Having an English Degree: Why Does it Matter in the “Real World”?

Jennifer Ngan Photography

One question I get asked a lot as of late is, why did you study English and why is it that you’re an accounting professional and not a…. teacher, or a novelist? Poet? How can you be both? “It’s the total opposite.”

The yin and yang, the duality….that’s why.

While that may be somewhat truthful, that answer will garner weird looks.

How many of us will say that the career paths we’ve chosen are far from what we’ve studied at University? I am sure plenty of people can relate to that statement.

But it seems, sometimes I need to mightily defend the study of English.

Some of the questions/stereotypes I’ve encountered are:

How does studying English translate into today’s society?

Okay, that may be somewhat of a good question. I know I’m not going to be sharing examples of Dante’s Inferno and the symbolism of punishments in a job interview to prove I’m more well versed in the classics than the next candidate. In fact, most employers probably don’t care. They might think it’s not practical. But I beg to differ. I think knowing literature gives you strength in a way where you can be a critical thinker and an effective communicator. The same way you find parallels and defend the narrator in a novel, you can find a problem-solve and structure your thoughts into cohesive words. You can identify the issues and communicate effectively.

Don’t You Want to be a Teacher?

This is probably the biggest misconception and typically the most asked question in the professional world. Yes, I’ve entertained the thought at some point to become a teacher. It was because I had incredible teachers growing up who I learned a great deal from and believed in me when no one else did (including my parents). Who wouldn’t want to spread that knowledge to others? But there is also a difference between an education degree and an English degree. Not all of us book nerds are qualified or want to teach.

Why Do You Need Skills in Editing/Proofing/Writing and How Does it Relate to Jobs outside of the Arts?

Job surveys have indicated that most employers value effective communication inside and outside of the organization as one of their most highly desired skills. The other one is having the ability to do quality research.

I’ve had top level management say unstructured sentences are one of their pet peeves. And it should be, given it is my pet peeve too. Run on sentences, law firm, really…? And i am a user of the Oxford comma, period. I don’t judge people based on word formatting and clarity (not always), because I am constantly learning too.

Having skills in editing and proofing and even writing goes beyond works of Literature. It is the ability to process complex ideas, thoughts, but in the human harmony kind of way – as in, defining values and having a strong interest in culture, society, psychology and how that all relates to the here and now.

I know the written word is as powerful today as it was hundreds of years ago. Everything from presenting your product to an investor to raising capital to Facebook status updates requires a certain knack of storytelling and attention to detail. In addition to that, there are many published studies online that correlates English majors to have higher levels of cognitive empathy. Because we read a lot, we understand character viewpoints by putting ourselves into their shoes. In RL, there are so many personalities we deal with, contexts that need to be understood. Thus, we are better at structuring questions, more intuitive, and deeper thinkers.

So the question, why did I pursue an English degree and want to work in a non-teaching field?

To put it simply, it’s what I felt in my heart to pursue. Writing has always resonated with me in deeper levels than my peers and I enjoyed the fundamentals of it, whether it was creatively or with a structure. I enjoy interpreting things and wanting to go inside a writer’s brilliant mind to see their complex wheels turn. I enjoy the intellectual conversations about philosophy, ancient traditions and Latin root words that have made our language what it is today. I like the myths and folklore that went on in the nineteenth century Europe. But really, apart from that, choosing that path of study doesn’t bind you to one thing. You are limitless in anything you choose to pursue.

It opens up everything.

Wherever you are, whoever you are. If you are reading this, and you feel compelled to disagree, I get it. I am walking on a very untraditional path to build a career. What’s an Asian girl not studying math or science or biznezz doing? I got that a lot growing up (and that in itself requires its own post), but i also find that it makes me unique, and different. A sort of risk takeer to the status quo. The idea that I can express myself and confront challenges and dilemmas of modern life is something you learn daily but having that foundation solidifies a stronger sense of identity.

I once dated someone who said I lived too much in my head. You think too much. That there’s nothing there, because it is self-indulgent. You are afraid of the present. You have deep rooted issues of self-acceptance and/or father issues. Because it doesn’t matter. Oh, the emotional tapestry of a web I was in. Suffice it to say it did not work out.

And you are everything.

I find it surprising sometimes that people automatically label you as a hopeless romantic if you like to read. There may be some truth to it but it’s not all of it. You don’t need to have a major tragedy in your life to want to study English. Maybe you just want to fit into society and feel like you’re contributing. Above all else, people with English degrees are awesome. Sometimes I need reminders for that because it’s so often pushed aside like yesterday’s bread. But really, having insightful thoughts is sometimes a blessing and a curse but more so a blessing because it doesn’t need to be justified. You are unique, and you are special. You have a love for words, and creativity. You are smart, open, humble and enjoy self-deprecating humor.

And yeah, maybe one day I’ll be an old professor sitting in a cramped room wearing three cardigans, writing about bodhi trees. And maybe I’ll embark on a soul-searching adventure and drop everything in my life to tour through Rome, India and Bali al la Eat Pray Love. Or perhaps I will teach English in a monastery in Nepal and meditate with the monks on my days off.

They all sound quite pleasing. But in the meantime, in this game of life, I am here.

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