Every degree I’ve ever pursued inspired people (family, friends, random guy in a bar, etc.) to interrogate me with a line of questioning that went along the lines of , “What are you gonna do with that?” And of course this started with my undergraduate English major in college.
I love reading and talking about what I’m reading, so an English degree seemed like an all-brainer. I was also quite good at math and physical science, but those interests were not encouraged – and on a couple of impressive occasions, actively discouraged. I was freshly free of that hell-place (WHY did no one tell me about the GED?!), what others called “the best years of your life*,” and gorged myself on classes focused on my favorite things – reading and writing. 2.5 years later, I rounded out my general requirements at the community college then matriculated to university, where I declared my English major.
Immediately, it started: “What job are you gonna get with an English degree?” My joy in learning and participating in expansive, collaborative conversations was drenched in fear-mongering. Sure that I needed to justify my success, I would tell these interrogators that I was going to become an English professor. What I didn’t know (in the days before the Internet), and so couldn’t rejoin with, was that lots of famously and not so famously successful (by whatever means you want to measure it) people in many, many fields have English degrees: a Nobel laureate in medicine, CEOs, my friend Parker Palmer, tons of actors and musicians, journalists, politicians, and our beloved authors and teachers. Turns out, I can get just about any job I want with an English degree. Here’s an abbreviated list since graduating with my first liberal arts English degree:
- retail salesperson
- library clerk
- website designer
- pre-school teacher
- computer science researcher
- office administrator
- information specialist
- professor (not in the English department)
- associate dean
- agricultural worker
- corporate Learning & Development manager
An now – thirty years after graduating with honors – the interrogators are now wanting to know how to back-fill for skills that I gained with my English degree: critical thinking, holding multiple opposing views, effective writing, searching for and listening to diverse experiences, and the ability to pivot when circumstances change. Turns out that rather than really expensive job training, my education best prepared me for a career that can embrace VUCA and the 21st Century. Five times more students graduated with business degrees than with English degrees in the final decade of the 20th Century; what did they do with their degrees? And now a MBA is almost looked down upon in many organizations.
I did not achieve my goal of becoming an English professor, and I’m grateful for that. I’m also grateful to my past me who held on to her joy and did what it took to keep the fear-mongering distractors at bay while she followed her deep calling. I chose to ignore manufactured fears and follow my fear that was telling me that this path was very important and I needed to attend it carefully.
Ultimately, my English degree has proven to be recession proof and epicly resilient.
(the autocorrect says I have misspellings, but I’m ignoring it because I’m the one with TWO English degrees and I say it’s fine)
*BTW – NEVER say that to an adolescent. Ever.