Why English Majors Should Pursue Business Careers

As a full-time English major who freelance writes for businesses, I often forget that I am an anomaly. Businesses everywhere are looking for writers and clear communicators; I’m surprised, however, that all my classmates have no idea how desperately they’re needed.

Last week, I was sitting in my creative writing class, killing time before the professor showed, and I overheard a conversation between a few students. They were discussing the frightening realization that college will soon be over, and that their academic security blankets will soon be ripped away, like a determined mother fed up with a binky, et cetera, et cetera.

They talked of the real world:

“What will you do?”

“I have no idea.”

“What will you do?”

“I don’t even know where to begin.”

“What will you do?”

“Me?” I paused, searching. “I’ll be looking in marketing, probably Seattle, San Francisco. Pull from my copy editing, blogging, freelance work. I’d love to find something in digital media, though I would settle for pure technical writing. Ideal, for me,” I continued, in the zone now, “a project manager or business development position within a small to mid-range company.”

I stopped because I sensed the whole room was now listening.

“Wow,” some girl said. “Aren’t you an English major?”

This is a problem.

Private academia can often coddle its college students. English majors, especially, are trapped in this bubble: canons, anthologies, theses. We read the world’s greatest literature spanning from Beowulf to Blood Meridian; we explicate and extrapolate; we read between the lines and find messages that the average reader misses; we communicate clearly, or edit and elucidate incoherent documents into well examined ideas with organization and structure.

English majors have no idea how well their skills translate into business.

I’m an English major and a business major, so I have love for both studies. That said, if I had to pick between hiring two different candidates—all things considered—I would choose the English major. Hands down. Every time.

Let’s make some sweeping statements. 

Here’s what I’ve observed about business majors:

  • Business majors are taught industry through economic theory.
  • They are given beginner tasks, like accounting, which is lost if not used daily.
  • They are groomed to be managers because they know how to do calculus.
  • They are encouraged to network and get internships. They usually get hired.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about English majors:

  • English majors are taught how to clearly communicate through writing, a hard skill that transfers to every industry and organization on the planet.
  • They read an ungodly amount of fiction. According to cognitive psychologists, heavy readers are more likely to understand the motivations behind human behavior.
  • They are taught that any opinion is valid as long as it can be justified through reason.
  • They are not encouraged to pursue diverse careers. They usually don’t get hired.

English majors have only themselves to blame.

But maybe, just maybe, colleges could introduce them to more diverse career-paths. Opportunities other than grad school, or the next great American novel, or Pulitzer prize winning journalism, or paradigm-flipping literary criticism, which, really, all comes down to grad school.

In my English program (which I love), it is considered criminal to pursue anything other than canon-worthy work. Mention how English majors can succeed in business, or marketing, or entrepreneurship, and collective noses scrunch like a compacted soda can.

In that classroom that I mentioned above, after my statement, students started asking me how I “broke into business,” as if it was some big secret. So many questions, I almost locked the door and gave a lecture. Instead, I just told them that they needed to put themselves out there.

“Start a blog. Freelance write. Get business cards. Go to networking events. Apply to big jobs.”

Heads tilted like I was speaking a different language, like they had never heard any of this before.

Choose your own (prearranged) adventure.

This is what drives me crazy about higher education. We choose paths, and like a conveyor belt, we stay on those paths until we exit through prearranged doors. English majors funnel into grad school while businesses clamor for communicators, sales persons and leaders.

Here’s my call to action.

Business leaders: hire an English major.

English majors: put yourselves out there.

I know it can be scary. It is intimidating to apply for jobs written for MBA grads. Just remember: someone had to write that job description, and it probably wasn’t a MBA grad.

So break out of the funnel, dear English student, and choose your own adventure. You may not have the classroom experience or the right industry jargon, but none of that matters anyway. All you need is a little confidence. Your English-major brain is a powerful tool, one that can prevent major catastrophes and build enduring legacy.

Remember: organizations fall apart because of poor communication, and product launches often fail because of poor research and uncaught mistakes. Trust me, the business world needs you.

You’ll have plenty of time, later in life, when you’re a CEO, to read that Franzen novel.

Header photo [Andrekerygma]

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