An English Degree Can Translate Into Opportunity

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Why don't you major in something useful?

Do you actually expect to get a job with that?

Why am I paying $30,000 a year for you to sit around and read poetry?

If you majored in English as an undergraduate, chances are these are familiar questions. The people who ask them -- parents, grandparents, peers with more "practical" degrees -- probably mean well, but that doesn't make the questions any less annoying. Even more annoying are the constant warnings that you will wind up shelving books for the rest of your life.

It is true that an undergraduate English degree won't prepare you for a specific career. Instead, like other liberal arts degrees, it serves as a broad base for a range of careers, many of them quite lucrative.

For Pamela Huffman, 34, an English degree has been the steppingstone to a variety of jobs. While her initial plan was to become an English teacher, she changed her mind in her senior year of college. "Since then, I've been a communications assistant at a lobbyist on the Hill, an art director at a publishing house and a communications guru at a quasi-governmental agency," she wrote in an e-mail.

The common link among those jobs is their reliance on good communications skills, something employers value, even in technical and scientific jobs.

Kelley A. Squazzo, 30, has bachelor's and master's degrees in literature and now serves as the editorial director for a Silver Spring company that publishes pathology and science books. "I love literature and never imagined I would be talking about tumors instead of feminist language in Woolf novels," she wrote in a recent e-mail. "Plus, employers are usually impressed with candidates who have English backgrounds and proficient writing and public speaking skills. And knowing a lot about literature makes good conversation at work dinner meetings."

Michael Dinsmore, 35, thought he was going to be a teacher when he graduated with his bachelor's degree in English and master's degree in teaching from the University of Iowa. But he spent just one year inside a classroom, and that was teaching computer science. After that, he decided he would rather "implement" computer science than teach it, so he began to pursue an IT career.

His path is instructive to other recent grads with English degrees.

First, call on those strong reading skills to learn what you need to know to do the job. "The first six months I read manuals and online information constantly," said Dinsmore, who lives in Gaithersburg. "And one 'for dummies' book won't be enough -- learn everything that you can about the subject, and ask questions of your co-workers."

Dinsmore sold his English degree and teaching experience to hiring managers as an advantage, not a hindrance. "Although I admitted that it was a different field, I described the ways in which my teaching skills would translate to that of computer support tech: patience, ability to put myself in the user's shoes, comfortable speaking in front of crowds."

He advises other English grads to do the same. "Know what you can do, and be willing to think about how it can apply to other fields. Can a student of 'sexual repression in Edith Wharton novels' be able to read the sexual subtext of business communication, and be valuable in HR, or Equal Opportunity Compliance?" he wrote.

Also, don't sweat the starting pay. This can be hard when you see your friends with new degrees in engineering and business making big bucks and being wooed with signing bonuses. You have to think long-term.

"My first support job, I actually took a pay cut from that of a first-year teacher, and I commuted 90 minutes each way. But I knew that it was what I wanted to do, that I would like doing it, and, fortunately, taking a hit in my first year has paid off in subsequent years," Dinsmore said.

And about those bookstore jabs some people can't resist? Dinsmore said those sorts of jobs can actually be good for you in the long run. He encouraged recent English grads to work retail until they get a "real" job, selling anything that requires them to interact with customers. Dinsmore said working in computer retailing for 18 months taught him how to boil down the many advantages and disadvantages of a choice to a final takeaway message, tailored to each consumer. "Once you've learned how to sell widgets to consumers, you can sell yourself to a recruiter."

Join Mary Ellen Slayter at 2 p.m. July 1 for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at

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