In the musical, “Avenue Q,” the recent college grad, Princeton, sings, “What do you do with a B.A. in English?/What is my life going to be?”
These are lyrics very familiar to English majors, whether posed introspectively or asked by anxious parents and skeptical classmates. To the uninformed, a common perception is that a degree in English provides limited career options: teacher, starving novelist, barista, burger-flipper.
The Department of English is happy to report that recent data has proved otherwise. Game designer, content engineer, film director, product manager, creative director, attorney – what do all of these careers have in common? Penn State English grads!
This past November, English graduates from 1990 to 2007 received a postcard requesting that they share some details about their professional lives post-Penn State via an online form. The 55 completed surveys revealed lots of interesting and encouraging information about our former students. There were graduates who landed entry level positions in advertising and publishing and through hard work and perseverance worked their way into senior positions. A few students were focused on legal careers and diligently pursued admission to law school. One graduate combined his passion for the arts and medicine by completing medical school and working as a physician in Los Angeles, while directing documentary films. Another English grad used his love of writing to enter the game industry as a dialogue writer and soon became a designer. One thing is for sure – there is no cookie cutter description of a Penn State English grad! Most of them agreed, however, that studying English left them well prepared to navigate a range of careers.
In a follow-up online survey administered in February, we asked alumni to tell us the skills they acquired as Penn State English majors that were most helpful in their career paths. The top four responses among the 144 completed surveys were written communication skills; the ability to form clear, well-constructed arguments; close reading skills; and grammar/editing expertise. Consistent among the respondents was the comment that being able to communicate well and present a persuasive case is a valuable and often rare expertise that is highly regarded by employers. One English graduate noted, “the English degree prepares you for anything . . . you are adaptable and equipped to handle change . . . you are good at analyzing and assessing situations and don’t get lost in details.”
The flexibility of the English degree has also helped graduates pursue such a broad spectrum of careers. By either double majoring in fields such as economics or marketing or selecting a minor such as technical writing, English majors have been able to craft programs that prepare them well for specific industries. Graduates have emphatically praised the department’s internship program, run by Elizabeth Jenkins, for allowing them to gain real world experience that utilizes their strengths as English majors.
The feedback from our alumni about the utility of their English degrees has been very reassuring given the nation’s current debates about the role of a liberal arts education. Whether two years removed from Penn State or twenty, our English graduates have experienced firsthand how their degrees have been valuable in their respective careers. When asked what major they would choose if they could redo their Penn State degree, three out of four grads would select the English major again. Hopefully Princeton will reach a similar conclusion someday.