Pursuing an English Literature Degree – Is it Really ‘Useless’?
“What job can you get with this degree?”
This question would probably be a familiar one to many parents out there worried for the future of their children who will be taking a closer step into the real world.
It is a fair concern as humanitarian subjects such as language, philosophy, history, and many others within the category do not have a direct application to the job market. However, how true is it that degrees such as these would lead you nowhere? Well, according to PrepWorks’ Tutor, Carmen Thong, it is true only to a limited extent.
Carmen is a graduate from the University of Warwick with a first-class degree in English Literature (World Pathway) and has a Masters with distinction in World Literature in English from the University of Oxford. Having experienced the path of the humanities herself in tertiary education, Carmen was happy to provide some of her insights about this path when we interviewed her.
Armed with a ‘useless degree’, she is currently working in strategy and business management with Maxis and has been tutoring quite a number of students with PrepWorks in English.
Leveraging Your Degree
According to Carmen, there is actually a natural job market for English Literature graduates, albeit a small one.
“There are some straightforward opportunities for those with English Literature degrees. The first career option that usually comes to mind would be a job in academia, which leads ultimately to a professorship. However, these jobs are getting harder to come by in countries that have long embraced English Literature, as the supply of English Lit graduates are more than demand.”
“Of course, there is also the option of jumping from academia to fiction or non-fiction mainstream publishing or journalism. These industries too come with their fair share of competition. My friends from university have also gone into theatre, film or non-profit organisations. Some are making important changes in the world through activism. Come to think about it, I don’t think anyone has gone into school teaching (the stereotypical next step), though that is certainly an option.”
However, thinking about existing job opportunities out there may not be the way to go when deciding if you want to take up an English Literature degree.
Carmen stressed that it is very important to take it up only if you truly have a passion for it. This is because there will be times when the main incentive to continue doing what you’re doing is your love of the subject for its own sake. She believes though that if one is really passionate about it, they will find a way to succeed, even if not within the confines of traditional “English Lit” territory.
“From a more “life advice” perspective, you should leverage your strengths. If you’re a maestro at words but an amateur at something else, would you want to spend years developing only that more mediocre part of yourself? Instead of plowing for yonk years making a weaker part of yourself less weak, spend half of that time to make a good part of yourself actually GREAT. As for the more practical perspective… think about it, if you have the option of a safe degree at a lower tier university versus a humanities degree at a prestigious university, which would you pick?”
“If you are in the happy position of being both good at and passionate about a subject in the Humanities, maybe the best strategy is to use that strength to get into the best universities possible. Having a foot in the high-ranking universities of the world will usually expand your opportunities beyond the degree you are holding. Besides, universities are becoming increasingly multi-disciplinary anyway. For instance, the digital humanities is an expanding field that uses computational tools to parse and analyse literature. Quite a few people who dabbled in ‘DH’ (digital humanities) while pursuing English Literature at Stanford have ended up in Google, for example. Many companies actively recruit Humanities students (consulting for one, think-tanks for another) and most businesses are open to talent, whatever their degree. Way too many people end up not working in the field they graduated in anyway, just look at the number of engineers in the finance or corporate world.”
“Besides, what a good university does is to teach you how to learn… not just factoids that will expire in five years. It’s about having the best environment to structure your mind and to establish rigorous ways of thinking, a mind that is capable of understanding and making good use of any information from any industry thrown at it. Maybe you can call this process ‘automating smartness’. To an extent, I’d argue that a Humanities education might do this better than others – but I won’t repeat that here, there are plenty of Google able articles out there that will tell you exactly why.”
Potential Opportunities in the Malaysian Job Market
The job market may be saturated out there but within Malaysia, it could be a different story.
“Malaysia is very much an untapped market for those holding an English Literature degree. The demand here is actually more than supply as graduates holding English Literature degrees are difficult to find. Local universities are starting to offer English Literature courses, which create job opportunities in academia. It is, however, in its nascent stage and whoever that gets involved would definitely be considered a pioneer.”
“Most graduates who return would gravitate towards Singapore as there is a lot more money in the arts. But for those who are properly ambitious, there is an opportunity to cultivate such an environment in Malaysia. If you play it right, there could even be a good business angle you could work at.”
Applying Skills from English Literature in Other Environments
Carmen’s current job is a good example of how sometimes your career path is not always a direct road.
Her skills developed throughout her studies have helped her deal with daily life as a Strategy & Business Management Associate.
“Taking English Literature can be more critical or ‘argumentative’ even when compared to Law, for example. There are a lot more ambiguities to reconcile with less clear guidelines, and it does take a lot of mental endurance to structure logical thoughts or systems out of them. Those in the working world would feel me when I say that it’s almost always about ambiguities!
The process of digesting the information in front of you (whether a book or a dataset), analysing it from the right angle, then presenting it in a clear and convincing way (whether in an essay or in PowerPoint) is a universally applicable skill. And an English Literature degree focuses almost purely on this process.”
“Other kinds of soft skills also come in handy. For example, reading between the lines of what a superior expects from you at work or reading the room when there is a meeting. Then there are times when you need to convince your colleagues or the management to come to your point of view, that’s when the skill of storytelling comes in.”
The Importance of Having Passion
Carmen’s path may have been temporarily diverted but her passion has kept her close to English Literature. She has kept in touch with it by teaching English and English Literature to students of different ages at PrepWorks.
On top of that, she was recently awarded a scholarship to pursue her Ph.D. at Stanford University, bringing her back to her first passion – English Literature.
“You will find in many situations, it’s not really about pure academics. The best universities and jobs out there are always looking for that extra bit of passion, that extra hunger that will drive you in your field.”
“Playing it safe would be fine but only if you do not want to excel.”