Home > College, Musings > A Degree is a Degree

A Degree is a Degree

As a recent graduate from an undergraduate program in English, my journey to find a job has begun. However, it is more complicated than that. When people ask me what I have graduated with, and I say, “A B.S. in English and minors in both professional and creative writing,” the person I am talking to usually make a face and says, “Are you going to teach?”

When I answer, “No,” they usually ask me what someone can do with a degree in English, and I tend to reply, “A lot of things,” but they look at me incredulously and say, “Well, it will be hard, in this market, to get a job with that.”

Thanks for the insight.

Look: Yes, undergraduate degrees in anything humanities or social science related are generally looked down upon and people have a certain prejudice toward them, but that does not mean they are useless. Not to brag, but I really could have majored in anything and I would have done just fine. However, I chose to be an English major, and, believe me, I thought about it for a long time (two-and-a-half years in fact, while I finished my Associates degree). For those two-and-a-half years, I teetered upon a decision: English or Economics.

Most people would tell me I should have chosen Economics, and, hell, sometimes I think about telling myself that, too….Especially when I look for jobs and see many involving finances. The economic crisis in America would have made it easier for me to find a job. But, it is not always about what degree you graduated with. A successful, well-educated man once told me during an informational interview that “A degree is a degree.”

He was referring specifically to undergraduate degrees, and, in many ways, he is very right. A degree is a degree and it does not necessarily matter what you get that degree in. It was my hesitation about my ability to go into the PR field that sparked his comment.

He asked me why I thought I wouldn’t be able to get a job in PR, and I told him because I imagined that students in Communications were learning skills that I was not in my English courses. He laughed and told me that his undergraduate degree taught him little that meant anything in PR.

“What has English studies taught you?” he asked me.

“How to communicate effectively, how to analyze, how to think deeply and critically, how to problem solve and support an argument.”

He nodded as I listed the things that an English degree taught me. “Yes,” he said when I was finished, “Those are the skills my communications degree taught me as well.”

At that point in the conversation, I was not entirely sure what that statement really meant to the big picture. He explained it without me asking.

He said something to the effect that, “it does not matter which degree you have. Most jobs want candidates who can communicate effectively and problem-solve. Most ‘liberal arts’ degrees teach that, and therefore, you are more marketable that those who cannot write well or speak well.”

Again, he was and is right. Some of my English professors tried to explain this to me and others as well. We are more marketable than general opinion says we are.

I have an English degree.

I will get a job, but I will still get looks when I say my undergraduate degree is in English.

In a country where we place much emphasis on college education, we need to think about the generalizations we make about the students of different degree programs. My rant about this emphasis and generalization will be for another post. I leave off with a quote from Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society:

                         “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.  And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

–S. Eden; 6/5/12

  1. June 15, 2012 at 5:31 PM

    I can completely relate to this post … still looking for a job. But English was still the best major ever, hands down. Keep writing.

    • June 15, 2012 at 7:44 PM

      I don’t regret my English degree. And I certainly can’t imagine myself having studied anything else. What kinds of jobs have you been pursuing? I just started applying for jobs that I am not sure I completely qualify for, but which I think if I am gutsy enough, could eventually get hired for.

      • June 17, 2012 at 9:58 AM

        That’s how I’ve felt, too – not quite qualified. You can’t just be good at writing, but you also have to be brilliant at technology, social media, some technical field, marketing, etc. I’ve looked for jobs with newspapers, advertising companies, offices, libraries, publishing companies, schools . . . There’s not much I haven’t looked at, but I’m still hopeful. Thankfully, I do have a little writing gig for a small paper, which has helped keep me writing. Happy hunting. Don’t give up!

  2. June 21, 2012 at 3:44 PM

    I can relate with this. I have a liberal arts degree (Political Science & International Studies) and I get looks when I tell people that. They always ask “What are going to do with that? Go to law school? Become a politician?” I always say no to both.

    But a degree is a degree. Liberal arts degrees in particular teach you how to communicate and write better and how to analyze and give critical thought to a variety of things. It would have been easier to get a job if I majored in some business field, but I think I know the same (if not more) skills sets as my friends that majored in Marketing or Economics.

    Good luck! I often find myself wishing I had just gotten an English degree.

    • June 21, 2012 at 3:55 PM

      I agree with you wholeheartedly about liberal arts degrees teaching students to communicate better, think critically, and to analyze. It certainly makes us more versatile than someone who has learned only to analyze and think critically about one thing. Or to communicate in one specific way. I took a number of courses which taught me how to communicate (written and verbally) in different situations or for different tasks.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I hope you are doing well with your PoliSci degree. I always had an interest in political science (I even interned in a Congressman’s office last summer). I think people need to change their perceptions of liberal arts degrees and understand that they aren’t meant to box us in to a single area (like politics, teaching, or law).

  3. June 22, 2012 at 4:41 PM

    The degree really only matters for the first five cosmic minutes following graduation. You’ll get a job and from that point on it simply becomes an attribute of your resume. Take it from someone that graduated with a double major of English and History and turned it into a career in Human Resources. Fourteen years later, I’m an executive with a reputable company and my communication skills paved the way. Good luck!

  4. June 22, 2012 at 6:17 PM

    Thanks for liking my post.
    Good luck with your job hunt. and please let us know when you land in your first job,

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