This article shows that professors often give English majors terrible advice about how to find a career with their English degree. The article offers a much more productive solution, helping English majors to invest their energy and ambition into their own skills and future.
Between 2005 and 2009, over 100,000 PhD’s were produced in the USA. Over that same period, only 16,000 tenure positions were created.
Before those 94,000 souls either worked as adjuncts or decided to leave academia, their Directors bestowed this infinite wisdom bit of career advice on them, a bright lamp to assist them down the path of finding a career as ten-year English majors.
Graduate study in English imparts students with a host of skills that are transferrable to a variety of positions and fields. Employers value your ability to think critically, research, problem-solve, and tolerate ambiguity.
This vague, middle-class infested thinking might have got you a job at Sterling Cooper in the 1960‘s, but the time has come to tear it down from graduate school websites.
It is an arrogant myth that anything you do up there in the ivory tower, is valued by employers down here in the lower order world of commerce and industry.
I’m going to show you why you should stop telling yourself this big graduate school lie, and suggest a much more productive solution to finding a career as an English major.
Careers for English majors? Not without a skill.
October. I remember sitting in the courtyard of the English department with a friend, a very smart modernist scholar. We were drinking coffee, making literary jokes, and talking about how much smarter we were than everyone else in the English department. A plane flew across the open square of sky above the courtyard, and we stopped for a minute while the noise passed.
“My friend is a pilot,” he said, “That’s a real skill.”
It amazed us. That ability to know all about aircrafts, landing gear, to circle massive airports like Houston or Los Angeles, pulling up thrust, calculating drag, velocity, turning theory into practice 700 feet above the ground.
“I can only take a poem,” he continued, “and not even explain it—I can only make it even harder to understand.”
Real skills. The world opened its wallets to those with concrete abilities.
And then us English majors without any real career direction. Failed analysts. Incomprehensible critics. Politically obscure and lost humanities majors, wondering if our sudden fascination with William Blake at age 17 should have turned into a 12 year intellectual odyssey, drifting further and further into abstraction.
Maybe the genius thing was just a phase. Youthful hubris. Were our parents more baffled than proud of our accomplishments? (He has won a post-doc? I don’t know what it is, some type of more school—yes, he already has a PhD, but this is sort of a PhD after the PhD which helps him get the job more than just if he had the PhD. . . No it’s still not technically a job, but he will be doing the full-duties of professor, teaching classes and research, but he still isn’t technically a professor).
But we stayed. We walked the campus pathways. We carried our armfuls of books from the archives to the Graduate Department Reading Room, a club-house of career delinquents, failed artists, egotistical young quasi-genises, and schizophrenic mature adults thinking that a PhD in art history at age 49 would help their career.
We laughed about Lacan’s diagrams. We laughed about our skilllessness. Our abstraction. Our job as literary critics in an industry of aestheticism which didn’t really exist.
We sat at the feet of distinguished scholars, pretending to really be interested in spending a Saturday tracing Bonaventura’s debt back to Plotinus, perhaps even extending this trek to a Sunday romp in Philo. We believed in literature. We believed there was a place for us here.
And one day, the cord was cut.
Your English degree is worthless
That’s what your professor doesn’t tell you.
Even a PhD. It’s an aptitude test.
Yes, grad school is lovely and wonderful (I did sign up for it all), but it doesn’t give you a skill you can sell to an employer.
The problem is semantics. Academics love to imagine abstraction as a skill. They think “critical thinking” is a skill.
What is my job? I encourage my students to foster critical thinking, a skill that will serve them through-out their careers. I’m involved in citizen-training, passing on the democratic ethos, the collective knowledge of the polis.
That garbage (and your student loans) pays their bills—not yours.
Professors survive in a work place funded by grants and people paying to learn. They sell abstraction.The world of industry uses abstraction, but under a practical direction.
But in academia, ‘the concrete’ is the production of original research. Critical thinking is essential to find holes in existing knowledge and to produce more knowledge.
Often in the nonacademic workforce, this level of thinking is simply not necessary, and rarely profitable.
If you work in a PR firm, for example, your boss will be less interested in you spending your time exploding all existing journalism theory into a radical new interpretation of human communication than she will be in having that God-damn press release about refrigeration appliances on her desk by lunch.
How to really sell yourself to employers
A better strategy is to think about the perspective of an employer. What does the employer really care about?
Your “transferable” skills, your advanced understanding of problem solving that allows you to solve a variety of different problems in a myriad of different ways.
Is this what the employer, with his overhead, rent, thousands of dollars of payroll every week, his big client yelling into his ear on Sunday night, wants to hear?
I’m not saying that writing a dissertation doesn’t take a feat of intelligence. But all that matters is perception.
Just because you have turned a box of random journal entires from Post-Colonial Africa into a coherent article about the suppression of racial genocide within the epistemology of travel narratives doesn’t mean that you can wander into the office on Monday morning, read a couple paragraphs of business philosophy, and turn a crate of market research into a successful advertising campaign.
You might be able to. But you’d have to try first. And that is a huge risk for an employer.
You need to think seriously about what you can offer employers. Physical stuff. Real results. Not inspirational garbage.
You need to be able to actually solve their problems, increase their sales, improve their product.
Can you do that?
Don’t be educated. Be indispensable.
To find a job with your PhD, or really even any degree, you have to be what Seth Godwin calls a “linchpin,” an essential small part of an organization that holds everything together. Rather than a cog in a vast machine, trying to keep their head until 5:00 PM.
If you always see yourself as self-employed, even when you work for a huge corporation, and then sell employers the product of your services, you will weather any economic storm, and survive after companies topple.
That’s because you will focus on delivering a product, a product that you can adapt to fix the changing demand in the market, rather than investing in the static fixture of a company, an education system, or even economic philosophy.
Employ yourself. Invest in your own skills. If you don’t have any skills, then start getting some. Staggering advice, isn’t it? But you can learn a lot in a year. It doesn’t take much time to become an expert in topics outside of academia, especially since most of your competition have not been in disciplined environments like grad school.
Invest in a skill, at night, in the mornings, on the ride to work. Invest. And then a return will come.
Sell yourself, your drive, your work ethic. Rather than touting some obscure degree nobody knows or cares about. Show your employer what you can do, not what skills you theoretically have been given by academia.
Sell yourself. Be an island of indispensable success.