Study with Spite: Getting an English Degree
Updated: Jun 2, 2022
I’ve known I was meant to be a writer since I was six years old. Not a lot of people are so decisive even once they’ve picked a major in college, so I recognize how fortunate I am in that respect. I briefly considered other fields--a veterinarian, orthodontist, linguist--before coming right back to creative writing. I didn’t know how I would go about funding my life as a writer, I just knew I wanted to write.
My parents knew of this dream. They couldn’t exactly avoid it, given I always asked them for fresh notebooks, pens, and fancy mechanical pencils for every birthday and Christmas wish list I sent them. I wrote stories for Santa Clause and American Girl Magazine in hopes of receiving global recognition as some child prodigy. My parents supported this dream, but not without the subtle reminder that I could study something with a little more financial stability.
I’m not going to pretend like being a writer is a job that guarantees a living wage. The truth is, it takes a while (and enough attention on BookTok, Bookstagram, and BookTube) before you can make a living off the books you write, hence my parents’ concern when I announced I was going to pursue an English degree. The argument is that STEM-based jobs ensure more job security and are overall better paying jobs than jobs that require an art degree. I’ve had a fair share of hearing this from people when I told them what I was studying in college. Even worse is when they laughed at me like I was a child who didn’t know any better, followed by some variation of, “People usually wind up changing their majors in college, anyway.” Sometimes they would say, “Please tell me you’re going to law school.”
Except I never changed my major, never even considered going to law school, and, yes, I got a job relevant to my English degree.
If you’re thinking about majoring in English, or if you’re currently majoring in English, you can probably relate to feeling like people, even complete strangers, did not respect your desired career path simply because it is unlikely that it will pay the bills as soon as you walk off that graduation stage--not unless you’re a certified educator and decide to be an English teacher. This is partly due to the intense devaluation of the arts in our society, and also partly due to deeply rooted sexism that asserts “feminine” jobs pay less. There is some truth to this.
Unfortunately, some of these jobs pay so little because women worked them almost exclusively back in the day. But, that doesn’t mean the job is useless or that your salary will be a lost cause, nor does it mean you should listen to those who (still) hold this notion so close to their hearts. English degrees are relevant, even if they don’t pay as well as the others. While I am no good for solving difficult math problems and building cool machines, I can create entire worlds for people to consume in their spare time, and I can proofread like nobody’s business (you laugh, but editors are so important, especially in the digital age in which every piece of text is produced and sent out to the world at lightning speed). The rise of book consumption on the Internet is proof that we still need creative writers in this world. If I choose to teach English, I can expand the literacy of the next generation’s creative writers, literature lovers, and critical thinkers (the last one seems sorely lacking in the kids these days).
The moral of the story is, don’t let anyone discourage you from getting an English degree, even if said English degree never pays you $100k a year. Your value is not in your salary, and you can find a job that pays comfortably in teaching, editing, publishing, and, yes, writing. It may take a little bit of time and patience; you'll probably have to do your time as an unpaid intern with an unrelated side hustle that helps pay the bills before you get your big break (like I did), but it is possible, I promise.