- English majors are often the butt of jokes regarding the “useless” nature of a liberal arts education.
- The misconception that English degrees are a waste of time, energy, and money ignores the valuable skills and experience that can be gained through years of study.
- Time management and communication, for example, are universally important work skills that hours of essay planning and writing can teach you.
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Long before I ever set foot in my undergraduate university, I knew I would be an English major. It was the inescapable conclusion to a childhood of devouring books and writing stories.
And while my parents were supportive of my choice in college major, in recent years studying English has endured its fair share of name-calling. In an atmosphere of skyrocketing college expenses and a surge in popularity of STEM fields, burying your nose in a musty copy of “The Canterbury Tales” is hardly seen as a productive use of time or money.
And while I agree – at least to some extent – that a 3,000-word essay on the class structure of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” is unlikely to fix any of the problems facing our world today, I still believe that studying English gave me a great education and five important tools I use on a daily basis.
With that in mind, here are five ways I use my English major in my everyday life.
My task management and organisation greatly improved thanks to long nights of reading long texts and writing what felt like even longer essays.
While there are undoubtedly English majors who read – or skim – through the assigned reading and write their essays the night before a deadline, this was never a feat I was capable of. Instead, the way I learned to approach these assignments has helped create effective task management skills today.
There are a few inherently separate tasks that need to be completed before turning in an essay. First, you have to read the text assigned and, preferably, take notes on it. Second, you need to research what other scholars have said and bring those points together for a thesis. Third, you have to create your outline and find your quotes. And fourth, write.
This task structure might not be a good fit for everyone, but for me, it was a great way to visualise different aspects of the assignment, not be overwhelmed, and diligently make progress on smaller tasks way ahead of the deadline. When a task becomes too overwhelming, I still find myself breaking it down into parts and finishing it piece by piece.
Having civil discussions with peers of vastly different opinions became second nature.
While on the outside it may look like being an English major is all about writing, I would argue that it’s almost equally about listening.
The courses I took trained me to read a text critically and openly, as well as engage in discussions with my peers over our perspectives in a respectful way. We weren’t all meant to agree, but we were meant to elevate the discussion through our disagreements, instead of bringing it down.
The state of civil discussion – especially in the US – has become less and less nuanced. While I can’t say that sitting through discussions on “The Great Gatsby” gave me all the tools necessary to handle it, I do believe that working to listen to those I don’t necessarily agree with can be an important step toward having more meaningful discussions instead of falling into a spiral of shouting.
Needing to understand motifs and themes in texts — even the boring ones — helped me connect the dots in the world around me.
Another skill I learned through repeated literary analysis is how to think flexibly about a text and look for themes, perspectives, and symbolism in a story – even when it’s a painfully boring book. While sometimes it felt like pulling teeth, this exercise of connecting invisible dots within a story always made for more interesting and impactful discussions.
Looking for the story within the story in this way is something I still use often in my work as a science writer now. I might not always understand every technical aspect of a researcher’s work, but by working to understand the broader context and meaning of the research we can still have deep and interesting conversations about it.
This kind of approach can also work whenever you’re starting to learn a new topic and looking for common ground.
My expertise has landed me a lucrative side gig helping college students with writing assignments.
Stepping away from the philosophy of being an English major, another way I use my degree in my daily life is as a writing tutor at a university. I work one-on-one with everyone from undergraduates to doctoral students to brainstorm, revise, and just generally chat about what they might be struggling with in their writing.
This job not only gives me the opportunity to put my English major wisdom to work, but it helps me reflect more on my own writing process as well. Not to mention, it also pays a significant portion of my bills.
And learning how to construct clear essays also taught me how to concisely and professionally send emails.
Even if you stay far away from a career as a professional writer, you probably send hundreds of emails a month, if not a week.
While sending well-written and organised correspondence might have been a skill drilled into students a few generations ago, I’ve observed firsthand in many of my students that this skill is lacking. In fact, it’s not uncommon for students to come to my office specifically to work on an email they’re drafting.
By no means do I recommend writing a full essay every time you write an email, but having direct topic sentences can help keep your language clear and limit the number of additional emails that pile up in the thread as a result of miscommunication.
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