An English major is a classic offering of the liberal arts college. The course of study for an undergraduate degree in English traditionally features a combination of examining literary works and advancing writing skills. Throughout the coursework, you will study classic and modern literature as both standalone works and as products of the time period they were written in. You will also have the opportunity to read, discuss and develop writing in the genres of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and drama.
Areas of Study in the English Major
While the specific required courses will vary for each school, there are several standard courses that you can expect to take as an English major at a liberal arts college. Typically, you will begin with an introductory course in literature, which will delve into the ways to critically read and interpret a literary work. Many programs also require a study in literature from early time periods. In these courses, you will read and discuss the literary devices utilized in works from centuries past and examine them in their historical context. You will also study modern texts in the context of contemporary literary issues and circumstances to be well-informed to evaluate, critique and create new works. A final required component of undergraduate English majors is typically one or more courses in writing. Depending on the college, this may be accomplished through a writing seminar, targeted courses in a specific genre of writing, or embedded within a literature course.
As an English major, you will have the opportunity to take several elective courses in the English department. A common offering among colleges are classes on works or specific authors, such as Toni Morrison or Chaucer that offer you a semester’s worth of exploration and analysis of the breadth and depth of the full catalog of written work. Other elective courses offer you the opportunity to read, research and gain a new understanding for the works produced within different cultures and groups. Through these courses, you can learn more about the influences and literary works of Asian American, African American and LGBTQ writers and the effects of society and the time periods on the writings from individuals in these groups. Another typical elective offered is a study in other forms of literature as in film or poetry. These courses delve more deeply into analyzing the components and literary devices typically used in these forms of writing and visual representation.
In the process of completing your English degree, the department may have courses in other areas of study that you are required to complete, such as language or history classes. As part of a well-rounded liberal arts education, you will also need to take required courses from other departments and areas of study. You will be required to choose an approved elective course in the humanities, which can be accomplished through an additional English class or by enrolling in a history, philosophy or language course. Classes in the social sciences, creative arts, and sciences are also typically required to complete your liberal arts degree.
Types of Study Within the English Major
One of the primary forms of study within the English major is group study and discussion. You will take a very active role in the classroom, as very few classes in the English department will be conducted through lecture. Most courses require reading a text or watching a film and then participating in a conversation of literary criticism about the works. Throughout these courses, you will engage in analysis, reflection and interpretation of the literary works, developing and refining your critical thinking skills through the feedback of the instructor and your classmates.
As an English major you will also learn through writing. All classes within the English department will require presenting your theories and analyses about the coursework in a cohesive and comprehensive essay. You will hone your writing through reading the works of others and gathering and applying feedback from classmates and professors. Some electives will also allow you to study and create other genres of writing, including poetry and screenplays. Capstone or thesis projects will allow you to assess and critique your own writing over the course of your undergraduate degree and engage in more complex written projects in an area of interest.
In addition to traditional learning in the classroom, most schools offer opportunities to expand your knowledge in foreign locations or to apply your learning in a workplace prior to graduation. There are many study abroad options that will place you in the cultural and regional environments that inspired some of the greatest literary works in history. Internships in creative writing, editing or publishing will give you an opportunity to take a hands-on approach with the literary criticism and writing skills that you have learned in the classroom. These experiences also allow you to hone in on the career that you would like to pursue following graduation.
Postgraduate Educational and Employment Opportunities for English Majors
An undergraduate English degree from a liberal arts college is incredibly versatile in the job market. One of the most common avenues that graduates pursue is a writing career. While this includes standard creative writing, an English degree also prepares you to become a grant writer, technical writer, or copywriter. The current tech climate also offers career paths in online work. A newly acquired English degree can allow you to work as an assistant to a social media manager or contribute content to an established blog or website.
In addition to creating your own content, you can also choose a career path where you evaluate and disseminate other writers’ works. A position in an editing department of a media or publishing organization allows you to read, critique and offer suggestions to an author for edits and revisions. You can also work within the marketing and advertising department of a publishing company to encourage the sale and distribution of others’ works.
If you do not want to enter the workforce as a reader or writer, there other avenues that you can pursue with the skills acquired in your undergraduate program. The literary knowledge you have developed can lead to a career as a librarian or as an English teacher at the secondary or collegiate level. Your critical thinking and analytical skills for written work can also be applied to a degree in law where you will evaluate and compile information that is central to the job. English majors are also ideal candidates for positions in human resources for similar reasons.
Famous Leaders With an English Undergraduate Degree
A testament to the versatility of the English major, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Harold Varmus began his career with an undergraduate degree in English from Amherst College. While continuing his literary studies in a graduate program at Harvard University, he realized that he desired a career in science, specifically medicine. Varmus completed medical school at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons with the intention of working in academic medicine. He focused on molecular biology during his postdoc fellowship at UC San Francisco, where he ultimately became a faculty member and professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Varmus has earned over a dozen awards and honors for his work in medical research, including a Nobel Prize.
Actor Paul Newman is probably best known for his acting career and his nonprofit company that sells grocery products to raise money for charity. It is lesser known that the road to both of these accomplishments began at Kenyon College, where Newman starred in many of the school theater productions and graduated in 1949 with an English degree. Focusing further on a career in acting, Newman went on to study theater at Yale University School of Drama and then at the Actor’s Studio. He has been nominated for 66 film awards over the years and earned 37 wins. He started the Newman’s Own brand by selling salad dressing in 1982 and donating all profits to charitable causes. Over the next two decades he continued to add products to the line and established the Newman’s Own foundation in 2005 to continue the practice of donating profits to over 100 different organizations, including the SeriousFun Children’s Network that provides camp and social experiences for young people with serious illnesses.
Proving that an English degree does have a place in the business world is Anne Mulcahy who earned her degree in English and journalism from Marymount College. Mulcahy was the first woman CEO and chair of Xerox Corporation. She is known for turning around the company and making it once again profitable. She has been on the board of directors for Target Corporation and Citigroup Inc. and currently serves on the board of directors for Johnson & Johnson and Williams-Sonoma, Inc. She has garnered recognition in the business world and received such honors as being named as one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” by Fortune magazine. Not only has Mulcahy established herself as a business person of note but also as a humanitarian. She was honored for her humanitarian work in the organization Save the Children.
Earning Potential for English Majors
When you choose a major, you want to feel reassured that it will be a worthwhile investment. An undergraduate degree in English provides you with a variety of potential careers and therefore reasonable earning potential.
These are some of the average annual salaries for jobs commonly held by individuals with an undergraduate degree in English.
- Marketing Coordinator: $42,000
- Editor: $45,000
- Technical Writer: $53,000
- Secondary English Teacher: $56,000
- Librarian: $59,000
- Marketing Director: $78,000
- Human Resources Manager: $116,000
When you use your English degree to pursue advanced or additional degrees, such as in law or medicine, careers with higher salaries and increased earning potential may become available to you. A degree in English will give you the skills to excel at communication, both written and verbal, and to think critically. These are essential skills that any employer will look for in a future employee.