03 March 2016

What English Majors Don't Know

A short list of things that we can convey to our students.

1. It doesn't have to be like this.  Students who graduate without skills they can market to employers may have made bad choices, but majoring in English wasn't one of them.


 2. Few people end up working in a profession directly related to their major.

 3. Even fewer people end up doing the same thing for their entire lives. The statistic of "seven careers in a lifetime" may be mythical, but one doesn't have to search far for anecdata that people change, circumstances and values change, the relevance of particular jobs changes: it's highly unlikely that any industry-specific technical competencies that one gains in college will serve all of one's needs over a lifetime.

4.  Employers care about skills, not majors.  Majoring in English (or other "impractical" disciplines) will make you smarter in a number of ways: able to cope with complex information, comfortable with uncertainty, adept at encouraging inclusivity and diversity, talented at communicating in a variety of ways, skilled at hearing what is not said as well as what is said, experienced in framing problems and seeking out information to solve them, and, yes, good at writing.

6.  Many employers don't know that English majors (and their ilk) have the skills they're looking for. It's on us to get that message out and to help our students learn to make the case for themselves to employers.

5. Few employers care if you're good at going to school.  Granted: maintaining a high GPA is key to landing entry-level jobs at some large companies, and students who have their sights set on law school or other elite graduate study should focus on keeping their grades as high as they possibly can. Outside those specialized circumstances, students may be better served by a mediocre GPA that represents a willingness to take risks, struggle with difficult material, or explore the other kinds of intellectual opportunities that a college campus has to offer.

6. College is a great time to flounder. Students who graduate without a clear professional career path may flounder for a few years before landing in a stable and satisfying job. Students who chose narrow "practical" majors leading directly to a career may flounder once they realize that their eighteen-year-old selves lacked the knowledge to anticipate what their twenty-something selves would value. The more purposeful floundering students can do amidst the extensive resources of a college campus, the better: internships, a wide range of classes, volunteer programs, part-time jobs, student organizations, activism of various kinds, leadership roles.

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