Colleges

To Be or Not to Be…an English Literature Major

If you can’t think of anything better to do on a rainy day than settle in with a hot cup of chai tea and a good Jane Austen book or Shakespeare sonnet—or even if you simply appreciate the iambic pentameter used in many of today’s rap songs—you may be drawn to an English literature degree, which is often included in an overall English degree in many colleges and universities.

What do English literature majors work on in school?

Besides your general-education work and a focus on languages (you’ll probably have to take at least one year’s worth of foreign language), English lit majors will immerse themselves in the history, culture, and meaning behind some of the English language’s greatest texts. Put your glasses on and keep your word processing program turned on, because you’ll be doing a lot of reading and writing about what you’ve read. Expect to read, at minimum, at least one book a week for each English lit class you’re taking, and be ready to criticize, analyze, and debate these works with classmates and teachers and through copious amounts of papers.

You’ll likely take courses in literary theory, British and American literature, and literature written in other parts of the world in English. There will also likely be research and writing classes, including those concentrating on poetry, playwriting, fiction, and nonfiction. And yes, there will definitely be Shakespeare. Many students often combine their English degree with a complementary minor or other major, including history, psychology, or philosophy.

So where can you expect an English lit major to lead you?

This is a major that can take you down several different career paths.

If you love being in academia and wish you could dish about Chaucer and Milton forever with others who are similarly obsessed, you could theoretically stay there forever with an English literature degree as a high school English teacher or college professor. But there are a variety of other career options where your English degree could prove valuable, including:

  • Journalist, reporter, or other similar media role
  • Book publisher or editor
  • Tutor
  • Advertising, PR, or communications specialist
  • Librarian
  • Freelance writer
  • Theater manager or drama teacher

But even though the above are jobs where an English degree is most likely to be sought, the truth is that the skills you develop while going for this major can prove useful in nearly any post-undergrad degree or job you pursue, including careers in government, law enforcement, law, and business.

Despite the jokes about English majors, they can actually do pretty well pay-wise.

If you achieve an English bachelor’s degree in tandem with a teaching degree or certification/licensing, you’ll be qualified to teach on the high school level (though many schools and states require an eventual master’s degree as well). And these jobs can pay well: The median salary in 2016 for all high school teachers with a bachelor’s degree was $58,000. The median for postsecondary teachers in English language and literature was around $64,000 for that same year. Certain states (usually those with a higher cost of living, such as California or New York) can offer even higher salaries that approach or exceed six figures. Certain writing-intensive jobs also pay well, including technical writers, with a median 2016 salary of nearly $70,000, and PR specialists, with a median salary of $58,000. Jobs in other fields vary, obviously, depending on the career you choose.

You’ll hone skills you didn’t even know you had.

Being an English literature major requires you to tap into nearly every part of your gray matter. You’ll be required to be analytical when reading and reviewing texts. You’ll have to tap into your logical and organizational skills when arranging and rearranging your thoughts into a cohesive 20-page paper. You’ll need to get creative when penning your own poetry or short story for creative writing courses. You’ll have to adopt effective communication skills to get your points across in class. And you’ll likely have teachers who are sticklers for grammar and punctuation—it definitely doesn’t hurt to have this drilled into you early, as some employers will immediately reject a resume with typos. Even if you don’t pursue a career directly related to your English literature major down the road, these are all valuable, marketable skills that will serve you well in any job.

It’s the perfect major for bookworms.

If the thought of curling up with a good book makes you inexplicably happy, then get ready to embrace that happiness. Of course, this won’t be the same as leisurely reading a book at your own pace on the beach—English literature classes are often intense and fast-paced. But by the end of your college career, you’ll have absorbed enough tomes that you’ll read the New York Review of Books and feel like jumping right into the conversation. It’s like a four-year-long book club that will continually invigorate your mind and curiosity as you explore new authors and genres.

You could end up venturing into other parts of the world.

English skills are valued around the globe. You could decide to share your love of the language and literature by becoming a teacher in another country, for a school, nonprofit, or government agency. You’d be helping kids and adults worldwide up their English skills, enhance their literacy, and learn to love some of the same famous authors and texts that you do. What better bridge across cultures is there than having a lively conversation about a good book!

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