Why get an English Degree?
Because, says Dean Rader, nothing is more useful and relevant
English Professor Dean Rader called it in 2013, and now mainstream media has caught on: English majors are positioned for as much career success as those who major in STEM. As an English alum and candidate in the MFA in Writing program (who also works in tech), I'm excited to see the changing conversation around liberal arts degrees.
I spoke with Professor Rader about this shift and how USF prepares our English majors for success. You don't just have to take his word for it either—a screenwriter, an alum who works at YouTube, and a marketing professor also chimed in.
Is it really true what the New York Times says? That "In the Salary Race, Engineers Sprint but English Majors Endure"?
Yes! That article reinforces what we already knew and more or less corroborates the op-ed that I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2013. But I was especially pleased to see data showing that liberal arts graduates often go on to graduate school, and in so doing, position themselves for upper-end jobs. It is what we have been telling students — and parents — all along, but it was encouraging to see America’s newspaper of record verify it.
In the industries of film and television, everything starts with the story idea and the script. So if you can write, you’re the headwater. A director must await a good script. An actor must await a good project. A writer alone is autonomous in his or her contribution, as he or she can sit and write and catalyze the entire process of development. And as we spend more time on screens, the demand (and funding) for content to occupy all that time only mounts.”
—MICHAEL RAY, SCREENWRITER & EDITOR, ZOETROPE: ALL-STORY
How have things changed in the six years since you published your op-ed?
At the time, arguing that the English major was a marketable — even desirable — degree seemed questionable. But, a series of articles since then have made similar assertions—some even more passionately than I did. For example, one story on PBS showed how and why humanities majors are getting jobs in Silicon Valley. A piece in Forbes suggested that the English major is “Tech’s hottest ticket.” And a 2017 article in The Harvard Business Review claimed the liberal arts majors are the future of the tech industry. Majoring in English or the humanities has always been edgy, but now doing so is, as all of these stories prove, actually quite smart.
How does the English program at USF prepare students to walk career paths that don’t even exist yet?
Good question. Vocational programs cannot prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist. That’s why our program at USF is not vocational per se. It teaches you how to read, write, think, interpret, persuade, create, and collaborate. It also exposes you to a plurality of texts: African American writing, Latino/Latina writing, Asian American writing, Native American writing, gay/lesbian/trans writing, as well as important literary works that interrogate America’s social, political, and economic history. Our students write their own poetry and prose as well as essays that look at literature through the lens of culture. Our students engage with writing from many angles. The workplace — like the world — is getting smaller yet increasingly diverse. At USF, our global focus and our attention to diversity and inclusion put us on the cutting edge. We are the future.
USF really challenged me in the best way. It developed my critical thinking, social justice/activism, and writing skills — which are massively helpful in the workplace. Having such amazing professors at USF and one-on-one access to their expertise allowed me to think bigger and feel confident learning from and engaging with really intelligent people! That is huge.”
—MICHELLE CANCELLIER ’13, STRATEGIC PARTNER MANAGER, YOUTUBE
What would you like to tell students who are considering an English degree?
Nothing is cooler. Nothing is more relevant. Nothing prepares you more broadly. The English major is the perfect trifecta of history, aesthetics, and politics. Throw in the pragmatic, and you have pretty much the ideal area of study.
Think about it: By reading the great novels, you learn about basic human psychology and human history. By reading great poems, you learn about language, nuance, and the many ways humans have learned to interact. By reading great essays, you learn about the interior lives of people and how we try to make communities work.
Majoring in English honed my empathy skills — after all, we English majors spend a lot of time in the minds of other characters. I felt that as a marketer, this helped me better understand consumers, and what leads them to behave in unexpected ways. Also, storytelling! Numbers on a slide are useless if you don't have a good story to accompany your data. The qualitative skills of an English major, combined with a willingness to engage with data, make for a potent combination in marketing.”
—BHAVYA MOHAN, MARKETING PROFESSOR, USF SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT
What do you want the families of English majors to know?
The English major is not like the accounting major. There will not be a well-paying job waiting for you in the field of “English.” English majors often have to start near the bottom of any organization and work their way up. They have to use their writing skills, their rhetorical abilities, and their creativity to get their first jobs. But English and liberal arts majors report greater job satisfaction after five years than many other fields. They also catch up to other majors in terms of salaries, often within as little as three years. The runway is long for English majors — they can go a lot of places and succeed in many areas. Increasingly, firms, companies, retailers, start-ups, and even universities rely on smart, articulate people to tell their stories. Who better to understand narrative, language, and audience than an English major?