What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?

My sister-in-law, who is a freshman in college, came to visit sunny Alabama for spring break. We talked about her college classes, her friends, joining the intramural bowling team, and finally came to the topic every relative of every college freshman trots out during family gatherings since, well, the dawn of higher education.

Her major.

Turns out, she likes her ancient history class and knows all the names of early Roman emperors. She fantasizes about traveling to the Mediterranean to dig up the bones of our pre-historic ancestors. I thought as hard as I could, accessing all my career super-powers, and acclaimed, “Have you thought about majoring in history or anthropology?”

She had, of course. Astonishing how many people know what they want without even a counselor’s super-powers. Then:

“But you can’t do anything with a history major.”

Ah, my friends, here, as Hamlet says, is the rub. What will the history major do after she’s graduated? Or, for that matter, the English, art, philosophy, music, Spanish, or theater major? It’s no secret only a select few write the next great American novel or land roles on Broadway, and these few not only made the best grades, gained huge amounts of related experience since age five, and created connections with all the right people. Plenty of liberal arts majors have done the same. The “professional” liberal artists of our generation also were born under some, even if it’s barely twinkling, lucky star. The hard truth is that, yes, almost all liberal arts majors do not “do” what they “went to school for.”

But not being able to do anything with a liberal arts degree? That’s just unimaginative. You’re a liberal arts major, right? Haven’t you learned to be creative? To find answers to problems in new ways?

What about those excellent writing skills you gained in Personal Essays 311? You learned to work as a team with every cast and crew member for the curtain go up on opening night, right? What about that verbal fluidity you loved cultivating in Ethics, ferreting out holes in classmates’ arguments? And hey, didn’t you perform well under pressure during your senior recital, even though you also took four classes and served at Mellow Mushroom this spring? These are called transferable skills , and, my dear liberal arts major, employers want them.

I’ll tell you another secret: these employers don’t care if you developed these skills as a business major, family studies major, or liberal arts major, but they need you to make that connection between your degree and your transferable skills for them. It’s up to you to explicitly flash the following in neon lights: “Developed Strong Leadership Capabilities Through Stage Managing Cast Of 50.” Otherwise, they’ll never know how jam-packed full of skills that theater degree really is.

Who are these employers? And how do you find them?  

Honestly, they’re everywhere. Now, these employers certainly do not hire liberal arts majors for positions that require specific degree paths (think nurses, engineers, architects, etc.), but every engineering firm and every hospital needs people to organize, schedule, promote their services, and basically keep their business running. Find a company or organization you like, and look at the position posting section on their website. I guarantee you’ll find positions for the liberal arts major, more than likely camouflaged in titles like “Coordinator,” “Outreach Assistant,” or “Social Media Editor.” Truly, liberal arts majors can be found anywhere, and do not just end up in education (tell that to the aunt who inevitably asks at holiday dinners, “What are you going to do with that- teach?!”), unless, of course, they want to be teaching. 

But there’s another glitch to gaining that position. Not only does the savvy liberal arts major market her transferable skills well, she plans ahead. She knows that it’s not enough to just have a degree, but that almost all employers are looking for related experience. If she’s going to be hired right after graduation, that means she has to gain experience while still in school. This means pursuing an internship, co-op, or volunteer opportunity within the industry in which you’re hoping to work.       

So, go on, major in your most-loved subject, and create a career plan. Be prepared that, more than likely, your career following graduation may not be exactly in that subject area. This may be frustrating. I argue that if you’re convinced you shouldn’t major in art because you won’t be able be able to use that degree, well, then you spend your entire college career and beyond not doing art. But if you major in art knowing you might not get to use all aspects of your art degree, you at least spend four years immersed in your passion, and then hopefully are in a better position to either engage in art in your spare time following graduation while earning a living, or find ways to incorporate your passion into your current position.

For example, an English major who works in a career center can volunteer to write a blog post on using a liberal arts degree. 

Shari Black
Graduate Assistant in the Career Center
pursuing PhD in Counseling Psychology
Bachelor of Arts in Theater and English

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