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What it’s (really) like to have an English degree

September 8, 2010

At one point when I was in college, I attended an on-campus seminar (being fancy, we called them colloquia) about getting a job with a bachelor's degree in English. The people running this particular colloquium stated that a person with a degree in English can get just about any job he or she wants (this may have been because I attended a liberal arts college). One speaker was working as a technical writer, one as a magazine editor, and the third as a freelance writer.

I envied their nonchalant attitude about the job market for people with degrees in English. As I listened to the group speak, I knew I had no idea what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing and was trying very hard not to panic. I knew I loved to write and read, but that was about it.

But having a degree in English means having much more than a career that allows you to get paid to read (if you're lucky). Unfortunately, some of the other aspects of having that degree lead only to crankiness, despair, and the potential for a Thoreau-like affinity for isolation.

First, with a degree in English, you will find fault with everyone everywhere - including yourself - who has ever written or spoken anything, ever. You are a ruthless hunter of bad grammar and poor clarity; when you see a sign that says "sport's" instead of "sports" you will cringe. This will lead you down a slow path to neurosis, as you will come across haughty when you point out these mistakes, and, unless you have only other people with English degrees as friends, you will be the only one in your social circle who cares about them. You will find yourself wondering if you should find a time machine, a la Doctor Who, that will enable you to transport yourself back to the time of Dickens or Shakespeare or, perhaps, just over to J.K. Rowling's house; surely none of them ever had to deal with these petty mistakes.

Second, you will never be able to read any type of book, fiction or non-fiction, without analyzing it for a potential term paper or class discussion, even after you graduate. You will have taken so many analytical classes that you will not be able to sit back and read a novel for fun, or do guilty pleasure reading, or any of the other terms and phrases that advertising companies seem to use most to lure unsuspecting readers into their traps. You will read hundreds of books, oh yes - and you will find the typos, mistakes, and slowly tear your hair out as you realize that, try as you might, no publication has ever been free of mistakes, and no publication ever will be. (This is when it really helps to have friends who have degrees in English. You can mourn the fact that you will all spend your lives striving for the unreachable goal of reading material that has no errors.) You will feel endlessly guilty if you pick up and start to read any kind of book that would be unlikely to appear on the curriculum for a college English class (Writing 101 aside). This guilt will also overwhelm you if you attempt to read anything that is not from that handy bookshelf of "classics" that Barnes & Noble has. On the bright side, those books are often less expensive than the others.

Thirdly, at least, as far as simply having the degree goes, you will have such a wide range of careers to choose from that you will once again enter that slow path to neurosis. You can be a secretary; a copy editor; a reporter; a novelist; a freelance writer; and on and on. You will have to try all of these until you find one that suits you best. You can even become an actor like Jon Hamm (yes, that Jon Hamm! He was an English major!). Your only limit is yourself, and that's a big problem, considering you find fault with everyone everywhere - including yourself - who has ever written or spoken anything, ever.

But the most important part of having a degree in English is that you suffer all three of these above factors, and still - with a degree to prove it - love the language.



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