What to Expect When You’re Expecting an English Degree

It’s now a decent way into May, which means the college graduations are upon us. Perhaps you’re the one doing the graduating, in which case, you’re excited. You’re filled with relief, hope, and probably some existential dread, the latter of which is just about certain if you’re an English major, or a humanities major in general. Here are several things you should expect to encounter when you receive that long awaited diploma.

Everyone Starts Asking “The Question”

“So what are you going to do next?” It’s enough to make any recent grad take pause. For the past four or more years, everything in your life pointed towards this moment, and yet no one stops to savor it. In many cases, as the date approaches, the number of people already asking you what you’re going to do afterwards increases exponentially.

It’s really exciting when you have an answer, like a grad school acceptance or a job lined up, or maybe you’ve recently gotten engaged and can divert everyone’s attention to that instead of the fact that you and your beloved will be living under a bridge or in someone’s mom’s basement. But just as likely, you have no idea what’s next. You’re applying to jobs and hoping for the best.

The Job Market Sucks

The second thing that you’re going to encounter is the fact that finding that “good job” after college isn’t as easy as schools would like you to think. They can flaunt their career services office and job placement stats all they please, but when you were eighteen and first looking at those pie charts, the one thing you were likely to overlook was the underemployment statistics. But by now you’re smarter than that. You read articles just like this one, written by people like me, or else people who study people like me. You know the initial prognosis is grim. So we’ll just gloss past this one.

You Will Receive So Much Unsolicited Advice

No one seems to give you options, but everyone will have advice—and it always seems to be the same advice. As an English major, everyone expected me to teach. Never mind that there is an entirely separate major called EDUCATION for those who really do want to teach, and never mind that if I did suddenly change my mind and decide to teach, I’d need to hop right into grad school before I could even think about applying for a teaching position because I wasn’t an education major. Everybody and their cousin Fred told me I should teach. It got to the point where I thought I was in some episode of The Twilight Zone.

Oh, and please, please, try to refrain from reading those posts with titles like “Worst Majors to Find a Job” or “Top 10 Most Useless Degrees.” We’re always going to be on there. Don’t depress yourself.  Also, when you do cave in and read something titled “Five Most Obsolete College Majors,” don’t read the comments. If you do, you may very well find yourself immersed in a 2 a.m. comment war with some middle aged woman who goes by Iluvmybordercollie21.

A lot of people (I’m looking at you, New York Times comments section) have been known to say that schools’ only obligation is to educate you, and that you shouldn’t expecting them to provide you job training. In this regard, I have to imagine everyone who says this is either over the age of 50 or lives under a rock, because good luck trying to find a good job in a good field with no degree. College has become the new arena for job training, and they know that—why else would they offer career counseling, resume building courses, and consistently publish those job placement stats in their recruiting pamphlets?

You Have Options

People tend to think English majors have only three choices: journalism, academia, or teaching. That’s a ton of nonsense. Everyone wants English majors! The worlds of marketing and communications are more than hospitable places for the English major, and were more than happy to take me in as one of their own. There’s also publishing, proofreading, PR, technical writing for the scientific-minded, and even administrative assistant positions tend to ask for English majors. And many job descriptions just say “bachelors” or “relevant degree.” What’s relevant? Well, if you can sell yourself properly, you are.  

Even so, you’re going to have to be doing a lot of selling. It takes time. The job market is rough.

Which brings me to…  

There’s Going to Be So Much Retail

When I was still in school, retail was on my hard list of “things to avoid at all costs,” but when no one hired me right away, that tune changed really fast. Turns out all of my English major friends have done retail. Even a vast majority of my friends from other disciplines, from public policy to American history to art have done retail. Together we make up a coalition of book stores, craft stores, fro-yo, museum gift shops, grocery stores, and the good old Mart of the Wal. I’m talking people with 3.999 GPAs and internship experience (to clarify, that is not me. I just hang out with smarter people). Why? Several reasons. Here are a few, borrowed from my own circle of friends:

  1. Part time jobs are easier to get for new grads: It turns out many of us actually juggle a part time job in our field and a retail job to cover the rest of the expenses.
  2. You need to start paying back your student loans after six months, and you haven’t gotten a job in your field yet.
  3. You’ve worked your way up the fro-yo chain since high school, and you want management experience.
  4. You need cash while attending grad school.
  5. You have a full time job that barely covers the bills, but you really want some beer money.

Life is unpredictable. This is only a fraction of the reasons people end up where they do. And maybe you can get by without retail if you go on straight to grad school or are willing and able to move to NYC and/or physically take out all the competing applicants with a Norton Anthology*. Just, don’t rule it out.

It’s Gonna Be Awesome

Congratulations! A diploma is an excellent thing, and you kind of need one to succeed in this economy, unless you went into welding or something, but don’t you have to graduate welding school or an electricians program? It’s still post-secondary education. You should be proud of your degree. Shove it in people’s faces on Facebook like they do with their cat pictures. You earned it.

The thing is, despite all the doom and gloom, if you’re smart about it, take chances, and explore all your options, you’ll do fine. You’ll get a job or two, and though it may take you a few years to get where you thought you would be right off the bat, you’re going to get there. I have faith in you.

*If you do this, please post a video on YouTube. I want to live vicariously through you.

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