What Do You Do with a B.A. in English? Try These 8 Careers

September 19, 2016
by Jamie Cattanach
Contributor

When I told people I was studying literature and creative writing, most of them looked at me as if I’d admitted to signing a contract stating “I will be broke and unemployed forever.”

After all, everyone knows an English degree will never help you get a job.

Or will it?

While traditional paths like teaching or writing are fairly achievable options (hint: I’ve done both of them), you might be surprised to learn how broadly applicable your English major really is.

What Do You Do With a B.A. in English? Lots, Actually

Here’s the thing: As an English or creative writing major, your area of expertise is language. And every single thing we do as human beings is mediated by language.

That means there are lots of job opportunities. Just look around: You can make money “anywhere there are words,” as our own staff writer Dana Sitar puts it.

Here are some specific ways English and other humanities majors have successfully made a go of it.

8 Surprising Jobs You Can Totally Get with an English Degree

Bonus: None of them require you to ask, “Would you like fries with that?”

1. Create Artificial Intelligence

Everyone knows all the hottest jobs are in Silicon Valley — and yes, that goes for English majors, too.

Who, after all, do you think gave Siri her snark… or put this gem into Cortana’s repertoire?

“If you ask Cortana if she is human,” reports Washington Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin, “she says no, and then she adds a meant-to-be endearing joke: ‘But I have the deepest respect for humans. You invented calculus — and milkshakes.’”

Sure, coding’s cool and all.

But it’s writers who give life to the digital personal assistants who answer questions as critical as “When does Taco Bell close?”

So who’s really changing the world?

2. Put (Great) Words in Their Mouths

Elaine Bennett, who has “storyteller” in her email signature, had to think fast when the corporate communications director of a major financial services company asked her: “Do you know how to write a speech?”

The Smith College theater major immediately remembered her semester-long playwriting class.

“I figured I knew how to write a monologue — and that’s a speech,” she says. “So I said yes. And I’ve been a successful corporate speechwriter for the last 25 years.”

Not only does she earn a good living, but she also gets the satisfaction of knowing that the applause at the end of a great leader’s speech is actually directed at her brilliance.

3. Become an Analyst (Yes, Really)

Bailey Poland’s degree in creative writing was critical in helping her land a job as a marketing analyst.

Yes, you read that right. Part of her application process included “taking a client case study and rewriting it in a way that actually fit the needs of the business,” she wrote in an email. Needless to say, she was successful, thanks in large part to her training.

Plus, those creative writing chops continue to serve her well in her position today.

“While many of my coworkers have marketing or business backgrounds, very few of them have experience with telling stories,” Poland noted.

“The ability to take a list of statistics and figures and turn them into a compelling story that a business audience will want to read and will subsequently remember is a huge asset.”

Take that, STEM majors.

4. Assist Physicians… But Not as a Physician’s Assistant

Think you have to be great at chemistry (or filing) to land a job in a doctor’s office?

You’d be wrong. Some writers find gainful employment as medical scribes, whose job, says professor David C. Rompf, is to “craft a full patient narrative (in laymen’s language, not medical jargon).”

Rompf, who teaches creative nonfiction, had a student who went into the business. “One of the ER doctors he works with side-by-side told him, ‘I want you to write like you’re going for a Pulitzer prize!’”

ScribeAmerica likens the role to that of “personal assistant to the physician,” and you’d also be helping the patient receive the best quality care possible.

And since most people outside of the medical field don’t know the job exists, your superior writing skills will probably go a long way toward your landing the gig!

5. Help Readers Find Websites

As you may have noticed, digital content is everywhere.

And as brands and companies create more and more content, they need more and more people to market it — that is, to get it in front of as many eyeballs as possible.

Yep, I’m talking about SEO, which is quickly outstripping teaching on the list of jobs my English department friends from college have now.

But if you think a job in SEO has to be boring — or divest you of your creativity — think again. What’s more? The positions are usually pretty darn well-paid — and the numbers are only going up.

Having majored in English with a focus in creative writing, Chelsea Terris has done freelance work for blogs and newspapers. But now, she works as the senior content strategist for Webfor, an SEO company based in Vancouver, Washington.

And it’s so much more than researching keywords. Over the course of her career, she’s “help[ed] clients create multimedia content campaigns, host[ed] webinars, and writ[ten] website and blog content.”

She loves her work environment — “I work alongside brilliant, creative, hilarious people,” she says — and its flexibility and positivity give her the freedom and energy to pursue her personal creative projects during off-hours. Two of her plays have been produced off-Broadway.

The job also necessitates creativity in and of itself.

Dagny McKinley is an author and photographer, but he puts food on the table doing freelance writing with a focus on SEO.

“Believe me,” he says, “You have to get creative coming up with a blog [post] a week for a home inspection company.”

He’s still found the time after work to write and produce a play.

6. Be the Next Joan Harris or Don Draper

If SEO isn’t quite your bag, but you’re still interested in figuring out what makes people tick (and how to make them pay attention), you could go into advertising.

You’ll apply your writing chops in the real world, working to change minds, behaviors and attitudes. And although it may not be as glamorous as it looks on “Mad Men,” you’ll still be working in a creative industry and using your writer’s toolbox all day long.

Many creative writers who go on to achieve the terminal degree in their field (the MFA) go into advertising if they don’t want to pursue careers in academia.

“When I worked in New York,” writes Sarah Einstein, Ph.D. and assistant professor at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, “we preferred to hire MFAs over MBAs for creative jobs.”

Who knows? You might read your own copy on a billboard or fast-food soft drink cup one day!

7. Create the Next Can’t-Put-It-Down Video Game

Want to put your words into hands all over the world — literally?

Creating a runaway hit video game like Pokemon Go or Fallout requires writers.

Murray Suid, cofounder of Mobile Moviemaking, studied screenwriting at UCLA. A few years after graduation, he met a woman who was producing a digital business game for a major company.

“The team had the basic interactive rules in place,” Suid says, “but they needed a compelling storyline. I came up with the idea of running a tourist business on the moon.”

Suid’s experience of working with “sophisticated gamesters” and professional animators stimulated his imagination and augmented his skill set.

“I also,” he adds, “got paid.”

None of it would have been possible if he didn’t have the storyteller’s gift.

8. Teach… But Ditch the (Traditional) Classroom

Our increasingly connected world makes it possible to move your teaching gig online, whether you want to tutor high school students or profess at the collegiate level.

And you don’t even need to be faculty at a university to take advantage of those opportunities. Online education companies like Smartly and No Red Ink need writers to create and edit their curriculum content.

Many Ph.Ds who have been (or would be) in the world of academia find flexible, online work of this type offers them more freedom to pursue their interests — and helps them connect with and help students without the bureaucratic red tape that can plague brick-and-mortar universities.

Sarah Lyn Rogers, poet and the fiction editor of The Rumpus, was an editorial assistant and curriculum editor at one such institution. She oversaw the production of several humanities courses and says she was paid “a nice amount” — although it was contract work, and thus didn’t come with a benefits package.

If you’ve got the travel bug, you could also take your skills overseas and teach English in a foreign country.

Lindsay Holter, an English major who graduated from Flagler College, taught English in South Korea before coming back to the states to take a job as an English teacher. She says the experience was “absolutely incredible,” and that she felt “very welcomed” in her new home.

If you’re not sure what you want to do with the rest of your life, teaching abroad is a great stopgap — you’ll earn a decent living and see a new part of the world in much more depth than a few-week-long backpacking trip can offer.

But it might not be an ideal long-term position: “The pension is fairly meager,” Holter warns, “so it’s not a sustainable job for more than a few years if you want to plan for retirement.”

Writing Skills Contribute to Almost Any Career

Bottom line: Communicating well makes you an asset in almost any type of business.

It’s not just because human beings are drawn to great storytellers — although that certainly helps, and not many other disciplines devote time or resources to cultivating that particular, hard-to-put-a-finger-on skill.

Jessica Mehta, author of “100 Ways to Make $100K with Your English Degree,” knows how broadly applicable an English major’s skills can be in the world of business. She’s been a blogger, SEO writer, product description writer, case study writer and more.

“Businesses are figuring out that if they have an online presence (as they should!) they need creative writers to professionally handle a customer’s first impression,” she told me in an email.

Quality writing is incredibly valuable to hiring managers, and it’s rare: Writing is the hard skill managers most frequently found lacking in their applicants, according to a recent analysis by PayScale.

(The soft skill most wished they’d see more often? Another English major strength: critical thinking and problem solving.)

So your English major might actually be an asset in your job search! But how can you bolster your chances of getting hired?

Mehta recommends leveraging the additional skills that help you translate your writing chops into applicable and reliable copy or services for your employer.

You should be “professional, dependable,” and “have a fantastic portfolio,” she writes — and if possible, “offer add-ons’ like being SEO savvy, knowing WordPress, or hav[ing] experience writing in high-demand fields” like technology and finance.

So as in most any other discipline, your imagination — and your self-marketing abilities — are the only limits to your potential.

The eight careers listed above are only the beginning. Put that creative brain to use and get hustling, English major!

Your Turn: Why are you majoring — or did you major — in English? What did you end up doing for work? Let us know in the comments!

Jamie Cattanach was an English major and is now a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She totally makes enough money to eat and pay rent. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.

by Jamie Cattanach
Contributor for The Penny Hoarder

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