Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Of course Rilke wrote his "Letters to a Young Poet," which is pretty great, and multiple writers have followed with their versions of a "Letter to a Young Writer." THIS is my favorite, but maybe because that's because reading it makes me feel like I'm chatting with Dick Bausch and that instantly improves my mood.

Anyway. I've noticed that I spend a lot of time answering my students' questions (both in my office and over email) about their struggles with writing, what they should do with themselves, and what it means to be a writer in various ways. My answers to these questions are not more awesome than anyone else's (see again Bausch), but I have put a lot of thought into them and some of this knowledge is hard-won. So in that spirit, I've decided to start copying here, with any identifying details removed of course, the advice that I give students over email. Some of them will be about process ("What should I do when I'm stuck?" type questions), some will be about craft and genre, some will be about publication, some will be about making a writer's life.

This first entry in the series falls into the last category. It's from a student a week away from graduating who was getting anxious when people kept asking him, "Now, what do you plan to do with a degree in English?" He found he didn't have an answer and was wondering if all he was qualified to do now was to go to graduate school and eventually teach. He ended his email to me with this question:

What can I do with an English degree if I don't want to be a professor?

That's a great question, and it's one that's based on sort of a misleading idea of what it means to declare a major. Some forces within the university have a way of emphasizing this decision as though you are choosing a path for your life in a significant way, choosing what sort of person to become and what sort of work might be available to you. In reality this isn't what you're doing at all--when you declared English as your major, you were only choosing one department to take 8-10 classes in, at the same time you were taking a lot more classes in a lot of other departments.

My students are always a little scandalized to hear what I'm about to say to you, but I swear it's true: As you go on in life, no one cares all that much what you majored in as an undergraduate. Obviously there are exceptions--you can't be an engineer without an engineering degree, a nurse without a nursing degree, etc., but within the sorts of jobs you might possibly be interested in, things are a lot looser than they seem. For instance, I am an English professor but my undergraduate major was anthropology. I have never been questioned about this or even looked askance at--not when I applied to graduate schools, not when I applied for teaching positions. If my undergraduate major ever comes up in casual conversation around the department, no one freaks out or demands that I leave. They assume that I acquired the expertise I have in other ways than declaring that major back when I was 18, and they are right, I did. (I've also had colleagues and professors in English departments whose undergraduate majors were history, women's studies, American studies, physics, and probably lots more I never heard about).

It works the other way, too: English majors have and will become doctors, engineers, politicians, CEOs, astronauts, and any other non-English-y job you can think of, and in getting those positions it only seems to have helped them that they know about something other than just science, engineering, business, etc. Everyone always acts surprised when studies come out saying that business employers would rather hire English major than business majors for their entry-level jobs, but you can imagine why this would be. English majors are trained in analyzing complex texts and communicating clearly in writing, and these skills are more important to these employers than whatever it is that business majors learn (I haven't the faintest clue).

And it's actually really great that you don't want to be a professor, because that is a job that is sort of disappearing. There are already way too many PhDs without teaching jobs who had to make mid-career changes and do something else, or who are teaching but are underemployed as adjuncts. (I just read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the growing number of PhDs teaching full-time at colleges and universities who qualify for food stamps and other public assistance). I would be sad and anxious for you if you said that all you really want to be when you grow up is an English professor, because that's about as solid a plan as winning the lottery. But if you want to be something other than an English professor, well, absolutely nothing will stop you, least of all the fact that you were an English major.

Hope that helps,
Professor Dean