Posts Tagged ‘English majors’

At university, I declared an English major for no other reason except that I needed to specialize for my last two years. Three-quarters of my way through my bachelor’s degree, I panicked, and took a couple of extra semesters to get a double major with Communications. However, looking back, I realize that my time in English was better-spent than I thought at the time. Basically, I learned the skills to prepare, structure, and present an argument – skills that were not only invaluable for me as a journalist, but also for the time I spent in management at IT companies

Or, to break down the skills more exactly, thanks to my English courses, I can now answer all the questions in the following categories:

Preparing an argument: How do you take notes as you research? How do you scan sources accurately? How do you evaluate sources? How many sources do you need? When should sources qualify your original ideas? When do you know that you have done enough research to begin structuring your argument? Why should you acknowledge them in your argument, and how?

Deciding the appeal of your argument: When should you appeal to logic, emotion, or ethics? When can you mix them? When do any of them threaten to become invalid? When is there a sub-text, detectable but not fully adressed in your argument?

Structuring an argument: What do you need to explain before beginning your argument? When do you need declaimers? How many points can you develop fully in the space available? How should the points be arranged? What alternative tactics might also work?

Recognizing invalid arguments: When is the evidence too general to support the conclusion? When are points being left out? Is an issue really a matter of one thing or the other, with no other alternatives? What’s wrong with a personal attack? Does one point follow from the other? Did something that happened first cause things that happened later? What are the limits of an analogy being used? When is an argument depending on popular prejudice or belief? Is an authority being cited to shutdown discussion, rather than as an acknowledgment of sources? Is an argument being associated with desirable qualities, outcomes, or events that have no real connection with it?

Considering other opinions: Why is your argument strengthened by considering other viewpoints and interpretations? How do you show respect for an argument while arguing against it? How do you consider other opinions without weakening yours? When should you grant limited validity to another argument? How do you avoid being so fair that you end up being neutral and saying nothing? Where in your argument should you consider other arguments? How do you present them?

Summarizing and quoting accurately: Why should you summarize or quote accurately? What constitutes “accuracy”? How to you fit a quote into your own sentence, making allowance for differences in person, tense, and subject-verb agreement?

Understanding your audience: Why should a change in audience affect your argument? How does the audience affect your argument? How do you access what is suitable to a particular audience?

If an English major has made a formal study of rhetoric, they could also give you the appropriate jargon as they answer these questions. However, even if they haven’t, they should have enough practical experience to be able to answer most of these questions (as well as any similar ones that I may have left out), and make a reasonable guess about the others. They should also have little trouble applying these questions to any argument that is presented to them.

In particular, they will know that most of these questions are not a matter of memorizing a set of facts, but of of knowing the possibilities and knowing which ones might be useful in a specific context. All these are useful skills in any situation in which you need to communicate with others, or to persuade them – in other words, in just about any circumstances that you can name.

The next time someone tells you that an English major is a waste of time, ask them to answer these questions. If they can’t, you are completely justified in telling them that they have no idea what English majors learn — in fact that, in the most literal sense, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

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What skills do English graduates bring to the job market? More than you might think – and far more than all the jokes about their unemployability would have you believe. In fact, many of the skills developed by English markets while reading novels and poems make them ideal for senior positions.

To start with, English majors may be comfortable with reading. I don’t mean simply that they can read; I mean that they can read with some ease. Many read as instinctively as they hear. It has become a reflex in them to read whatever words are put in front of them.

Moreover, because they are comfortable with reading and have practiced it, they can read more quickly than most people.

These may seem like minor skills, but when you consider the number of reports, emails, memos, and other documents that the average manager has to plow through every week, they mean increased efficiency; I’ve known at least one politician who found that the worst parts of being an elected official was reading the weekly paper work.

Even more importantly, English majors may have learned not only to be comfortable with reading, but to have gained some skill in it.

If you look at the comments beneath almost any article published online, one of the first things that will probably strike you is how few people can read a comment in context. More often, people take things out of context, and come up with the most fantastical over-simplifications, exaggerations, and misreadings.

Nor, naturally enough, can the average person summarize accurately. In fact, most of the critical skills that English majors learn when producing essays are beyond the average person. After all, you can hardly analyze or compare accurately when you haven’t read accurately. These skills are especially important if you need to keep abreast of legal matters, but they matter almost as much when you are writing marketing copy, producing a white paper on technology, or writing a business plan or competitive analysis.

Finally, like most Art students, whose grading is based largely on essays, English majors have probably learned to research – to find sources, absorb them quickly, and evaluate them both on their own and in comparison to other sources. In other words, they have learned to process information, and reach conclusions that are logically based upon that information. This ability is continually useful in daily business, and, on the Internet it can be invaluable. After all, what is the Internet, if not a giant library waiting for an expert to use it?

Of course, not every English graduate possesses these skills. Because the subject matter of English Departments is subjective, students can coast through them more easily than they can in other Departments. Even in English graduate school, you can find students who don’t read unless they have to, and whose essays have more to do with striking a pose than actual analysis.

But, having been a product manager and a director of communications, I can’t begin to tell you how often I’ve looked down at the task that I’m doing and realized that what I learned taking an English degree has helped me breeze through it.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, English major do graduate with employable skills – in fact, ones that will help them if they ever become managers or team leaders among the creatives. The only problem is, they don’t realize everything they’ve learned, so they don’t express it.

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“You’re an English major? You must be planning a career in fast food.” Comments like this haunted me from the moment I declared my major in university. But hearing the sentiment recently, I realized that it was far from accurate. The truth is, people who have a way with words can make a comfortable living in all sorts of ways, so long as they don’t limit their possibilities to the obvious.

The worst mistake that anybody with an English degree – or, in fact, any Arts degree – can make is to hang about on the fringes of academia, hoping for a tenure track position. Ever since my undergraduate days, I’ve been hearing about all the tenured positions that are going to become available as their current incumbents retire, but, between budget cuts and the increasing tendency to hire non-tenured staff or sessionals, the positions are unlikely to materialize. People who were hoping for those positions when I left academia over a decade ago are still waiting for those tenured positions. Meanwhile, they endure semester by semester contracts, last minute hires, and doing the same work as tenured faculty for half the money. That’s fine for a few years, but it’s no way to live in the long-term.

The same is true of editing piece work. Just like academia, the publishing industry depends on having a constant pool of cheap work-for-hire editors. You may be one of the lucky exceptions, but the odds are against you, no matter how talented. Those who run the industry are careful not to employ you so much that they become obliged to offer you benefits.

Instead of lingering in limbo, waiting for the academic or literary job you used to dreamed of, English majors should explore the possibilities in business. Not only is the power of self-expression in demand there, but the competition is far less fierce than in academia – partly because of the greater need, and partly because many English majors seem to consider that taking a job in business is beneath them. Often, too, they make the mistake of thinking that their writing skills are all they need, and are slow to learn the subject matter expertise they need to do the work properly.

But, if you can get beyond the idea that you are dirtying your hands and are willing to learn what you don’t know, then the jobs are there. As a technical writer, you need to write clearly and organize information for conciseness and accuracy; in many ways, the job is writing stripped to the basics. As a communications and marketing manager, writing news releases or blogs, you take on the responsibility of being the voice of the company. As a product manager, you decide how to present a product or line, and you’ll find your skills with textural analysis serve you well when you come to deal with end user license agreements and other legal documents. As an instructor, you are reprising your role as a teaching assistant while you were in grad school, the only difference being is that you are teaching software or policies and procedures, rather literature or criticism.

And these are only the most obvious career paths. Writing and teaching skills aren’t a bad foundation for going on to law school, for example. Best of all, the first thing you’ll notice when taking these positions if you’ve been vying for scraps of work around academia, your yearly income will increase by over fifty percent or more.

Admittedly, some of these positions aren’t on the express way to the top. Technical writers, for instance, may rise to supervise other technical writers at a large company, but they aren’t likely to become CEOs. But they can serve as entry positions, and, if you’re interested in climbing the corporation, you can always expand your skill set later on. Meanwhile, you can reasonably expect a salary that puts you solidly in the upper middle class, to say nothing of responsible and often rewarding work.

Really, the only thing holding you back with an English degree is your own lack of imagination or initiative. Just because those who prefer an education they should be getting at a technical college choose to belittle your liberal education is no reason for you to believe them.

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