Often when I ask my students why they chose an English major, they’ll tell me stories about how in middle school Harry Potter seemed more real than their best friend, or how they’ve compulsively written short fiction since the second grade. I love such answers. They make English feel like destiny. For these students, the question isn’t why major in English, but why major in anything else. Passionate and determined, they’ve long known English was it.
For others, though, the decision to study English is a bit more fraught. After all, what do you tell your parents? Harry Potter and short fiction are great, but they’re not going to pay rent. What exactly can you do with an English major?
I was one of these others. I too have always loved reading and writing, I too found friends in books, but I’m also pragmatic to a fault. As a kid, I would reply to the “what do you want to be” question with “actuary!” or “orthodontist!” My ambitions were always firmly tethered to reality. By the time I reached high school, I knew I’d be a doctor—a cardiologist, to be exact. I started volunteering at a hospital; I watched The X-Files for gory autopsy scenes; I imagined myself with a white lab coat and stethoscope, professional, serene, gainfully employed.
So what changed? For one thing, when I got to college, I discovered I didn’t actually enjoy science and math classes—or at least as much as I did my humanities seminars. I was far from home in a big city, and I wanted more than anything to connect with people and make sense of a vast new place. My humanities classes—English and philosophy especially—helped me do just this. Taking them was like being initiated into a special club of really smart people who knew everything about everything. Being part of this club, or at least one of its wannabes, made me feel that I was participating in something big—what I said, the arguments I made, mattered. It was an amazing sensation, better, even, than the calm serenity of knowing what I’d do when I graduated.
Late in my sophomore year, I told my dad I was declaring a double major in English and philosophy. He made the kind of tight grimace usually reserved for taxes and plumbing repairs and muttered something about postponing retirement. But my pragmatism didn’t disappear when I switched out of premed. I started hunting down workstudy gigs that let me practice the writing and analytical skills I was getting in my English seminars, first taking a job writing press releases for the fine arts department, then becoming a tour guide at a local art museum, and then eventually finding an internship doing PR and sales for a summer music festival. These jobs didn’t pay much—I was always babysitting on the side—but, paired with the work I was doing in my major courses, they helped me plausibly imagine myself into many different careers: advertising, PR, publishing, museum education, arts administration. Before college, none of these pursuits were on my radar, but the people I was meeting who did these jobs seemed happy. They had autonomy and respect and intellectual engagement. And they too had studied things like English and philosophy. When I interviewed for work, I found that my major came across as serious rather than frivolous. It told prospective employers not only that I could write and communicate, but also that I was capable of puzzling through hard ideas. It told them that I possessed the kind of knowledge and abilities that matter to thoughtful people in creative fields.
In the end, my dad needn’t have worried. I found a job almost as soon as I graduated, helping with arts education at the same small museum where I’d been a tour guide. I stayed there while I earned a masters degree, and then worked in non-profits for nearly two years before returning to grad school for a Ph.D. (probably the least pragmatic decision I’ve ever made). I enjoyed those years, and in truth, I think I could have stayed in any one of those careers and been happy. I love being an English professor, but this job, just like my college major, is a choice. Studying English prepared me for where I am now, but it also prepared me for many other meaningful kinds of work.
I don’t mean to minimize English majors’ very valid concerns about employment. In lots of ways, I was lucky. And of course, no future is a sure thing. Circumstances that can’t be predicted close off some roads and open up new ones. Interests change. But for all these reasons, for someone who likes to read and write and think, I believe that English, in its own strange way, is one of the most pragmatic majors out there. It’s not an end in itself—you won’t graduate and “do” English. But that’s exactly why it’s so great. It changes with you. You can make it and remake it into what you want it to be. It translates itself into opportunities you can’t yet name.
Maybe you’ve always known you were going to be an English major. Maybe, to your own surprise, you find yourself considering it. Either way, welcome. It’s a worthy destiny. It’s a fine choice.