The Mythic English Major - An Essay by Delaney Dannert

Delaney Dannert is an undergraduate at University of Oregon working towards her bachelor’s degree in English. This essay was originally submitted to the Advanced Composition: Style, Tone, Point of View class (WR423). 

“Oh, what are you going to do with that?”  

English majors everywhere have this question asked of them constantly. Bordering on the line of practical and a theatre arts degree, friends and relatives alike doubt the decision. It’s a humanities degree, so obviously it must be frivolous. Everyone knows the only valid college majors are business, some kind of STEM field, or computer science.  

As an English major, I have a bit of a bone to pick with this stereotype. No, I don’t want to be a teacher. Yes, it’s really my major. No, I don’t want to be an author. This last point is controversial, I know, but those pursuing an English degree with no intent to write for a living are real. Personally, the publishing industry is most alluring to me.  

As for how useful English degrees are, this is widely debated. Many think it’s a throw away degree with few prospects; however, that is just a myth that’s snowballed. Many CEOs prefer hiring people with liberal arts degrees, as it gives an edge over those with other degrees. According to an article in Fast Company, Steve Yi, CEO of MediaAlpha, said that “the liberal arts train students to thrive in subjectivity and ambiguity, a necessary skill in the tech world where few things are black and white.” (Seagran) Having a liberal arts degree, you know how to be creative and come up with solutions that work for all. With a STEM degree, people are being trained to have a right or wrong, black or white answer. Those who work only with the scientific method become a bit boxed in, only worrying about data. That’s a valuable skill, but also knowing how to have flexibility and present creative solutions is important.  

Without being able to consider how customers or other employees will respond, or other factors that rely outside the numbers spectrum, people with liberal arts degrees are needed. There is so much separation between the two groups, but they need each other. When liberal arts people get so lost in ideas and lose sight of the practical application, STEM majors bring them back down to earth, and vice versa for when STEM majors get too rooted in the black and white. What one lacks, the other brings and they make a perfect pair.  

In the same article, Fast Company explains that people with liberal arts degrees look at the impact of the company to the industry, instead of the internal aspects that make the company successful. Vince Brody, CEO of the platform Thismoment, talks about how English students study people who have long term impacts and do not focus on quick gains. (Seagran) Studying these people teaches those with liberal arts degrees how instant gratification isn’t the biggest motivator and you have to focus on playing the long game and just be patient.  

It's clear that humanities degrees bring an aspect that CEOs want, like problem solving and analytical thinking. In fact, English majors have a lower unemployment rate than Business, Computer Science and Pre Med or Medical students. According to the StudentsReview website, English majors are at 4.6% unemployment with 8.4% for business, 5.0% computer science, and 5.4% for premed. (StudentsReview) Looking at the actual numbers, like those with “proper” degrees would, it’s clear that English majors do in fact measure up. So, next time your dad or whoever tells you it’s better to major in business, just pull this out and let him know.  

I know we all google “successful English majors” at 2 am when we succumb to the constant barrage of negative opinions, so here is a list of people who graduated with an English degree and went on to accomplish great things.  

First up, we have Grant Tinker who was the CEO of NBC. He got his degree from Dartmouth College, after serving in the Air Corps during World War II. He took time off college, got a degree, and still became CEO! He also co-founder MTM Enterprises with his then wife, Mary Tyler Moore. Tinker won a personal Peabody Award in 2004 for fostering creativity, which is something important to liberal arts degrees. He definitely learnt how to foster creativity and how to do it well from his English degree. You need creativity to craft thoughtful and interesting essays, discussions and keep your reader engaged.  

The former Avon CEO and the first woman to have the job, Andrea Jung, was an English literature major at Princeton University. For those who are unaware, Avon is one of the world’s biggest door to door cosmetics sellers. Having a humanities degree as CEO gives invaluable skill at being able to mold to how your customers want easily. This is because as an English student, you are open to criticism, and have to be anyway, in order to improve on your craft. After she stepped down from CEO, she became president and CEO of another company, Grameen America, which is a nonprofit organization founded by Muhammad Yunus, who is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. She has used her many positions in power to help advocate for the end of violence against women and help with the breast cancer epidemic.  

Another CEO in entertainment with an English degree, is Judy McGrath. She was CEO of MTV from 2004 to 2011, which we all know to be the golden age of MTV. She led them to a period of great success, and I thank her for giving us Jersey Shore. 

In a bold move of two “unhirable” degrees, the former CEO of Disney double majored in English and theatre. Michael Eisner is the one who did this, at Denison University. He was CEO for over 20 years and did not take any business courses, which just proves how well an English degree works for anything. He provided us with The Little Mermaid and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which are two of my favorite childhood movies, so I am grateful to this man for that (and helping give English majors a better name).  

Clarence Thomas is also an English major. He is the second-ever African American Supreme Court justice and currently the longest serving member, with over 29 years under his belt. He earned his degree from Holy Cross College and was rather known for campaigning on campus for Civil Rights. Many English majors do turn to the judicial system, as it is a recommended Bachelor’s degree for aspiring Law students.  

We even have a Nobel Prize-winning scientist in our midst! Harold Varmus takes this amazing feat. He earned a bachelor’s and Master’s in English from Amherst College and Harvard. He then entered Columbia’s medical school, which just shows that you truly can do anything with an English major. To win the Nobel Prize, he had discovered the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes, which essentially means he found virus genes that can cause cancer. His English degree helped him here because he had to spend long hours analyzing everything, which is what you do daily as an English major.  

Looking at this miraculous and diverse group of people, it’s crystal clear that having an English degree opens so many more doors than previously thought. There’s of course the English teacher and writer, but that’s not the only option. The types of careers that one can enter with an English degree are infinite.  

For me, I want to go into the publishing field. Ever heard of turning your hobbies into your job? My biggest hobby is reading, and in the publishing world, that’s usually the main thing you do. In that world, there’s quite a few paths. There’s being an editor, public relations, literary agents, scouts, and so many more. You can do all of these with an English degree and so much more.  

As demonstrated by Clarence Thomas, the judicial system is also an option. According to Data USA, there are about 74,000 people working as lawyers, judges, magistrates, or other workers that have an English degree. Having this degree in that field is insanely useful. English degree requirements help you learn how to analyze and look at the finer details, something those people will need to do their jobs efficiently. We spend four or more years analyzing books and poems, learning how to literally read between the lines and look at the deeper meaning.  

Earning an English degree is more successful than people think and can actually provide people with the tools they need to succeed. The degree isn’t useless and just a way to coast through college, it truly is important and is completely underrated compared to other majors and the opinions of them. We have Supreme Court justices, CEOs, and a Nobel Prize winner! I can take all the heat over my major when these factors are considered.  

I’m carrying on happily with my English major—and definitely not because I can’t do basic math without a calculator and the periodic table is my personal nemesis.  

Works Cited  

“Andrea Jung.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Apr. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrea_Jung.  

“Clarence Thomas.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 May 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarence_Thomas.  

“English Degree Numbers.” Data USA, datausa.io/profile/cip/english#employment. “Grant Tinker.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Feb. 2021,  

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grant_Tinker.  

Guey, Lynne, et al. “16 Wildly Successful People Who Majored In English.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 16 May 2013, www.businessinsider.com/successful-people-with-english-majors-2013-5.  

“Harold E. Varmus.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Feb. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_E._Varmus.  

“Judy McGrath.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Apr. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judy_McGrath.  

“Michael Eisner.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 7 Mar. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Eisner.  

“Rate of Unemployment by Major.” StudentsReview, www.studentsreview.com/unemployment_by_major.php3.  

Seagran, Elizabeth. “Why Top Tech CEOs Want Employees With Liberal Arts Degrees.” Fast Company, Fast Company, 29 Aug. 2014, www.fastcompany.com/3034947/why-top-tech-ceos-want-employees-with-libera...