Looks of pity, concern or just plain confusion confronted me over the past four years as I told people what I was majoring in.
Have you considered majoring in engineering instead?
Your parents are OK with that?
Is there still time for you to switch majors?
What can you do with that?
As a senior pursuing a degree in English Literature, I’ve been asked all the annoying questions and gradually become desensitized to the rude, disheartening remarks regarding my major. The first two years of college were particularly challenging, but I learned a valuable lesson: it doesn’t matter what you major in, it matters what you’ve done.
The majority of studies, articles and reports that draw correlations between college majors and different types of success, simply add to what the general public already holds to be true. The popular opinion seems to be that English majors do not have practical skills, they will not be as successful as other majors and they will have a harder time finding a job.
On May 7, the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “College Majors Figure Big in Earnings.” The median yearly income for STEM graduates was $25,000 more per year over their lifetimes than that of Liberal Arts graduates.
The report, like many others, leaves out important information for the sake of simplicity and generalization. It does not take into account job stability, happiness of employees or the unpredictable changes in industry needs and the number of graduates in each field.
The numbers could change drastically in just a few years as industries fall in and out of importance and the supply of certain degrees exceeds or falls below the demand in that industry.
For example, according to statistics from the National Center for Education, “the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in agriculture and natural resources rose 24 percent between 2005–06 and 2010–11.” For engineering fields the number of conferred bachelor’s degrees shows a similar variability. Engineering degrees “increased 12 percent between 2000–01 and 2005–06, and then increased a further 14 percent between 2005–06 and 2010–11.”
The Wall Street Journal article does recognize that the findings it published and other research like it is unable to predict what an individual graduate will experience. The article says, “The latest Georgetown report shows that sweeping statements about college graduates’ earnings say little about prospects for individual graduates.”
Every student has a different experience and will attain different results. The major you earn a degree in is not nearly as important as what internships you had, which people you met, what extracurricular activities you were involved in and, at the most basic level, how hard you worked.
According to a report published on Jan. 20 and conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “employers nearly universally agree that to achieve success at their companies, a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex programs is more important than his or her undergraduate major (91 percent totally agree).”
English majors can and do attain these skills.
English isn’t just reading. The sheer quantity of underlined words, highlighted paragraphs and dog-eared pages you’ll find in an English major’s copy of a book shows that a lot of work and critical thinking goes into analyzing every word.
By writing hundreds of papers, participating in hours of discussion-based lectures and pouring over the writings of the most influential communicators in the world, it is an understatement to say that English majors know how to communicate.
English majors develop complex problem solving skills by spending hours trying to figure out what someone who died hundreds of years ago meant by their use of repetition and why their work is still meaningful to people today.
While it is understandable to want to protect students from failure, English majors are able to build the skill set necessary to be successful, and they are aware of the challenges that come with their major. We’ve seen the statistics. We’ve heard the warnings. What college student hasn’t? Success can’t be assumed with any degree.
Why don’t people celebrate the accomplishment that is attending and graduating college without the preconceived judgment of which degree is worthy of praise? It is amazing and scary how much a single comment from a stranger can impact a college student. At the vulnerable stage that is college, students in every field of study need your support more than they need your criticism.
I’ve cried over comments from complete strangers, felt inferior because of my major and questioned my decision to major in English countless times. Ultimately, I loved studying English, so I stuck with it and stayed optimistic. In less than two weeks, I will graduate with a degree in English. I start a full-time job in my field a week later.