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What to do with an English major

Published: March 23, 2007
Section: Opinions


I am a senior, and it is job search season. Im also an English major. I can see the sidelong glances of pity already.

Majoring in the humanities always brings along with it a type of stigma. People like to joke that studying things like Anthropology and Sociology are going to get you nowhere in the real world, fast. Before you know it, the diploma will be in your hand and the McDonalds cap will be on your head. Of course this is one of my sarcastic uses of hyperbole (and no disrespect to McDonalds, either. I enjoy trans fats every now and then) but the general attitude is that humanities majors have got to be in love with their classes, because a vast cavern of useless knowledge is pretty much all theyre going to be leaving college with. Economics and Finance majors make buckets of money right away. Premeds have to wait a decade before theyre rolling in it. English majors seem to get the worst reputation of all. Well be copy-editing the magazines and newsletters that will be lying in their offices and waiting rooms for mere pennies. At least thats what I hear.

The idea of the English major as the butt of jokes has become something of a standard. Ive developed a way of smiling knowingly as I reveal my area of concentration to inquirers, as if to politely say Yes, I know you dont think I have any special skill sets that will help me to thrive in the real world. Thank you very much, Ill call you when Im broke. True, English is, in some ways, a method of declaring formally that you are undeclared. But that is just fine with me.

Despite what sometimes feels like wishy-washy support from nay sayers, I know that I am going to graduate Brandeis as a significantly smarter person who is well-read, well-spoken, who knows how to write a damn good paper and who can incorporate the use of the subjunctive fluidly into her everyday vocabulary. And this is no small feat. After four years of Joyce, Melville, Austen, Wordsworth and Dante, Ive developed a close relationship with the classics of literature that not many are lucky enough to enjoy. Being an English major has pushed me to think thoughts that I am quite sure I never would had I not gone down this path. Who knows if Ill ever think this way again in my life, but at least I have the papers to prove that I once did.

More importantly, I see a major in the humanities as a solid preparation for many jobs. I used to think that one major forged the way to a very narrow career path, consisting of only a few options. Art History majors worked as curators. History majors became professors. But Ive learned that I am by no means destined to a life of proofreading and editing. An undergraduate degree is a jumping-off place, not a life sentence. And knowing that feels good.

So I just want to dispel those myths that lurk out there. Neuroscience majors can stop snickering at our Philosophy books, and Philosophy majors can stop hanging their heads in shame. I know that I will. And Ill be sure to update you on all the job offers that I know are going to start pouring in any minute now. And even if they dont, it is ok. Im sure the McDonalds workers get lots of free french fries.