What Can an English Major Do?

Writing setup

Idealised workspace by mugfaker

Unlike many of my English major peers, I had no aspirations of writing professionally. Looking back, I think I chose English as my major because I really admired one of my high school English teachers, and I wanted to be her when I grew up. She encouraged this vision, and I spent four years in pursuit of the learning qualifications I needed to complete not to write, but to teach English.

After finishing my BA, receiving my credential, and making the hard decision to walk away from the world of k-12 Education, I wondered what I was going to do, and how my education and experiences were going to make sense. I read books about careers for English majors (because really, what other way is there to learn things?) and came close to applying for a Masters in Library and Information Sciences program that would allow me to really invest in words and books, research, and emerging knowledge trends. Time volunteering in a local library and examining the prospects of libraries and librarians in the next couple of decades sobered me, and I returned to square one – wondering and wandering around various part time jobs, trying to figure out the narrative of my own story.

The best part-time position in my months of random part-time work was writing for a weekly community newspaper. For all of my expository essays and blog posts, I’ve never considered myself “a writer”. The title doesn’t seem to fit well on me, even after years of hearing people tell me how much they’ve enjoyed reading what I’ve written, after hearing that I have a gift. Writing for the community paper gave me a little bit of pride about y community and my own ability to contribute to advocating for positive ways that people are working here. It gave me new eyes for a place I’d condemned long ago, and it gave me the opportunity to step out and explore a new genre.

Even with these experiences, I questioned my 2007 decision to pursue a BA in English. How was English going to open up any career opportunities? What could one do as a writer that could cover the cost of my bills? I knew from hearing stories that freelance writing is a difficult and competitive place to be, and I didn’t feel like I had what it took to fight that battle. Journalism isn’t a good long-term option, and there’s no way that I, at this stage in life, could be a textbook writer (another career pathway that sounds interesting when combined with my background in Education).

I applied for other positions that emphasized my teaching background more, eventually landing the position I’ve now held for just over 4 months. I was surprised, and more than a little delighted, to realize that even here, I can use my ability to write. So far, I’ve assisted in writing one major federal grant, written a minor grant sponsored by a major healthcare entity, and been asked to write a third grant in the next month to submit to a different federal agency. I’m teaching and  writing, in a unique position I did not even know existed. I found a place where my English major is an asset, and where I can make enough to pay the bills. I’ve stopped questioning my decision to get my BA in English, and I’m slowly learning that each of my past experiences and challenges have grown my abilities to be able to do what’s asked of me today. 

Many of my friends are still looking for a job or career that makes use of their education and experience. I hear the questions in our conversations, “Did I make the right decision studying ___________? Are things going to work out so that I can _____________? If I knew then what I know now, would I still have__________?” These questions, and the reflection process are valuable. They’re also painful. They’re the type of questions that you don’t want to have to ask, because they all reference back to an emotional low that none of us enjoy. What I tell them, looking back, is that I needed those times. I needed time to question myself and to look outside of the box of what I thought I could do, because when I let go of what I thought I wanted to do, I found the freedom to do something that fits me so much better.

I try to encourage my friends who are walking through this season and to remember that I was there not too long ago. The years after college appear to be a rough adjustment to that silly thing everyone calls “The Real World.” I don’t have all the answers. All I have is the story of my own experience. But I hope that my story encourages someone, and gives a few wandering souls reason to hope that they’ll find answers to their questions, no matter what they studied in college.