English is often criticised as a degree choice. Accused of failing to teach transferable skills that will benefit students when they are searching for a vocation, it is seen as a ‘soft’ subject and, with the recent increase in tuition fees, as a waste of money.
I promise you that couldn’t be further from the truth, but it is important that you are well-suited to an English degree. You will not find work falling into your lap at the end of it; you will need to seek it out yourself, but the skills English helps you to hone can be transferred into countless different professions and fields.
What kind of person should take an English degree?
English graduates are an eclectic bunch, but they do have the following three traits in common:
- You have to enjoy reading, a lot. You’re going to be reading several novels, plays, poetry anthologies and journal articles a week. Every week. If you struggle to read a single book in a month, and you’re not completely infatuated with them, then you need to choose a different subject.
- You have to enjoy writing. Writing is both an art-form and a science, and if you’re not already good at it then you’d better be prepared to improve. Your grammar should be good, and your vocabulary. You need to understand how to express your ideas succinctly and clearly, but also elegantly. Bear in mind also that you are not taught how to write at university, you are taught how to read; how to analyse and interpret texts. Your writing will be honed through studying literature, practising through your own essays, and feedback on those essays from your seminar leaders. But nobody will sit you down and show you how to do it.
- You have to be independent. You’re going to read all those books on your own, and you’re going to write those essays on your own. You should be spending around 40 hours a week studying, and only 8 of those hours will be spent in seminars or lectures, so that leaves 30+ hours per week of reading time. There is very little collaboration on assessed work, so you need to manage your own time to ensure you do what you’re supposed to when you’re supposed to. You’ll also end up making a lot of choices about what you read and what you write about – there is a lot of freedom, but also a lot of potential to get it wrong.
If you can tick all of these off, then I promise you you’re going to love studying English at university, and you’ll definitely get a job out of it.
What do you get out of an English Degree?
English graduates are independent, resourceful and adaptable, but above all they are good at communicating – a talent prized by and indispensable to our society. An English degree hones your communication skills to a level far, far beyond everyone else’s, and there are very few vocations that do not benefit from – if not require – that you are an able communicator.
- Verbal Communication Skills. Put simply this means that you understand people; what they are trying to say, and also why – you become good at reading people as well as books (books are about people after all). You are also better at conveying your own thoughts and needs; you can adjust your vernacular and approach to fit your audience.
- Writing Skills. You can write better emails, that demonstrate your intellect and education. You can write reports, contracts, articles and reviews more quickly and more effectively – whatever writing your job entails you will be better prepared for it through having honed this skill. You will be respected for this, and it will save time (and therefore money for your employer) if you can communicate without causing confusion through poor structure or expression of ideas. You are also better able to persuade people to agree to your requests and with your perspective, which again will inevitably be part of your job. Every university degree is assessed through written essays, but English is the only degree that examines writing itself as an art form, and standards are therefore higher than for other disciplines. I have seen essays written for Languages, History, Law and the Sciences, and was shocked by the standard of writing not only accepted but marked highly outside of English.
- Adaptability. English Literature is by its very nature interdisciplinary – you are learning about history, philosophy, art, psychology, science, zoology, hot air balloons… any topic explored by a book will enter into your catalogue of knowledge and experiences, giving you the ability to access, understand and analyse almost any issue. Vocationally, this helps you to turn your hand to any field. I have friends with English degrees who have become writers, journalists, editors, librarians, teachers and academics. I also know people, however, who have used those skills to become building consultants, project managing the restoration of cathedrals and construction of new academies, housing directors working for councils who help to home the homeless, and account managers for international media companies. The world really is your oyster.
I hope I’ve persuaded you of the merits of taking an English degree. It is both rewarding and enjoyable, provided you already possess a few basic traits that make you a suitable English student. It will challenge you and expand your mind, and also hone skills that can be applied to almost any industry or vocation. Yes we need scientists, engineers and doctors, but – trust me – we also need good communicators.