What can you do with an English major? You might be surprised…

From Andrea Kay:

Let’s hear from those with degrees in the liberal arts and tell us what you are doing these days…

Of all the non-useful things people believe, have no proof of but perpetuate, I’d like to put one to rest:

“You can’t do anything with” (fill in the blank) an English degree, a degree in philosophy or anything in the general vicinity of the humanities or social sciences.

But that belief is just false, false, false — especially today.

How can that be? With the cry for skilled workers in science, technology, engineering and math, you would think that people only with those degrees can find jobs.

Like most things in this world, the job market is not that simple.

First, let me point out that a lot of successful people with degrees in English and philosophy have had or are having terrific careers…

Many people who study language or philosophy learn practical skills that can be used in the real world. They learn to analyze and understand complex information, how to write persuasive, comprehensive arguments and how to think.

In my new book about what employers are looking for today, every employer I talked to said the same thing.

Yes, some are seeking particular technical skills. But what they want most are people who can think critically, know how to listen, and be open to other points of view.

This is how innovative ideas and products get hatched.

If you look at people with degrees in social sciences, which typically focus on society and human nature, you’ll see that their education, too, can be quite useful in the job market….

Anthropologists, who also are skilled in critical thinking, work for places like Intel, IBM, Microsoft and research firms, and according to the Bureau of Occupational Outlook, have a rosy 21% growth rate through 2020.

If you’re getting ready to look for a job or considering what to study, don’t be deterred by simplistic or outdated perceptions about what’s practical in today’s marketplace.

When someone asks, “What will you do with a degree in English, philosophy or anthropology?” brag about the great training you got that can apply to the real world.

What employers want above all are people who can think critically.

And from what they tell me, those people are not so easy to find.

Career consultant Andrea Kay is the author of This Is How To Get Your Next Job: An Inside Look at What Employers Really Want. Reach her at andrea@andreakay.com. Twitter: @AndreaKayCareer.

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  • The advice about ‘critical thinking’ as what employers most want was one of the reasons I pursued a liberal arts degree. I became an English major, as opposed to a biblical/theological studies major, in pursuit of my dream of pastoral ministry. There are many well-known pastors whose background is in the liberal arts and English. It has served me well and I’d never go a different route.

  • Andy

    I had successful careers in accounting and sales and marketing before my final destination as a pastor with a liberal arts degree (English/History). Skills in critical thinking and communications gave me an advantage over many in these fields. It is funny that I sat across from a young man at lunch today who told me how worthless liberal arts degrees are. I smiled.

  • Blake

    As someone who has a Philosophy degree and has been unemployed for almost seven months and does not see gainful employment coming my way anytime soon, allow me to offer some hard learned wisdom. A lot more goes into getting a job than the area of your degree. When I was an undergrad I also heard about how many well to do famous people had degrees in Philosophy and was somewhat comforted that people did get jobs where critical thinking is appreciated. The problem is most employers, in my experience, are not this forward thinking, especially after a recession. Now, I wouldn’t not do Philosophy if I’d had to do it all over again. I love the ways it challenged and improved me as a person, however I wished I had done more than just a degree in Philosophy. When you’re trying to get a job you’re going to need to list more skills than expert questioner, analyzer and communicator in order to be considered. Having a second major or a couple of minors would go a long way in areas that give you more practical skills. Study abroad experiences are invaluable and I’ve heard employers greatly value them in their considerations. Internships, Teaching Assistantships or just a few different part time jobs in different fields are great ways to build your resume and prepare you for real world work. Considering places you would want to work after you graduate and networking towards those places is also a very good idea. In summary, don’t think that a degree alone in the humanities or social sciences will provide a decent job. A lot more goes into getting employed than a degree.

  • Cecille

    I have an English degree, and I stumbled into records management. Attention to detail, organizational skills, ability to write clearly, ability to listen and to follow instructions are just a few of the qualities my major helped me develop. But I wanted to comment here because one of my jobs on the way to records management was working as a groom and foal manager on Arabian farms. On my way to my first job with horses, I swung by my alma mater for a quick visit. I stopped in at the English Department, and I’ll never forget the look on one professor’s face when I told her what my plans were. She paused a beat to take it in and said, “Well, that’s a new one to add to our list of what you can do with an English major.”

  • nemo

    B.A. English, Religion

    VP, Global Sales & Marketing at a technology company

    It pains me greatly that entire segments of American society don’t see the value in the humanities.

    @Blake #3: Hang in there. I’ve never met a philosophy major in my life who wasn’t an exceptional thinker. I will pray for you tonight.

  • Josh

    Whether Engineering or Philosophy, the outlook for people who ONLY have a college degree is not pretty. The trend in hiring practices is that employers are not interested in your aptitude or critical thinking or anything like that. They are interested someone with a degree, PLUS 3-5 years (minimum) of experience in a very specific field, PLUS very specific software knowledge, PLUS etc. This is not a problem with schools or degree choices or anything like what has usually been brought up in the news. It is a problem that managers now require extensive experience from new candidates that cannot be learned in school, and the filtering software they use ignores anyone who is not a perfect match. And these are not the only issues, obviously. It’s called the search for the purple squirrel (if you haven’t heard of that, look it up), and it seems to have become the new normal.

    I’m speaking as someone who lost a long-term retail sales job in the building trades back in 2010 (in a field that still hasn’t bounced back). I went back to school and am about to complete my second 2-year technical degree. Interestingly enough, I pursued a Philosophy degree about 15 years ago but never finished it. Unfortunately, even with these two Associate degrees, my current prospects for anything related to my fields of study are slim to none because I have no on-the-job experience. If you ask most people who have recently dealt with the absurdity that is the current job market, they’ll likely tell the same story.

  • Marcus C

    “But what they want most are people who can think critically, know how to listen, and be open to other points of view.”

    Sorry, but you don’t need to go to college and accrue a massive amount of debt to learn how to think critically, know how to listen, and be open to other points of view. In fact, given the alternatives, this is a very inefficient way of obtaining those skills IMO.

  • Dana Ames

    BA, German, Music minor.

    I have been a medical transcriptionist for 24 years. I work with language and linguistic skills every day. Not only does a foreign language boost critical thinking in one’s own language, communicating in a foreign language enables the brain to actually think differently.

    Before that, I worked in secretarial jobs requiring organizational skills and attention to detail. All of that goes with the training of the brain that happens when one is learning a foreign language. I started out wanting to teach High School students. That didn’t work out, but I have no regrets on that score.


  • Sam

    Not true at all. You would like to think so, but a a liberal arts deans list double major in Religion and English from Baylor University I have struggled to find work ever since leaving Baylor. I am currently working as a bellman of a hotel. So no, liberal arts degrees suck. Go business if you want a job.

  • Josh

    #9, Sam… I’d agree that liberal arts degrees suck more than other options for gaining a job, but in the current job market, it’s not that much of a help. If you had gotten a Business degree instead, you may still have be working as a bellman (or similar) without multiple years of experience in your field. Unless you know the right position in the right company, your chances of finding a good job without relevant experience are very slim. Best of luck to you; I hope and pray your situation improves sooner rather than later.

  • Josh

    Make that “right person in the right position…”