What Can You Do With An English Major?

Paul Cheney of
The senior editor at MarketingExperiments, a Florida-based firm, recently wrote us to share why his company (and others) value English majors.  Check out Paul Cheney’s guest blog below.
Should You Major In English? 3 Highly Marketable Business Skills that English Majors Have in Spades
I received my B.A. in English in May, 2008. It was one of the worst years in recent history to graduate from college. Hiring at every company in the country had all but stopped. And at the time, it seemed like there was no hope for anyone without a computer-science degree who could work at Google. Almost everyone else who graduated in those few years was expected to either take an unpaid position, or do manual labor.
I chose manual labor for the first few months until I found a semi-paid position at a non-profit writing grant proposals. The program I worked in was funded by Americorps so they could get away with paying me close to nothing. It was my first legitimate job out of college and I made $11,000 that year working 40 hours a week.
Luckily, my new wife was able to take a job waiting tables to supplement our income while I padded my resume out.
That job lasted a year due to the nature of the Americorps commitment. By then it was the beginning of 2010 and job prospects were still pretty bad. So I started freelancing. I slowly learned how to build and write for websites and began making them for local small businesses.
Finally in May 2011, my work and education paid off. I landed a salaried position at MECLABS, a large marketing firm in Jacksonville, FL. I’m now a senior editor for one of our publishing brands (MarketingExperiments), and I’m doing what I love: writing for a living.
How did I get here?
My English degree was the one thing I could point to that helped me get through one of the toughest economic periods in recent history. Here are the three skills I learned doing my degree that almost every English major has in spades.
Three skills that I learned as an English major helped get me to where I am today:
1. The ability to creatively analyze data.
The ability to analyze data is in high demand and short supply in the business and marketing world. Most businesses have so much data and so little time to learn what it all means that there is a significant feeling of overwhelming loss about what to do when a given problem arises.
Most of the time, however, the data is there and problems can be solved, they just need to be thought through with a creative lens.
How do English Majors have this skill?
Every piece of great literature ever written is also a complex problem to be solved. The words a great author uses are just pieces of data encoded with meaning waiting to be snatched up by creative readers who see, not words, but the stuff beneath the words. The most complex problem of them all: the human experience.
Analyzing all that literary data and turning it into meaning for yourself and your peers isn’t just good for your soul, it’s also a crucial skill for the business world.
2. The ability to graciously empathize with consumers.
Marketing and business majors are typically the worst at empathizing with customers. Take any ad you see on television, or any billboard you see on the interstate as an example.  The entire premise of capitalism hinges on self-interest.
What’s ironic about self-interest, however, is that it blinds business people to the self-interest of their customers. This, of course undermines their business.
The truth is, while you can’t escape your own self-interest and be completely altruistic in the business realm, you also can’t ignore the self-interest of the customers you serve.
How do English Majors have this skill?
While business majors tend more towards their own self-interest, English majors are taught from day one to empathize. Literature at its root is a call for empathy. Anyone who has read the poetry of Mary Oliver or the novels of Fitzgerald knows it’s one of humanity’s greatest tools for fighting loneliness and isolation.
Reading and studying literature is the practice of empathy. We empathize with the characters, we empathize with the author, and as a result, we can empathize better with our fellow human beings.
That empathy is also what drives businesses forward. The best businesses anticipate what their customers want and authentically deliver it using their heightened sense of empathy.
3. The ability to clearly communicate to peers.
The ability to clearly communicate is a pretty obvious skill that most English Majors have. What’s not obvious is the dearth of communication skills in the business world. Of course, everyone thinks they can communicate clearly, but most people don’t.
How do English Majors have this skill?
Every paper I wrote in college was structured the same way every interaction I have with my peers is structured in the business and marketing world. I have something I want to say, and I need to say it in a way that leads them to conclude what I have concluded.
Every single project I do in my career can be reduced to a series of emails, phone calls, and meetings. All of these are simply mediums for the communication of an idea, or a thesis.
The most effective communicators lead more, accomplish more, and ultimately earn more.
A lot has changed since 2008. The job market has improved significantly. Businesses (including mine) are hiring like crazy. But what they need, even if they don’t know it yet, are English majors.

About the Author: Paul Cheney is the Managing Editor of MarketingExperiments.com, the Founder and Editor of JustPlainTV.com, and the Amateur Poet of PaulCheney.net. You can also find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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