now it seems more promising for me to pursue a career in baking then anything even remotely related to my degree. I feel like there is such a push in America to go to college without any knowledge of what you will do when you get out. We all mindlessly follow what is expected of us. My biggest regret is that I was not one of those people who always knew what they wanted to be when they “grew up” and followed that dream. Instead I am one of the millions of people from my generation who was told they could be anything too many times and now has no direction to go in.

      Thank you for this article though. Freelancing gives me something to think about that I have not yet considered.

    • Anonymous on the 10th August

      I’ve also just graduated with my B.A. in professional writing and yeah…this article was very discouraging. I’ve searched thousands of jobs over the years; thousands. I have yet to find a SINGLE one that required an English degree. NOT ONE?! Is English not a real degree then? It would appear not. This shit shouldn’t even be available for people who don’t want to teach, because other than that profession (the thought of which horrifies me), it would appear that there is NO solid career for professional writing that is entree-level or doesn’t require extensive experience in…well, something completely different. I always assumed that if I put in the work and went to college I’d find a career. I never knew what I wanted to be and I thought English was broad enough to help me pinpoint my passion somewhere in writing; it hasn’t and things are beginning to look grim. My friends who never went to college are so far ahead of me it’s laughable, and what am I doing? Teaching and re-evaluating every life decision I’ve ever made.

  11. eleanor etchu on the 31st October

    Yeah, I’m in college trying to achieve an english degree but I have memory problems so it makes it hard. Also I think I am losing my desire to live. Hahaha. I am thinking about suicide. What do you guys think. It’s just, I am too retarded to be alive. So yeah. I believe I am just going to end it all.

  12. Lille on the 31st October

    Funny article. I’m in college pursuing a degree in English to become a teacher.

  13. Morgan on the 9th March

    Interesting that an English major would end a sentence with a prepositional phrase.:(

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