What Can You Do With An English Major?

Taking Risks, Having Patience, and Paying your Dues: Happiness and Success with the English Degree

Taking Risks, Having Patience, and Paying Your Dues:
Happiness and Success with the English Degree

“What can I do with an English degree?” When parents, graduating students, and prospective students ask me this question, I answer, “A lot of things.” But it’s not always easy to identify possible career paths. Students with degrees in Accounting apply for accounting jobs, but there are no advertisements for doing “English.”  English majors have to make their own path.

Many of the graduating seniors I have worked with come into my office in the spring, certain they will die penniless and unloved in their parents’ basement. Few do, fortunately. Most end up living good lives, and it is because they have been willing to take risks and pay their dues.

They often end up in places they would never have imagined:

  1. Within a year of graduating, Meg moved back to Tulsa, where she got on with the United Way—she always wanted to make a difference in her community. She was willing to do anything, including dress as a mascot for Tulsa Drillers, the AA franchise (which she did). Within a short period of time, she became Director of United Way of Tulsa. She has since gone back to school to work on her PhD in a field not related to English or literature.
  2. Jill and Eric went to St. Louis, where they both began working for a firm that publishes journals and textbooks for fields in the health sciences. Eric always wanted to write sports, and he eventually got a blog with Sporting News.  Just this year, Jill earned a new position as grant writer for Mizzou in Columbia. Although Jill had once studied pre-med, neither she nor Eric had a background in medicine.
  3. Brian tried to work as a freelance writer while he pursued his MA in Writing at MSU. Finishing his degree, he took a job as a tech writer with Jack Henry (in the Springfield area). In his spare time, he is still writing fiction.
  4. Elizabeth and Jason moved back to Tulsa and kicked around at a couple of different jobs before Elizabeth landed a position as project coordinator for an architectural firm and Jason designed websites for the City of Tulsa. Elizabeth had no background in architecture. Later, Jason took a job in Seattle as a video game designer, and a couple of years later, they both found jobs in London.
  5. Amy was about to give up finding meaningful work. She worked for AmeriTrade as a secretary, then for a travel agency, and when she lost that job, she packed up and went to D.C., where in her first month, she found a job as a technical writer for a defense contractor.  Within two years, she was making more money than she ever dreamed she would, and she moved to Chicago, where she got an even higher paying technical writing job.
  6. Kayla decided at the last minute not to go on to grad school. Instead, she went to Taiwan to teach English. She has been there two years. Last we heard from her, she had made many friends, was learning Mandarin, was buzzing around the island on a scooter, and was going to return to the US to study law.

  7. Natalie lived and worked as a teacher in France for a year. She returned to Springfield for a short time, and has plans to move to Japan to continue teaching.
  8. Lily worked in the JET program, teaching English in Japan. When she returned (several years ago), she took a job in Kansas City with Jackson Country Social Services, visiting with low-income families to teach young mothers about nutrition and child development. They hired Lily to write grants, among other things.
  9. In the last two years, Brett, Marie, and Matt went to Law School. They all scored extremely high on the LSAT, and Matt has reported that he is glad he studied English, because he has a significant edge as a writer over his peers. Other students have pursued degrees in Library Science, Speech Pathology, Business, Religion or Theology, Counseling, Writing, Education, and of course English.
  10. Tracy returned to her family in California, got interested in health, and opened her own successful business as a provider of alternative forms of medicine.
  11. Rebecca went to Chicago to pursue her first love—acting and play-writing—and found a job as a secretary with an organization committed to developing urban green space.

What do these stories tell us about what English majors can do with their degrees?

    1. You Have Skills that the World Needs and Values
      • Meg (of United Way), Jason (video game designer), Elizabeth (architecture project coordinator), and Lily (Jackson County Social Services) all recognized that they had skills that transferred to other fields. As a student of English, you have learned how to do things that set you apart from many other students. Above all, you write well—concisely, clearly, correctly, and even elegantly. All of these students got their jobs because they could write. Once they got their foot in the door, they employed their skills to earn higher wages and more responsibility.

They illustrate one of the lessons we learned when we surveyed 30 years of our graduates several years ago. Several respondents expressed the idea of this alum: “My English degree didn’t help me get my first job, but it helped me climb higher in the company, because I could write, I could think, and I could read carefully.”

    1. Pay Your Dues and Be Patient
        Amy had nearly given up on finding meaningful work after spending two frustrating years at AmeriTrade and the travel agency. After getting her first job as a writer in DC, she looked back at those two years as an “apprenticeship.” She had paid her dues, and discovered that many other people with BA’s had to do the same.


    1. Take a Chance
        Go abroad! Live in Asia! Learn another language! Or go to New York or LA (and wait tables if you have to)! What’s the worst that can happen? For Kayla and Aaron and many others, a year or two abroad is not only a great way to come to know yourself and have exceptional experiences, but it can also help you discover what you want to do for the next phase of your life. One of our respondents said, “I felt old when I was 22. Then I went out and lived for a while—a difficult thing for a Type A personality like me—and discovered that the career could wait. So I moved to Spain for a couple of years. I’ve been working in the States for more than 15 years now, and I am surprised every day at how valuable those experiences have been, personally and professionally.”


  1. Do Everything as if it Matters
      Another respondent told us that she had been working as a waitress in New York, waiting for her big break. One day, a frequent customer of hers offered her a job at his investment company. She was startled. He said, “If you’re willing to work this hard as a waitress, I’ll bet you will work even harder when the stakes are higher.” She spelled out the life lesson: “No matter what you’re doing, do it like it’s the only thing that matters, because you never know who’s watching.” The world needs people with energy, people skills, and dedication to the task at hand. Eventually, someone will notice.

The Next Step:

Find out what you like to do.
Find out what you are good at.
Find someone who will pay you for it.

First, Drury's Career Planning and Development has a wide array of useful resources. Visit them in their office in Bay Hall or their website at www.drury.edu/career.  

The book, What Color is Your Parachute? remains a vital source of identifying possible careers. These brief remarks do not do it justice.  Consider this:

What are your commitments?
As a freshman, Mark was really into healthy eating and exercise. He knew nearly everything more about men’s health. “Start reading Men’s Health,” I suggested. “And then start sending them articles.” Samantha wanted to write but she also wanted to live the slow life, “Read Barbara Kingsolver. Start writing about your own organic garden and life in the woods,” I suggested. She’s happily married, gardening, and writing somewhere in the hills of the Ozarks.

Marie decided she wanted to go to law school only after interning for the YMCA. She said it made her realize that she wants to work for a non-profit to improve the lives of children.

So what do you like to do? What is an integral part of who you are—by leisure or hobby, by temperament or by moral conviction? Start living it, learning it, and reading how the best writers write about it. Someday you may share a stage with that other writer.

What kind of a difference do you want to make in the world?
Washington D.C. has an NGO for nearly every imaginable cause in the world. Go there. Knock on their doors. Stick a foot in the door before they get a chance to close it shut. Tell them you care for nothing more than women’s education in Africa, or saving the oceans, or feeding the world, or making toys safer, or reducing carbon emissions, or  providing health care to rural areas of Missouri—whatever it is, you can act on your commitment and get paid to do it.

New York and LA have the most vibrant arts and culture industries in the world. Go there! Tell them you only want to write ads, write scripts, organize fashion shows, edit magazines. Don’t take no for an answer!

What can you do for us?
Eventually, they take the door off your foot and ask you what you can do for them. Every cover letter and resume you send out should include the skills and experiences you have developed as an English major. Here are some:

  • “I have a portfolio of writing varied in its forms, themes, and language. I can write analytically and creatively, for a wide array of audiences and for a wide variety of purposes.”
  • “English classes have taught me how to enter into conversations, agreeing and disagreeing productively, gracefully turning the conversation to new directions, looking for consensus and challenging conventional views with assertiveness. More than anything, discussions about literature and writing have taught me how to make room for all voices and viewpoints before making important decisions.”
  • “I have learned how to work on several projects at once and complete those projects on deadline.”
  • “I have read more widely than most college-educated students, in literature and in other fields, in European and in non-Western traditions.  I am beginning to understand how cultures are different, and how those differences shape the stories they tell.”
  • “I have a Global Studies minor, which has introduced me to challenges and controversies in social, scientific, and cultural arenas, and has prepared me to see problems and tasks in a larger framework.”

Potential employers who have studied English will understand and value these experiences and the skills you have developed from them. Those who have not studied English will be impressed and will give you a second look.

Do you want to talk some more? Call or write the English Department at Drury University, and we will help you get started. Contact Peter Meidlinger at 417-873-7469.