There is an old cliche that what you do with a bachelor’s degree in English is think deep thoughts about the symbolic importance of the burgers you’re flipping for minimum wage. Like most cliches, this one is best avoided. What can you can do with an English degree may not be the right question. It’s more: What can’t you do? The skills gained studying English at the college level are applicable — and valued — in a wide variety of professional settings.
“Having almost any degree tells an employer something about you,” says Dr. John Miller, professor and faculty advisor for the undergraduate English programs for teachers at National University. “It certifies that you’re able to learn, that you’re able to get things done on schedule. The actual knowledge you need for a specific career you would have to learn on the job anyway.”
The Personal Is the Professional
According to Miller, one of the most common reasons for enrolling in an English program is pretty basic. “It’s fun,” says Miller. “We study things people would read for pleasure without being in class.” For many students, pursuing an English degree is a way of getting a marketable diploma and skills while doing something they already enjoy.
Brian Mosher, for whom a bachelor’s and master’s in English led to teaching community college and working in textbook publishing, agrees with the wisdom of pursuing a degree that can turn enjoyment into employment. “I love it, I do it for fun. So I thought, How can I make my fun into a way to make money?”
It turns out there are lots of ways, it’s only a matter of conveying your value and your skills to potential employers. An English BA on your resume tells a hiring manager about not just your experience but your qualities: intellectual curiosity, analytical ability, originality, imagination, and the courage and skill to defend an argument.
Three Pillars of the BA in English: Empathy, Ideas, and Communication
Any Bachelor of Arts degree is useful in the job market, but there are certain skills and ways of thinking that are especially sharpened by a BA in English. An exercise any student in an English program does over and over is read a complex text, understand its characters and themes, propose original ideas about the story’s meaning, and write an ironclad defense of those ideas.
Miller believes that “Literature tends to complicate things and get away from stereotypes. It teaches you to approach someone else’s perspective with an open mind.” Studying a story closely lets you temporarily experience the world through the eyes of someone else.
Mosher sees the same benefit. “You get experiences you can draw on that aren’t personal,” he says. “What I read can become a life lesson for me that I can benefit from. The gift of the English degree is to expose students to a vast variety of literary types and genres and also media: plays, comic books, digital narratives. All these forms of narrative come together as a story sharing experience.”
Mosher also describes an English degree program as an incubator for ideas. “You can learn how to have ideas, and English teaches you that. Your idea is welcomed for its uniqueness,” he says. “Sharing ideas is the whole point of an English education. The reason we teach writing is to help people get their ideas from their brain onto paper and into other people’s brains.”
To complete a bachelor’s in English, students must demonstrate an ability to communicate precisely and persuasively. As Miller puts it, “What you study in a program like this is what makes powerful language powerful. That is crucial in any field.”
Armed with these modern skills, a diploma in English can lead you down almost any career path. There are the paths traditionally linked to English — writing and teaching — plus a world of other professions that need empathetic, original, and articulate team members.
The BA in English is a Gateway to the Written World
Writing is a profession logically tethered to a BA in English and it encompasses a wide range of possibilities.
Writers and editors who are just starting out sometimes miss opportunities by restricting their job search to publishing companies. Publishers do employ writers and editors, but private companies, public agencies, and nonprofit organizations employ them too. Organizations need copywriters to create content for websites, reports, white papers, press releases, brochures, internal and external communications, and, of course, advertisements. Copywriter roles often benefit from a strong grounding in marketing and knowledge of website building.
Copywriters often work as ghostwriters — not receiving their own byline — and ghostwriters also work for individuals who have something to say but don’t have the skills to write it well. The same goes for speech writing. These roles can be rewarding because they allow the writer to help create the “voice” of someone with influence and authority.
Another way to use writing to influence causes is grant writing. It often requires a grounding in budget analysis, but a grant proposal’s narrative is what makes or breaks it.
Technical writing requires precision and logic. If giving people crystal clear instruction is your strength, you can make a good living creating instruction manuals and other product support materials. Learning layout software such as Adobe FrameMaker and InDesign are good ways to give yourself a competitive advantage. This field is projected grow in response to the ever-expanding tech product world.
If a writing graduate avoids the “$10 per article” posts that inevitably clutter job sites, the overall financial outlook for writers isn’t bleak. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual income in the U.S. for a writer is $61, 820. Also, about two-thirds of professional writers enjoy the freedom of self-employment.
People who get bachelor’s degrees in English also pursue dreams of writing fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, plays, screenplays, and other creative works, either as a career or as a passion in addition to a main career. “I think most people who are interested in doing that aren’t doing it to make money,” says Miller. “They’re doing it because they want to do it.” A bachelor’s degree in English is a strong foundation for pursuing a creative passion, and many writers go on to a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program. National University provides both the bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in creative writing and the MFA.
Where there is a writer there’s usually an editor, and a bachelor’s in English generally produces good editors. Jobs range in complexity and can be found throughout the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. Editing work falls into tiered categories and pay rates usually correspond. Proofreaders check spelling, punctuation, grammar, and usage. Copy editors also do this but they have more freedom to tweak text for readability. Line editors take copy editing a step further, and substantive editors oversee the whole piece, rearranging and rewriting as needed. An editorial director oversees the whole publication, commissioning and tracking projects and making decisions about what and when content is published.
English graduates are equally well prepared for the world of journalism, though students who know they have that interest might also consider a journalism degree. A double major or a major-minor combination in English and journalism would be exceptionally strong. Journalism has moved light years beyond the movie-screen image of reporters with pen to pad, frantically shouting questions in a crowd. Today journalism is among the most digital of careers and the digital journalism program at National University is designed to prepare students for the evolving field.
Light the Spark in Others
English graduates who love to share their passion may be called to teaching. Careers as high school and middle school English teachers often start with a BA in English and have additional requirements, such as state certification programs. For elementary school teaching, your Bachelor of Arts can be in any subject, but an English BA is a particularly solid footing. The study of literature instills the empathy and critical thinking needed for teachers to reach their true potential.
“From middle school to high school my experiences with English teachers was so wholly positive that I thought, I could do this too,” recalls Mosher. “I knew I’d love to make a career out of analyzing literature, reading interesting stories, and helping people understand what they mean to their own lives.”
National University offers two BA in English online options for middle and secondary English teaching in California. One of these includes extra coursework that allows graduates to waive the state certification exam.
Teaching English at a college level usually means continuing on to a master’s in English. A PhD is often either required or advisable. Many college teaching positions will require candidates to have published works as well.
For those who love both teaching and travel, there are opportunities for teaching English abroad. Additional certification may be needed, but a BA in English is a powerful starting point and immersion in another culture is a powerful reward.
Teaching English as a second language locally is another way English graduates can touch lives. Other options include GED preparation and literacy instruction, as well as programs in state and federal prisons that teach literacy, writing, and literature to help incarcerated people redirect their lives. Teaching positions in these settings may be paid or volunteer. Such programs offer paid coordinator and director positions, and a BA in English is a perfect fit for these.
The Beauty of Branching: Careers Laterally Related to a Bachelor’s Degree in English
Statistics reported by the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that graduates with bachelor’s degrees in English scatter widely across the job market. More sales managers under age 35 hold English degrees than do writers, editors, or teachers.
With sharpened skills of empathy, English graduates excel in sales positions, where understanding clients is crucial.
Marketing positions are also seeing an influx of English graduates. People are most persuaded by stories, and English graduates are trained to recognize good stories and tell them compellingly.
The learned skill of empathy is also vital to social services, counseling, medical, and veterinary positions at all levels because they require a practiced ability to see situations through others’ eyes and to offer support.
As the ultimate experts in controlling narrative, English graduates find work in public policy, where they apply their ability to see the personal stories affected by government decisions. English degree skills can be put to work for the common good in many government settings, from municipal to the federal level. Lobbyists also wield the power of the word to influence policy, and candidates for elected office win votes by telling stories that resonate in the hearts of voters.
Hiring managers in tech are also selecting candidates with English diplomas. According to Monster, software development companies increasingly value the imagination of English graduates, and they pay good money for it. An article by Fast Company echoes the value of the English degree in the tech setting.
A bachelor’s degree in English may also be a stepping stone to graduate study. Unsurprisingly, library science applicants frequently hold bachelor’s degrees in English, as do many students entering medical, nursing, and dental school. English graduates are also among the best scorers on the LSAT and law is a pursuit closely linked with the study of literature. Both fields require an ability to spot the elements of a story that other people would miss, and to use these details to build compelling arguments.
“Law schools really like English majors because they know how to write and they know how to argue,” says Miller. “A lot of what English students are doing in class day after day is confronting a new text and having to make sense of it. It’s not like science, where there’s a formula. It requires creativity and the ability to confront something different. That’s the kind of training law schools look for.”
Get Ready for the Robots: Using Your BA in English to AI-Proof Your Career
One can scarcely open a web browser without being told the robots are coming for your job. The situation may not be quite so dire yet, but rapid developments in automation and artificial intelligence are reshaping the job marketplace. Does a bachelor’s degree in English do anything to AI-proof your future?
According to Stephanie Lenox, who has used her English BA and MFA in a range of jobs spanning teaching, publishing, literacy program coordination, and museum promotion, English graduates need to evolve along with technology. “It’s not just reading big dusty anthologies, you have to be aware of the technology. English students have to be forward-looking and prepared to work with technology and be able to use it rather than be run over by it.”
Digital Trends reports that while careers including journalism do have surprising vulnerabilities, with computers already writing content, the key is in finding ways to make technology work for you rather than in place of you. Journalists can think of AI as a virtual personal assistant who does research and finds target audiences, freeing the human writer to pursue more and better stories.
Copy editors too may feel unsettled as new software programs and apps promise to check our spelling, flag our passive voices, and un-dangle our modifiers. But Lenox doesn’t think the human copy editor is in danger of extinction. “There are all these programs that can do the nitty-gritty tasks of copy editing, but they do it to free up the copy editor to make the more nuanced decisions that require a human brain to weigh context and consider the audience.” For that matter, Lenox adds, “Computers can’t write very interesting poems, either.”
Nor can a computer brainstorm the next must-have product, inspire students, influence social change, win votes, or put a hand on your shoulder when you go in for a radiology scan. The currency of English degrees – ideas and empathy – are qualities only humans possess, and these are what will build our future economy. And in just about every workplace, empathy and an ability to maintain effective interpersonal relationships are always in demand and can be key to professional success.
A Flexible Program for a Flexible Degree
A bachelor’s degree in English offers incredible career flexibility, and National University’s BA in English online offers flexibility in getting that degree. National University’s accelerated one-month course structure ensures that if you need to drop a class for some reason, you’re set back only a month, not a quarter or semester. Without sacrificing academic rigor, the program offers quicker degree completion, and because instruction is online, it allows students to set their own hours.
“Basically we’re designed for people for whom the traditional college format is not going to work for whatever reason,” explains Miller, emphasizing that student engagement is a crucial factor. “Unlike with onsite instruction, everyone has to participate. There are no students who sit in the back of the room.”
The online format also brings together students from all over the United States, as well as international students. Students often track through the program together, getting to know one another and making worldwide connections. And what better setting to study the community-building nature of stories than a global one?