In defense of the English major

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By Emily Smith

Campus News

Pursuing a degree in English has long been considered a useless pursuit for a profitless career. But, as employers begin to value new skills and the atmosphere of the modern office evolves, it appears English majors are making strides toward becoming the superstar employees of the future.

According to Steven Rothberg, President and Founder of College Recruiter, employers prefer problem-solving candidates with strong critical thinking skills and information filters – that is, employees who question data and double-check the facts. Luckily, these are the exact skills English majors are taught; not so luckily, only 12 percent of graduates with an English major find a job within six months of graduation. So why the divide?

“Employers may value the ability to think critically, but need to weigh that skill against another such as a demonstrated ability by a salesperson to make 60 outbound calls a day,” Rothberg explained. “In a perfect world, that employer may be able to hire someone with both attributes, but may need to settle for someone with just one of the two skills.”

Since qualitative skills are harder to measure than quantitative ones, graduates with the latter skill almost always win out.

Nancy A. Shenker, one time Vice President of both CitiBank and MasterCard International, argued that her English degree has been invaluable during the course of her career. Although her major seemed “fluffy” at the time – she wrote plays and analyzed novels – her storytelling abilities and eye for detail landed her a job at several Fortune 500 companies. Now, Shenker is the Founder and CEO of marketing company theONswitch and a blogger for The Huffington Post.

“A marketing major probably would have sucked all the life out of me. I’ve come to realize that while analytics are critical to the marketing process, creative thinking, writing, storytelling, and visualization of data are really what engages readers and helps sell services and products,” Shenker wrote. “I’ve taken courses over the years to strengthen my business skills and learned a lot about marketing theory from colleagues and reading, but the skills I learned as an English major are equally important.”

It seems like Shenker’s statement is becoming increasingly true in the workplace.

The sudden desire for English majors may be reflecting the change in contemporary work environments. Many of the job openings at BuzzFeed, for example, require the same qualifications: emotional intelligence and the ability to consider the perspective of others are equally as important for editors as they are for interns. These qualities are rampant in English majors, since those who read fiction have higher levels of cognitive empathy. In several studies, empathy has been associated with increased sales, top performing managers of product development and greater efficiency.

Some workplaces even physically support these qualities. Face-to-face interactions, which encourage empathy between coworkers, are incredibly important in the workplace and improve performance. That’s why Facebook settled its employees into a single, mile-long room and why Yahoo revoked mobile phone privileges on campus. Indeed, the greatest ideas don’t occur in front of a blank computer screen, but during interactions and collaborations with other people.

The English major can also look to the rethinking of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education in America as a promise of better career prospects in the future. As explained by the U.S. Department of Education, STEM is the curriculum used to improve competitiveness in science and technology development – in other words, it’s the education plan that aids America in global leadership. Recently, academics have discussed incorporating a fifth letter into the acronym: A for arts, which includes the English department.

“STEAM will make things happen,” Nicholas Dirks, Chancellor of University of California-Berkeley, said. “It suggests combustion, it suggests the transformation of elements from one stage to another.”

And it’s true. The arts, including English, are as essential to global leadership as they are to the human condition. And business owners would be well advised to hire English majors to compete in the global marketplace.

So, what exactly are English majors qualified to do? The problem isn’t that there aren’t any options – it’s that there are too many. While graduates of an English program can pursue jobs in publishing, academia or journalism, the flexibility of the degree also allows for non-traditional paths to alternative careers. Anticipating the value in a liberal-arts education, some schools have revamped their programs to attract English majors and students with similar degrees to pursue higher education.

According to the University of Arizona, philosophy and English are common undergraduate majors for physicians. The value of that foundation is certainly not lost on the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, where admissions requirements have changed in order to lure more English majors to the school. The humanities-oriented program, known as HuMed, encourages students to study anything from English to medieval studies, then guarantees admission into the medical program by a student’s sophomore year. The program, founded by Dr. Nathan Kase, is rooted in the belief that science is the foundation for a medical education, but a well-wounded humanist is best suited to take advantage of that education.

HuMed, which will soon expand its doors to other schools and majors, acts as an anecdote for “pre-med syndrome,” an industry term for students striving for straight-As and high test scores. What the school and the greater medical community found was that the “syndrome” made applicants, and therefore physicians, too single-minded. In short, they made bad doctors. Similarly, certain students who struggled to take courses like organic chemistry during their traditional pre-med tracks found the struggle toward medical school less of an obstacle when given the opportunity to take another route. When Kase was asked what he would have pursued in college had his track not been quite so traditional, he replied in the vein of HuMed.

“Literature – English lit,” Kase said. “I read voraciously as a kid, and that almost came to a complete standstill in college because there was just no time to breathe.”

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