Majors vs. jobs: in praise of English majors (including Sting and others)

Florida steering students toward majors that pay

According to the December 10th New York Times, Florida Governor Rick Scott wants to steer students toward majors that pay—in jobs and higher salaries. English is one of the offending majors.

It might seem like English is a bad bet for future jobs. When I graduated from the University of Michigan years ago with an undergraduate English degree, no recruiters were banging on my door. It’d be easy to conclude that I should have majored in something more practical. But really, I did. I got immense experience writing and learning to edit and refine my own writing. Becoming one of my toughest writing critics has been valuable in every position I have had since graduating. The skills I acquired as an English major and have honed over the years have paid off handsomely in my track record of writing successful grant applications and manuscripts that get published in peer-reviewed journals, compelling memos, and other communications.

I really like these five great reasons one young woman said she is proud to have been an English major.

Famous people who were English majors

It is uncanny how many famous, successful people were English majors. Here are just a few of them.

  • Nobel Prize winner and director of the National Cancer Institute Harold Varmus, MD  is one of the most skilled communicators anywhere and proud to have majored in English.
  • The musician Paul Simon, television personality Conan O’Brien, former NY Governor Mario Cuomo, producer/director James Cameron, Michael Eisner, former CEO Walt Disney and A. Bartlett Giamatti, former President, Yale University and Commissioner of Baseball, are just a few of the English majors who did quite well
  • Sting may be a musical legend now due to his work as front man of The Police and a profitable solo career, but there was a time when he was simply an English major known as Gordon Sumner.

The best careers don’t go in straight lines: witness Steve Jobs as a brilliant example. They’re built on knowledge, commitment, passion, skills and a lot of serendipity. Good writing and communication skills go a long way in every field.

Today, I am dean of public health, but being an English major helped me along the way. Happy Monday. Barbara

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  1. naman

    I thought we believe in appropriate measures of risk in public health? Where’s the denominator !

  2. Barbara Rimer

    Naman, Thank you. You are right. In the hierarchy of evidence, my post to which you responded is the least rigorous form of evidence: anecdotes and testimonials. And while I would not use these in research, one of the reasons I began the blog was to be able to sound off or weigh in on issues of the day without all the usual constraints.

    Appropriate measures of risk, and denominators are essential for calculating rates and fundamental to public health. Denominators have their place. I wanted this blog (Thanks for reading, by the way.) to be not just a place to convey evidence and facts but also a venue for conveying context and, yes, opinion.

    In this post, I was speaking as a former English major to those who would decide what degrees are worthy by looking at short-term measures of a university’s success, such as immediate job placement rates. if we educate only for the first job, we may lose vital components of education that are not themselves preparation for careers but may make our careers more successful over the longer-term.

    A career is a much more nuanced, longer-term proposition although infinitely more difficult to measure than immediate job placement. It’s great if an undergraduate degree leads to an immediate job or grad school. But is a degree not valuable if it makes one better in every job? Happy holidays. Barbara

  3. naman

    Hi Dean, thanks for passionate reply. I was just picking on your selection of famous people. Agreed that it’s hard to tease apart the effects of training from self-selection and long-term outcomes. Opinion might be the best we have to throw around here. Personally more practice and guidance in writing would’ve been great for me. But I’m also glad the substantive training has given me a lot to express as well

  4. Barbara Rimer

    Naman, you are a great example of a person who can write and has something of value to say! I suspect you will get plenty of practice writing over the next few years, with dissertation, papers and all the stuff of an exciting career! Barbara

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