What Our English Majors Do and How We Can Help Them See a Wider World of Opportunities

Kevin Brown, Lee University

In 2008, I surveyed our alumni to see what they did with their English degrees. Taking that information along with a number of articles, I argued that most of our majors do not go into either teaching or graduate school, and, in fact, most English majors from most colleges and universities do not do so, either. My contention was, then, that we needed to make some changes to our curriculum and departments to try to deal with that reality.[1] I did the survey again in 2012 to evaluate changes we had made to our curriculum just prior to that survey and to see if any of the other changes we had made changed our graduates’ future plans.

I drew my approach from Peter Beidler’s two articles, “What Can You Do with an English Major?” from 1985 and “What English Majors Do Out There, How They Feel about It, and What We Do about It” from 2003. Essentially, what Beidler found was that most of their majors in the 1985 survey went into business or finance, while most of the 2003 survey respondents went into law school. Overall, though, their majors worked in a wide variety of fields, teaching among them, but not the dominate one, and few of their students attended graduate school in English.

Based on my findings, I suggested two major changes, one to our curriculum and one simply in the way we talk to our students. My second suggestion took the form of advising, but the way we changed was broader than that. In curriculum, I suggested changing the class that all majors take at the beginning of the major, Introduction to English Studies. That class was once called Writing About Literature, but we changed it when we broadened the major to include students with a Writing Emphasis.[2] However, the original changes did not accurately represent all three aspects of our major, as the emphasis of the course was still on writing analytic papers on literature, a skill we wanted all our students to have, but not to the exclusion of other skills.

One of the main changes I made to that course was to include some aspect of creative writing and the workshop model. I now have students write a poem after they have studied close readings of poetry. A couple of students volunteer to have their poems workshopped, so I can show them how a workshop is managed and what is expected from them in our writing courses. Other professors include creative writing in similar ways.

We also added panel discussions from the other faculty and students of the department. We devote days to the three areas our department covers, where faculty and students talk about the types of courses we offer, but also the types of employment one can find with those types of degrees. We do not stop there, however; we also have panels discuss ways to get involved in the department through working on our literary magazine, being active in Sigma Tau Delta, or working in the Writing Center, all of which help students see various avenues they might pursue after graduation. We also have a very active TESOL program, so we have the director of that program address the class and talk about teaching English overseas after students graduate. All of these come early in the semester, so students can reflect on them through their various writing assignments, including a Literacy Narrative, where they can begin to make connections between why they’re interested in English and what they might do with it after graduation.

While we certainly have begun talking about a broader range of employment with an English degree in our advising, that conversation has spilled out into various events we sponsor on campus, mainly through Sigma Tau Delta, but not exclusively. We have regular brown bag lunches, where we have people talk about their careers and how English relates to them. We have had librarians come in and talk about information science and the different types of jobs that come from that area. We have had publishers lay out the jobs within that industry, as well as the different types of publishers, something undergraduate students often do not think about. Even when we discuss graduate school, we have someone with an MFA in creative writing, someone with a doctorate in rhetoric and composition, and someone with a doctorate in literature in order to provide options that go beyond what they see in their literature courses.

The effects of these changes (and another significant one I’ll mention later) have been exactly what we hoped for. In our 2008 survey, most of our majors planned on either attending graduate school in literature or becoming a middle or high school English teacher (19.7% and 43.7%, respectively, making up almost two-thirds of our majors). While both of those paths are certainly options we support, we wondered whether they pursued one of those post-graduate plans simply because they were not aware of any other options. As it turned out, only 5.6% of our graduates went to graduate school in literature and 28.2% taught either high or middle school English, making up only a third of our graduates. In fact, the largest group of students found jobs in the “Other” category, with 39.4% of them finding jobs in fields as diverse as business, politics, information technology, and music production. Since that diversity was the reality of what students did after graduation, we felt we should talk about those realities rather than simply allow students to find it out on their own after graduation.

The changes we made seem to have had a positive effect, as students seem now to have a much more realistic plan for post-graduation, as we can see when we look at the difference between those who planned to pursue a particular path and those who actually found a career in that path. In our most recent study, only 12.9% planned to pursue graduate school in literature, and 5.7% did so. Thus, while the percentage of students pursuing graduate school stayed almost the same, the percentage who believed they would attend graduate school in literature dropped. In the same way, those who planned to pursue teaching positions dropped to 37.1%, while 27.2% actually went into teaching positions.[3]

Those students who once planned to pursue graduate school in literature or teaching dispersed among the other areas where the numbers between those who planned to follow a particular career or educational path were much closer. For example, 5.7% of our alumni planned to pursue a degree in library science after graduation, while 2.9% actually did so. Similarly, 11.4% thought they would pursue graduate studies in some other field beyond any aspect of English, library science, or education, and 14.3% did so. While these numbers are not perfect, they are certainly better than we found four years before. We know there will always be life circumstances, economic issues, and other factors we and our students cannot control that lead them into fields they never expected, but we hope to limit the difference between planned and actual careers as much as possible.

The majority of our students still do go into teaching, as we are still well above the national average. The February 2009 Report to the Teagle Foundation on the Undergraduate Major in Language and Literature produced by the Modern Language Association reports that only 3.8% of English graduates teach on the college level and 15.2% teach anywhere from elementary to secondary school (31). While we are on par with the college level statistic, we still have nearly a third of our students teaching on some level below college, twice the number cited by the MLA. Part of the problem might be our not providing our students with other options and opportunities; however, part of the difference might not be a problem at all. Instead, the difference may simply come from the type of institution we are. Lee is a Christian college and one that takes its mission very seriously. Over the past decade, we have talked a good deal about the idea of calling and vocation, even establishing a Center for Calling and Career. Not surprisingly, then, many of our students see teaching as a type of ministry, not in an evangelistic sense, but in a way to serve the community by being an excellent, caring teacher. Our students see their careers as more than a job that will help them pay the bills. Because of their religious background, they see careers as a way to provide meaning for their lives and ways of serving others. When I asked students why they planned to pursue the career path they had chosen, 42.6% responded that they felt called to that profession. The next two highest responses, that they were encouraged by their professors or thought they would be good at it, only led to 36.8% combined. No one responded that they believed it would provide them with a good salary.

We are not alone in differing from many other colleges and universities in what our alumni do and why. In his 2010 essay, “Where I Teach,” William Conlogue lays out Marywood University’s mission and how that affects a variety of issues with their students and his teaching. In thinking about their curriculum, they surveyed their students to find out what they did after graduation. They “discovered that 53 percent of [their] alumni taught at the elementary or secondary level” (396). Marywood’s webpage states quite clearly what they want their students to do and how that relates to their religious faith: “Marywood University prepares students to have a positive impact on society at regional and global levels while providing each student with the foundation for success in an interdependent world. Marywood University is coeducational, comprehensive, residential, and Catholic. Founded in 1915 by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the University serves men and women from a variety of backgrounds and religions” (“About Marywood”). Colleges and universities such as Marywood and Lee will always have a different alumni population, a difference that should be celebrated, not diminished.

There has been one other change in our program that has led to the different results in the two surveys. In 2004, we began a minor in Writing, which became a major in 2007. In the 2008 survey, none of the students had graduated with a Writing major, as they had not yet worked their way through our curriculum and entered into the job market.[4] The changes we made in curriculum helped lead to several interesting changes in what our graduates do after they graduate.

First, an expected change is that more students planned and pursued graduate studies in creative writing. In the 2008 survey, no one planned to pursue that route, and no one did. In the most recent survey, though 5.7% planned on attending graduate school in creative writing, and 1.4% did so. Rhetoric and Composition also increased, not surprisingly, given that our students take several classes where they study rhetorical and composition theory. In 2008, no one planned to follow that path, though 1.4% did. That number essentially doubled in 2012, as 1.4% planned to study Rhet/Comp, while 2.9% did so.

Two other areas that benefited from the new Writing courses were publishing and technical and professional writing. Because we have had a literary magazine for a couple of decades, we have always had students interested in some aspect of publishing. Despite having 5.6% say that they planned to pursue publishing, the 2008 survey showed that none of those students actually did so. In our recent survey, though, the same amount of students planned to go into the publishing field (5.7%), but now 2.9% did so. Before the writing emphasis, none of our students planned to or actually entered the technical and professional writing field, and my suspicion is that they would not have even known what that was. However, our writing major requires a technical and professional writing course, which has led to 5.7% who planned to pursue that avenue, with 1.4% doing so.

One aspect that cannot be measured with curriculum, though, is a focus on working as a professional writer, which comes through in our pedagogy. Our playwriting professor has students work with a directing class to stage or do staged readings of their final play in the course, and she spends a good deal of class time talking about the collaborative nature of theatre. In technical and professional writing, the students work with local businesses or individuals to develop materials, which they then present to their clients. In our creative writing courses, we require students to submit to our literary magazine and at least one national publication, so we spend time talking about how to find markets for writing and how to present their materials. I would argue that this part of our major, along with the writing major, in general, shows up in our data in an interesting fashion. In the 2008 survey, jobs associated with writing did not appear at all outside of the small percentage of students attending graduate school in Rhet/Comp. Now, not only has it increased in responses, it is the third most popular career path for our graduates, with 7.4% of our graduates working in some writing-related field. Those range from graduates who work in a medical research office writing grant proposals to an editor of a literary journal to a writer for a university’s publications, among others.

Overall, we have improved when it comes to helping students see that the English major can help them find a range of careers after graduation. However, there is still one statistic that reminds us that we can still improve in doing so. In 2008, 12.7% of our students believed they would fall into the Other category, but 39.4% did so. In 2012, the number of students planning to do something other than the traditional jobs English majors pursue was down to 5.7%, yet the number of students who did so was 27.1%, a significant gap. We need to help students see that wide variety before they graduate in order to help them explore those careers they might not think about.

To do so, we’re talking about beginning an internship program. We want students to have an opportunity to explore different career paths while they’re still in college, not when they’re trying to pay back their student loans. As such, we’re planning on making connections with obvious employers, such as libraries and publishers, but we also hope to work with businesses to find ways they use English majors in their companies, whether those be jobs with obvious connections to writing or jobs where the type of thinking our majors do would be useful.

I help our Admissions department with new student recruiting, both through speaking with prospective students and their families in my office and with attending our recruitment days on campus. The most frequent question, especially from parents, is “What can you do with an English major?” Our alumni continue to show me answers I would not have expected. It is our job, then, to continue to provide students the opportunities, whether inside or outside of the classroom, to see those choices before they graduate.

Works Cited

“About Marywood.” Marywood University. Marywood University, 2013. Web. 19 April 2013.

Beidler, Peter G. “What Can You Do with an English Major?” College English 47.1 (Jan. 1985): 39-42. JSTOR. Web. 1 June 2009.

—. “What English Majors Do Out There, How They Feel about It, and What We Do about It.” ADE Bulletin 133 (Winter 2003): 29-35. Print.

Conlogue, William. “Where I Teach.” Pedagogy. 10.2 (Spring 2010): 389-405. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 April 2013.

Report to the Teagle Foundation on the Undergraduate Major in Language and Literature. Modern Language Association, February 2009. Web. 1 June 2009.

[1] The article was published as “What Can They Do With an English Major?: Showing Students the Breadth of the Discipline Through the Introductory Course to the Major and Advising”: in the Summer/Fall 2009 issue of the CEA Forum.

[2] Like many schools, we have three tracks: Literature, Education, and Writing. Four classes (Introduction to English Studies; English Language, Grammar, and Structure; Contemporary Literature; and English in Christian Perspective) are required of all three emphases.

[3] However, more people ended up working in middle school than expected to (7.1% planned to work there, while 12.9% actually did). Thus, those graduates did not end up exactly where they intended, but they did find jobs teaching.

[4] I allowed a two year post-graduate window on the survey, as I wanted graduates to have had time to find a meaningful job before completing the survey.