October 19, 2011

Professors Confront Belief That English Majors Will Live in Garages

Print More

Three Cornell professors, each with a B.A. in English, encouraged students at a panel discussion Wednesday to pursue their passion for studying English, even if the field’s career prospects are not necessarily lucrative.

In the discussion, entitled “What to Do With an English Major?” Prof. Daniel Schwarz, English, acknowledged the perception that English majors have difficulty finding employment after they graduate.

“I am going to touch on what to tell your parents when they say, ‘What are you doing? Are you going to live in a garage?’” Schwarz said.

Adopting a more somber tone, Schwarz told the audience — primarily filled with English majors seeking career advice — that they are studying English for the sake of intellectual, as opposed to monetary, gain.

“You believe in education as an end, not a means. And that is praiseworthy in itself,” he said.

Still, Schwarz said he understood the anxiety surrounding finding a job with an English degree.

Schwarz said that graduate school is not the career path for English majors it once was. He said that things have changed significantly due to a decrease in tenured teaching positions at large universities.

“When I first started teaching, we would encourage students with great teaching potential to attend graduate school; we kind of ‘tapped’ people, like a secret society,” he said. “However, with fewer jobs it’s not the case anymore.”

Schwarz recommended that if an English major is queasy about the job market, he or she should double major in a “practical” degree.

“The benefit of pairing English with another major is that if the other major is a practical one such as economics, it gives you a chance to have a better job. Many majors hedge their bets with another major,” Schwarz said.

While not dismissing the realities of a weak job market, Schwarz said English majors can have careers in many fields other than academia.

He said that corporations such as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs look for “critical thinkers” to supplement the typical economics and business students who are assumed to dominate the field.

“This way, if you want to be in the Wall Street protest, you just have to walk across the street,” he said with a grin.

Another unconventional path for an English major, Schwarz said, was entering medical school, although there are “more [applicants] than you would think.”

“Medical schools like someone who thinks out of the box … Furthermore, [as an English major] you know something about the human condition and about ethics and how to tell a story to your patients,” he said.

In addition, Schwarz noted a significant uptick in the number of his recently graduated students going to law school after the recent economic downturn.

“Now, my students who were laid off are going to law school,” he said. “I think I wrote something like 40 law school recommendations last year.”

Another panelist, Prof. Andrea Mooney J.D. ’92, law, emphasized the importance of the skills acquired through studying English while in law school.

“If you can write well, you are about 70 to 80 percent ahead of other law students,” she said. Mooney also cited the importance of taking a class “where someone is going to absolutely rip your paper apart” to refine your rhetorical skills.

The third panelist, Prof. Barbara Mink M.A. ’85, Johnson School of Management, also encouraged students to study English.

“Find something that really interests you and don’t worry about your English background,” Mink said.

Mooney offered a similar sentiment to undecided potential English majors.

“I studied English because I loved to read,” Mooney said. “And look where I turned up: reading for a living.”

Original Author: David Fischer