Top 3 Myths About the English Major

Man at computer holding a book while at work

The skills you develop as an English major aren’t just relevant to your career success; they’re vital to social justice and civil discourse.

Studying literature expands your capacity to empathize with perspectives and experiences vastly different from your own. You also learn to interrogate truth claims, critique constructively, disagree respectfully, and make evidence-based arguments. In an increasingly divisive, polarized political era, these skills are more vital and important than ever. 

Here we clear up some common misconceptions about the English major. 

Myth One: You won’t make any money if you major in English

Fact: While your starting salary may be lower, by mid-career you are likely to earn as much or more than STEM graduates.

You might think computer science and STEM graduates have more job opportunities and make more money than English majors. But according to David Deming, director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, “this is true for the first job, but the long-term story is more complicated.” By age 40, liberal arts majors catch up and make just as much or more than STEM majors. 

How do they catch up? First, the “soft skills” English majors learn, like problem-solving, critical thinking, and adaptability, don’t become obsolete, like many high-tech skills do. Also, mid-career salaries are highest in management, business, and law—occupations more often held by liberal arts majors than STEM degree holders. According to data gathered by PayScale, English majors earn lucrative salaries as communications directors ($83,100), proposal managers ($83,000), and content marketing managers ($72,400). A 2019 study by BurningGlass technologies found that English majors have less chance of being underemployed in their first jobs and five years later than business, biology, or psychology majors.

Myth Two: There are no jobs for English majors, unless you want to be a teacher.

Fact: English majors are prepared for a wide range of careers, and their skills are both in demand and highly transferable across professions. 

What do Slack founder Stewart Butterfield, Alibaba CEO Jack Ma, Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison, breakout comedian Benito Skinner, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, and actress Emma Watson all have in common? You guessed it: they all majored in English!

Davidson English majors land jobs in a wide range of fields, including consulting, marketing, nonprofits, law and criminal justice, and healthcare and medicine.

The English major prepares you for a wide variety of careers because the skills you learn are transferable to many different occupations. According to PayScale’s job transferability rankings, any degree that scores 1.82 or higher on its index has a wide range of career options. Humanities degrees are the third most transferable, scoring a 5.57. 

Stepping back to look at the big picture provides more good news for English majors. Jobs that require social and communication skills have seen greatest growth in employment in the last few decades, according to a 2017 study: “Nearly all job growth since 1980 has been in occupations that are relatively social-skill intensive, while jobs that require high levels of analytical and mathematical reasoning, but low levels of social interaction, jobs that are comparatively easy to automate, have fared comparatively poorly.” 

If you think studying English is fun but impractical, imagine that you are on a medical school admissions committee: which applicant would you prefer: A graduate with a BA in Biology who has excelled in all the requisite science classes? Or a graduate with a BA in English who has excelled in all the requisite science classes?

Which applicant is more likely to have all the competencies—including empathy, interpersonal skills, and ability to interpret stories—to be an effective doctor?

If you choose the graduate with a BA in English who has excelled in all the requisite science classes, then you’re not alone. A recent national survey produced similar results, showing that an English major is even more attractive to employers when paired with other credentials. The survey asked:

Imagine you are a hiring manager for a top employer. Which candidate would you hire among the following recent graduates?

  1. A graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English
  2. A graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English and an industry-recognized designation in cybersecurity
  3. A graduate with a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity

Respondents overwhelmingly picked the BA in English with the tech credentials. The English major is one of the most flexible at Davidson, making it easy to double major or combine with a minor in Digital Studies, Computer Science, Pre-Med, or a foreign language. The English Department also offers a minor, which you can pair with any other major to develop interdisciplinary competencies.

Myth Three: You don’t learn practical, real-world skills in English classes.

Fact: The skills you develop in English classes—critical thinking, analytical reasoning, clear writing, empathy, and inclusive thinking—are valued in the workplace and vital to social justice and civil discourse.

According to a 2018 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the three attributes of college graduates that employers considered most important are:

  1. written communication
  2. problem-solving
  3. ability to work in a team

Other “soft skills” like initiative, interpersonal communication, and leadership also ranked in the top ten. An English major at Davidson builds these skills through discussion-based classes, close reading and analysis, research and writing, and group projects and presentations. 

In fact, an English major develops skills needed for many top careers just as well as an Engineering or IT degree, according to a 2019 study by the labor-market-analytics company EMSI. Careers in sales, marketing, management, business and financial analysis are among most popular careers for college graduates today, regardless of their degree. And the skills used most day-to-day in these professions are the very ones you develop in an English major: “tactical communication, strategic communication, interpersonal oversight, and operational oversight.” 

If an English major provides practical skills for jobs today, it is even better preparation for future careers. In today’s tech-dominated, data-driven economy, experts are recognizing the importance of creativity, imagination, and the human ability to interpret patterns and compose compelling narratives about what they mean. In their book The Second Machine Age (2014), MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee predict that AI and digital technologies will automate many professions, but the competencies computers don’t have—like communicating, empathizing, generating creative ideas, and acting upon them—will become more valuable in the workplace. A 2016 McKinsey Global Institute report confirms that liberal arts skills are the least likely to be automated.

The Center for Career Development provides services, programs and opportunities that allow Davidson College students to explore how their academic and personal interests relate to future professional opportunities. 


Additional Resource

The 9 Most Common Misconceptions About English Majors (And Why They’re Not Always True).” Dear English Major. Accessed 3 Aug. 2019.

Bibliography

Busteed, Brandon. “Long Live the English Major—If It’s Paired With An Industry-Recognized Credential.” Forbes (21 Nov. 2019) (about:blank). Accessed 22 Nov. 2019.

Chen, Te-Ping, and Hanna Sender. “What’s a Liberal Arts Degree Worth?” Wall Street Journal, 10 May 2019.

Deming, David. “In the Salary Race, Engineers Sprint but English Majors Endure.” The New York Times (20 Sept. 2019). Accessed 8 Oct. 2019.

Molinsky, Andy. “How To Turn Your Liberal Arts Major Into A Powerhouse Corporate Career.” Forbes (19 June 2019). (about:blank). Accessed 3 Aug. 2019.

Moran, Gwen. “Humanities Degrees Can Secure High-Paying Jobs.” Fortune (10 Dec. 2019),  Accessed 12 Dec. 2019.

Picchi, Aimee. “English Majors, Rejoice: Employers Want You More than Biz Majors.” CBS New (26 Oct. 2018). (about:blank). Accessed 3 Aug. 2019.

Selingo, Jeffrey J. “Six Myths About Choosing a College Major.” The New York Times, 3 Nov. 2017.  (about:blank).

Spratt, Danielle, and Bridget Draxler. “Pride and Presentism: On the Necessity of the Public Humanities for Literary Historians.” MLA Profession (Spring 2019).  Accessed 3 Aug. 2019.

Wadhwa, Vivek. “Why Liberal Arts and the Humanities Are as Important as Engineering.” The Washington Post (12 June 2018).

Published

  • April 15, 2020