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Despite perception, liberal arts majors are not doomed to fail

January 14, 2015
<p>Jessica Sattler</p>

Jessica Sattler

In the world of academia, there is an unspoken hierarchy in terms of a college degree’s prestige.

Engineering and pre-med majors are near the top, with marketing and accounting somewhere in the middle and liberal arts degrees at the very bottom.

English majors, in particular, are the butt of many jokes in popular culture, particularly in terms of what sort of employment awaits them after graduation. Flipping burgers is a popular choice for this type of banter.

But it’s the English majors who are getting the last laugh.

Popular opinion has historically viewed English majors as being of little use. From an objective standpoint, it’s easy to see why. It’s highly unusual to see a job posting with the words “English major required” somewhere in the description, unless that job is for an English teacher or writer. Ask an English major the last time they’ve seen a posting asking specifically for their major, and they might offer a sarcastic laugh or a sad chuckle.

This is because the need for English majors is not an obvious one. As college graduates emerge from their education without a clear grasp of basic spelling and grammar or communication skills, employers become increasingly frustrated. Additionally, a degree in engineering or mathematics may provide support for a potential employee’s intelligence, but says nothing about their interpersonal abilities.

An English degree, or nearly any liberal arts degree, prepares an individual for critical thinking and analysis in their everyday lives. English majors are taught to formulate their arguments carefully and to have a clear basis for that argument. They can read a text and quickly summarize the main point, then draw conclusions and ask questions based on what they’ve read.

Employers want graduates who can communicate. A degree in English guarantees to these employers that the person they’re hiring is capable of communicating clearly in writing and speech with their coworkers and beyond.

An English major is the type of employee who can easily assemble a presentation or organize a meeting based on the skills they’ve learned over the course of their education. These skills are the foundation of a hirable employee, as good communication and interpersonal abilities have to be learned before actual work can begin.

If the unemployment rates are analyzed, English majors are actually faring pretty well in the job market when compared to majors considered “more employable” by the general public.

According to the Council of Graduate Schools, the average unemployment rate for a recent college graduate in English from 2009-2010 was 9.2 percent. Recent graduates in mechanical engineering could expect an 8.6 percent rate, marketing graduates a 7.2 percent rate and economics graduates a 9.4 percent rate. Those gaps become even narrower if the English graduate has experience in their field.

A number of very successful and widely-known people have majored in English. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, journalist Barbara Walters, astronaut Sally Ride, comedian Joan Rivers and politician Mitt Romney are just a few English majors who have gone on to achieve some pretty remarkable things.

Despite the evidence contrary to popular opinion, it’s unlikely that the trend of looking down on English majors will end anytime soon.

But in a way, that’s a good thing. English graduates are underestimated and fly below the radar, snatching up jobs their colleagues don’t have the skills for.

So, relax, English majors. Take a deep breath. Nod and smile through the jokes at your expense. You aren’t the first to take this path, and you won’t be the last.

After all, if Mitt Romney can do it, so can you.

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