A little lost...
July 16, 2008 5:15 PM   Subscribe

What does one do with a degree in literature?

I just graduated with a degree in literature. I have no doubt that I picked a major that suited me and stimulated me in all the ways that matter.

Now that I have been handed my piece of paper and sent out into the real world however, I'm not sure what to do. What are my options with my degree? I can't exactly work at the English Factory.

I am looking for specific accounts from literature majors or those who have known literature majors, although all responses are welcome.

What did you/they do straight after college? 5 years later? 10 years later?

Thank you all very much in advance.
posted by Defenestrator to Work & Money (40 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Straight after university, I furthered the insanity by doing a MA in literature. Then I wheedled my way into the publishing world through unpaid internships and networking and wound up as a fiction editor for a publishing house. Loved it. Lost my mind again and after 3 years of working went back to do a PhD in literature. Now I work for a literary agency as an editor/agent. Love it again. (I'm presently 8 years out of university.)
posted by meerkatty at 5:25 PM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's always grad school -- I went to law school, but any of them will do.

Also, teaching, of course.

Liberal arts degrees are good for lots of things -- some of my lit friends were in: sales, consulting if you're business-minded, website writing/content, drafting manuals.

Do you have a career services office that might be able to help?
posted by dpx.mfx at 5:31 PM on July 16, 2008

Straight out of college I worked in a bookstore. Loved it and learned nearly as much there about books/lit/writing as I did in school (and so much about publishing & the book business that the low pay really was worth it from a practical standpoint).

A few years later I was editing for a nonprofit, then a law firm publication. Literacy tutoring on the side.

Brief stint in grad school on a teaching fellowship, should've stayed but didn't. Would've learned about linguistics & pedagogy in addition to more lit, as a first step into life as an adjunct. Found I prefer the one-on-one of tutoring to the classroom setting.

Back to editing, & literacy tutoring on the side. Mostly social science research for govt contractors. Nice work, sense of purpose, decent pay --- great place to be if you're taking the marriage-kids-house route. Editing took me from 2-3 years post-BA to about 15 years post-BA. [If you take this path I recommend that you not work full-time, pick up freelance work on top of that, and raise kids on your own --- pick 2 but not all 3.]

15 years out & I relocated for non-work-related reasons to an area where editors are not in demand. Since this coincides with burnout anyway, I took the opportunity to stop editing completely, learn to read for pleasure again, and head in a new direction.

Exactly 20 years after graduating from college, I graduated from a 1,000-hour massage program & became a massage therapist. I missed my 20-year reunion but it was very cool studying anatomy across the kitchen table from my kids who were studying for their own exams.

Very few people on this planet get to do work that they love. I've gotten to do it twice.

And my dad said switching my major to English was "throwing my life away." What did he know anyway? He was a history major!
posted by headnsouth at 5:39 PM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

My husband and I both have such degrees. We both graduated in 1997. He has worked as a financial analyst for the past 11+ years. He also writes for The Motley Fool web site and has his own investing blog.

I became a production/circulation manager for a trade magazine straight after school. After doing that for a few years, I became a marketing coordinator for a consumer goods company. Now I am a stay-at-home mom who does freelance work on the side, though I would like to become a bison rancher. (I do live in Nebraska).

We have also owned investment property and a candle business.

My short answer is to read the job offerings online and in the paper, and apply for whatever interests you. An English degree is really flexible.
posted by Ostara at 5:50 PM on July 16, 2008

Not only did I major in English, I went for a creative writing emphasis. Loved it, but not terribly useful in the real world. After graduation, in a fit of practicality, I went to law school. I think an English major can actually be quite helpful in studying the law. All that time spent doing close readings pays off when you're stuck reading a lengthy, complicated opinion.

Of course, if you're not interested in studying the law/working in the law, going to law school would be one of the worst things you could do. It's a tremendous expense, and once you start, you're pretty much locked into at least six years of the law (three years of school and about three years of working hard/living cheaply to pay back your loans). But if you do have an interest in the field, it's something you could definitely do with the English major that, unlike the major itself, leads pretty directly to a career, and one that pays pretty well. I know a fair number of other people who followed a similar path, and so far it's working out swimmingly for all of us.
posted by sinfony at 5:50 PM on July 16, 2008

Fellow English major here (creative writing track though, not literature). While in school, after taking loads of tests at the career center, I decided that I wanted to become a librarian. I applied to two different grad schools and was rejected at both of them. (My grades were very poor.)
I ended up going to grad school anyways in the fall (at a much smaller place) and got a Masters of Science in Administration with a concentration in federal programs management. At this point in time, I was working full-time as an assistant manager at an ice cream store. (While this gig did have its perks, I hated the constant social interaction and being on my feet 8+ hours a day.) I left the ice cream store in search of greener pastures (read: better pay) and ended up doing inventory at night (which sucked, but it was cash coming in at least) while I finished my degree.
I'm currently working as a library assistant at Hopkins (at a satellite facility in Laurel) and am planning on starting on the MLS in the fall.

English degrees are pretty flexible, it seems like. What sort of work/volunteer/miscellaneous experience do you have? When I was fresh out of school (with my shitty grades), I spun the variety of jobs I had dabbled in to seem amazing.
posted by sperose at 6:04 PM on July 16, 2008

I also took my literature degree to law school, by way of disastrous flirtation with a Ph.D. program.

So, why can't you work at the English Factory (publishing, teaching, writing)?
posted by prefpara at 6:10 PM on July 16, 2008

You might find this interesting:

Where are they now?

I went into web consulting and software. Jobs are really more about connections than degrees, I think, especially when you major in something like English. Personally, I had zero desire to get a job with any relevance to my degree; I studied English because I like literature, not because I like copywriting or correcting the difference between its and it's for the millionth time.
posted by phoenixy at 6:11 PM on July 16, 2008

I graduated with an BA in English, concentrating in Lit. I already had a customer service job at the time, but the degree helped me move into the training and development department of the organization first as a technical writer, then as an instructional designer. Ten years later, I'm still there and quite happy, now focusing more on organizational development and performance consulting.
posted by platinum at 6:13 PM on July 16, 2008

Well, here in DC there's the Folger.
posted by brownpau at 6:26 PM on July 16, 2008

Another editor chiming in. I graduated with a BA in history (another heavy reading/writing/analysis major), and fell into editing when the bookstore I worked at - which also published a monthly book review journal - needed an assistant editor, and the guy doing the hiring hated to interview people. I was convenient, and not a total moron, so I got the job.

That was fifteen, sixteen years ago. Since then I've worked for publishers, for companies with small publishing arms, freelanced, and now I work in the production department of a policy nonprofit.

An English degree is incredibly flexible - you can do almost anything with it.
posted by rtha at 6:31 PM on July 16, 2008

I'm an editor too, but there are other things you can do with a degree in literature.

Don't take your ability to read, write and analyse for granted. I always did. It took me a long time to realize that it isn't something everyone can do. I've got my eye on the civil service now. There's also the foreign office.

You might also go get a degree in library science. Library work can be pretty cool. You can run all kinds of programs out of the library and it's possible to get promoted to a pretty high level, where you're responsible for the libraries in your province or state.
posted by orange swan at 6:38 PM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've got a literature degree, and I became a librarian. It seems to be a pretty common path.
posted by box at 6:47 PM on July 16, 2008

I was an English lit major, now I'm a web developer. I think the degree has paid off, though, because understanding narrative flow helps me imagine how web applications should flow.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:53 PM on July 16, 2008

English major, once. Now working as a creative director: advertising, branding and lately a greater emphasis on marketing intelligence through qualitative research.

And the beauty of that is, I'm basically reaching back and ripping off Chekov weekly to create personas and scenarios that I then take into focus groups. 19th century Russian rural petit bourgeois are perfectly recognizable around the 21st century table in every major American metropolis. It's a blast.

The working world is desperate for anyone who can communicate with clarity and nuance. Believe it.
posted by Haruspex at 6:58 PM on July 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

I was an English Literature major (actually, I doubled in English and Political Science). Nice, honest liberal arts degrees that taught me how to think but did not lead directly to employment.

After college, I banged around for a bit and decided to back to grad school and get a secondary education teaching credential, which I did, and then taught high school English at a good, suburban high school. I did this for five years and hated it -- studying literature at the college-level:teaching high school English::swimming in a clear mountain lake::dipping your toe into a warm bucket of spit. That's obviously not everyone's experience, but it was mine.

After I left teaching, I went into computer tech support (five years), then technical writing (five years and didn't really like it, but at least I got to use my English degree). I am now doing database development and enjoying it significantly more than any previous career.

What does this all mean? To me, it means that a literature degree doesn't trap you into any particular career. The same analytical skills that you can apply to dissecting a piece of literature you can also apply to many other fields. I also found that understanding how to write and express myself were other marketable skills. It's a wide world out there -- figure out what you want to do, and set about learning how to do it. A lit degree is a means towards an end, but often not an end in itself.
posted by mosk at 7:06 PM on July 16, 2008

I did a double major in English literature and then went on to an MA in literature also. I am working in a research and training role with a national charitable peak body. It took a while to get here and I was unemployed for about a year straight out of uni; that was in the early 90s and I had virtually no marketable skills, and I'm sure the situation would be very different for most graduates today. Then I had a couple of fairly dull low-level admin jobs, but I got into this job through some casual work designing websites in this sector, and then coming on to do some library work and answer simple queries in my current organisation. As the organisation expanded, so did their need for staff.

A lot of what I do here is directly related to the research, communication and writing skills I learned through my degree. I ghostwrite speeches and presentations, write and edit articles, create information products like fact sheets and guides, and create and deliver workshops. To do all those things I need to be able to take in a lot of fairly complicated information, absorb and refine it and deliver it in a clear, concise, friendly manner. I can take someone's business-speak or flighty ideas and, as my boss says, "make it nice". Those are skills lacking in many of my colleagues who had more direct paths into their careers, and they're sorely lacking in many professional people. That's where we shine :)
posted by andraste at 7:15 PM on July 16, 2008

Double major in Literature/Theater. After college I worked for a jewelry store and bookstore, but I wasn't in a great time and place for employment. Now I work for a non-profit membership organization planning career development initiatives for grad students/postdocs in biomedical research and other programs.

To do all those things I need to be able to take in a lot of fairly complicated information, absorb and refine it and deliver it in a clear, concise, friendly manner. I can take someone's business-speak or flighty ideas and, as my boss says, "make it nice". Those are skills lacking in many of my colleagues who had more direct paths into their careers, and they're sorely lacking in many professional people.

Quoted for truth. This is exactly what I do and why I'm good at my job, too.
posted by desuetude at 7:27 PM on July 16, 2008

I got my degree in English in 1993 then I went to grad school for my MA but by then I was burned out from working 35 to 40 hours a week and going to school full time and I really needed the money. After a year of grad school I quit and got a job as a receptionist. I did that for 2 years and then went to work for the Federal government. I started out as a Contact Rep and applied for other jobs and I am now a Program Analyst where I write procedures, bulletins and create websites. I love it.
posted by govtdrone at 7:41 PM on July 16, 2008

BA in English, I work in public radio. It seems like everyone I work with has an English degree too.
posted by melodykramer at 8:03 PM on July 16, 2008

BA in English, Creative Writing concentration 5 YEARS LATER:

1st year: retail and learned HTML/CSS,
2nd year: freelanced "web design" horribly, temped, applied to grad schools and was REJECTED (by most but not all)
3rd year: web designer, copywriter, SEO for small web firm
4th year: web designer, copywriter, SEO for small web firm
5th year: traveled across the world, copy writing, freelancing, web producer for liberal non-profit

6th year: ???

(I write on the weekends for nobody but me.)
posted by metajc at 8:42 PM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Specialist Program BA in English. I'm a Japanese-English translator now based in Tokyo, working mainly with independent film productions to subtitle their films. I agree with the people who said they learned the ability to analyze text (narrative, in the case of films) and articulate through their English degrees; in my case, I also learned how to write (relatively) well in English, which was important to me because I'm a native speaker of Japanese.

Way back in my younger days as an undergrad, I used to want to become a writer of fiction in either English or Japanese, but now I enjoy what I do for a living and I think I'm pretty good at it. Bonus points for being able to work from home, because I can be with my son.

As you can see from the variety of answers above, there are so many things you can do with an English degree. People used to ask me why I bothered to come to Canada all the way from Japan for a measly little English degree instead of studying economics or engineering like most other international students, but I had lots of fun in the English program, made lots of friends with similar interests, and on the whole I've never regretted my choice, really. I don't know how much this answer will help you, but there you go. Good luck in the real world!
posted by misozaki at 8:43 PM on July 16, 2008

I worked as an editor for a year, edited theses and dissertations in grad school (and assisted with grant writing), and got an M.Ed. in Instructional Technology. I worked as an Instructional Designer just long enough to get on the path to Business Analysis and Product Management.

I'm a Web Product Manager now and, since graduating in 1997, I have about 10 years of experience in the field now.

English majors make terrific technical and non technical business analysts, project managers, and requirements analysts. You have strong writing skills and analytical skills, now is your chance to use all of those years spent breaking things down and analyzing textual problems towards a more concrete goal.

A lot of places hire entry level analysts and I personally think it's a great job for a fresh graduate who is eager to learn -- the company benefits from someone who is smart and trainable and the employee benefits from the mentoring and career development.
posted by wildeepdotorg at 8:51 PM on July 16, 2008

After getting my degree in English literature I, like so many other English majors, looked to get a job in "publishing", even though, honestly, I'm not sure I could have even told you what that meant exactly. But like so many other recent college grads, I mistakenly believed it was a complete waste of my degree to not immediately start a career directly related to it. Living in the Bay Area at the time, not exactly the hotbed of the publishing world, this meant vying desperately for a job at one of the (very) few publishing companies based in the area. As one example, I found myself going on multiple call-back interviews at one publishing house where I was required to perform degrading and embarrassing "role-playing" exercises (fielding pretend calls from the interviewer) all for the slim chance at the honor of a 18K a year receptionist job that they required you stay in for at least a year before they would even considering promoting you (I was told this explicitly on the first interview. Yet since there were far more recent English grads than available jobs they could set these kind of conditions and still be flooded with applicants). I ended up not getting the job due to my lack of bookselling experience.

Desperate for any form of employment I ended up taking an entry-level customer service job in the technology industry (audio-visual, specifically. This was when the LCD projector was first hitting the market in a big way). After about a year, as I was starting to think seriously about looking for a better opportunity now that I had some solid employment history on my resume, I got a call from a sales manager in the company's Orange County office who offered me a sales position. I took the job, finally moved out of my parents house and ended up staying with the company for 7 years before branching off with my former boss and a coworker to start our own business in the same industry.

I'll never regret getting my degree in English; I really loved the experience of earning it. But I'm glad I didn't limit myself to a career narrowly focused on it.
posted by The Gooch at 9:00 PM on July 16, 2008

I graduated in 1996 with an English/Creative Writing focus, moved to NYC and worked in book publishing for a bit - editorial assistant for a major trade publisher, marketing assistant for a science/tech publisher, then worked as a producer for a website that was owned by a major publishing trade mag where I started to learn about web technology. From my time in publishing i decided it wasn't for me (although the website job was pretty fun) and went to some night school classes at NYU (C, C++) and started to do some web development and programming for the website where I worked. At that time anybody could get a job working on the internets because there were thousands of companies hiring people sometimes literally to fill desks. I moved to DC and worked for a few startups, got my MA at night, and stayed with one reasonably successful start-up for quite some time until it was near implosion. When I left I was a VP in the IT dept. At that point I absolutely hated computers and knew it was affecting my motivation at work (and probably had been for a while) and didn't want to just write on the weekends anymore, was sick of DC, etc., so decided to go back to school. Now I do freelance web dev during the summer and am working on a PhD in Lit/Creative Writing full time.

It's fun to write these little bios, but I think the best advice is that you can pretty much find work doing all sorts of things. I have heard that times are a little rough right now for new liberal arts graduates in general on the job market, but look around for something you like. Don't make the assumption that you need to do something book related - I really didn't care for the business end of publishing (maybe because I'm a writer) but don't limit yourself into thinking these are the only jobs you can find. Liberal Arts majors in general are great because they tend to be curious, creative, and smart, so highly employable in a wide range of fields. Good luck!
posted by drobot at 9:25 PM on July 16, 2008

I majored in what my college enthusiastically titled Writing, Literature, and Publishing. Went straight from college to a rather fancy magazine internship. From there moved to San Francisco and worked retail for more than a year. Then I did sort of freelance script reading and coaching for like seven months. Now I'm a production assistant, blogger, and community coordinator for a website. I love love love it. It's more regular and focused than freelance writing, less rigid and structured than print publishing, and keeps me from being the world's most miserable English teacher.

This isn't at all what I expected to be doing but I really enjoy it. I don't at all regret my degree; it was the best choice for me without a doubt. The trickier thing was taking the way that it taught me to think and plan and combine it with the things I'm enthusiastic about. It was a rough couple of years to find this path, but I'm very glad to be on it (and not working as an editorial assistant at Trout Fishing Monthly or whatever).
posted by mostlymartha at 10:20 PM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

My dad had his BA in English and has been working for the last 30-odd years in trade publications. NOT a business to get into now, selling ads to smallish businesses is tough and getting tougher.
posted by crinklebat at 10:30 PM on July 16, 2008

English lit BA and then an MPhil. Straight outta college and into IT trade pubs. Fifteen years later, research director at a software industry analyst company. Love it!
posted by rdc at 10:51 PM on July 16, 2008

i got an MFA in creative writing and now work in the public affairs division of a major university. other english majors i know went on to law school, other graduate programs in communications or history, and such a wide variety of careers in marketing, sales, advertising, retail, medicine, nonprofit administration, social work....
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:21 AM on July 17, 2008

I became a children's book editor.

Fellow majors that I've stayed in touch with became magazine editors and literary agents.
posted by lampoil at 4:48 AM on July 17, 2008

Lots of English Majors on MeFi! This place rocks!

I took a non-traditional path toward getting my degree in English. I flunked out, worked constuction for a while, then went back to school while working for a municipal Parks and Recreation department. I finished my English degree, then immediately went to grad school for an MPA. Along the way I discovered that I really love Parks and Recreation, and I'm still in the industry, working for another municipality. Right now I'm a maintenance supervisor, but I hope to move into a more policy-oriented role in the future.

Being able to write and communicate well will be a benefit in pretty much any job I can imagine. Interviewers always seem impressed by an English degree, in my experience, for that reason.
posted by Shohn at 5:28 AM on July 17, 2008

BA in English, Creative writing emphasis, graduated in 1996. At the time I graduated, I was working at a children's museum as basically a jill-of-all-trades; I became an unofficial computer person because at the time I was the only employee not terrified of our computer. :) While I was there, I also did a bit of grantwriting and put together the newsletter.

Then I was an administrative assistant for a couple of years, where I spent a lot of time doing the "making it nice" thing described above. "Don't take your ability to read, write and analyse for granted." -- that's well put. I did a lot of Powerpoint, trying to clarify my boss's points, and dabbled in graphic design. Being an administrative assistant can be a really fulfilling & even powerful position.

About that time the web was starting to get big, and my cube neighbor was the webmaster for the nonprofit where I worked, as well as a good friend. So he pointed me towards some sites for learning web design, and I kinda went from there.

I've been working as a web generalist full time for more than 7 years now, and I love it. I was pretty good with math as a kid, so that helps with the more programming-oriented tasks, but my experience/expertise with English is useful all the time. Being able to think clearly, organize information, and write to be understood are powerful skills.

My current co-workers come to me pretty regularly to ask if something makes sense, and I can usually give pointers about how to improve their communications, especially to our customers. I've found that to be true almost everywhere I've worked, too.

My work-study job and then my time as an administrative assistant helped me explore different skills and begin to figure out what I really wanted.

Good luck!
posted by epersonae at 6:42 AM on July 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I did a double major in English and history. Worked as a waiter for a while. Taught adult literacy after that - A great job but the wage was unlivable. I worked as a technical writer for a couple of years which was probably the dullest job I've ever had. After that I sold my soul to the devil and worked in advertising for 5 years, specifically project management. Now, finally, I have the best job ever - I'm a high school English teacher. It's the first job I've had where I actually look forward to going to work in the morning. I can't imagine doing anything else. But then I teach in Toronto where the the students are good, the pay is great and the benefits are better.
posted by trigger at 7:01 AM on July 17, 2008

Every one I knew of went to law school.

That is, in my opinion, not a great idea right now. All the law schools I applied to cheerfully informed me wasn't I glad, they had a HUGE jump in applications (30% in one case) and were more popular than ever! Meaning, it's going to be harder and harder to get into the few schools that give you good value for the price.

As for me, I went to work at a wine shop for a while, then temped for a while, now I'm starting a babysitting job and will be doing that off and on. I might work in child protective services for a while as I start moving towards a social work degree.
posted by sondrialiac at 8:35 AM on July 17, 2008

  1. English Literature and French Studies B.A.
  2. a. Teaching of English M.A. with Initial Certification (such programs take as little as 12 months).b. Graphic design, photography, and layout for a non-profit professional development organization that helps teachers create publication projects with their students.
  3. Ninth grade English Teacher at a new urban public school.

posted by themadjuggler at 8:56 AM on July 17, 2008

I did a literature degree as well. Couldn't find a good enough job out of college without moving out of my city, which wasn't an option at the time, so I did an online library science program. It took about a year and a half and cost a bit of money in student loans, but after a year of that I had (have) my dream job and couldn't be happier. My original plan was to go in to editing/publishing, but in retrospect I think librarianship suits me much better, and it's very low-stress and more flexible.
posted by booknerd at 8:58 AM on July 17, 2008

Unless you're in a technical/professional field like engineering or teaching, I feel like undergraduate degree majors have little to do with your eventual job. A degree in literature means that you are probably a fast reader and good at extracting meaning from texts. You are also probably good at expressing yourself in writing. These are all skills that are hugely valuable in many industries.

You're just out of college. In some ways, being fresh out of school makes you more appealing than people who have been set in a career for a while. I'd suggest going through the local wanteds, finding a job that interests you, and applying for it. You're young enough that you don't have to have a "career" job yet. Think about the things that make you happy and are important to you. Include things outside of work too...for instance, if your personal time is very important to you, go work someplace where you can leave work at 5:30 and know that you don't have to take the work home with you. Start calling people up. Look for internships in all kinds of areas.

I personally think you don't really learn things in college (at least, again, not if you have a liberal arts degree). You learn how to think about things. The knowledge and experience you need for work? You get that from work, not from school.

In other words, almost any job is open to you. Go for it.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:33 AM on July 17, 2008

To clarify, I'm not a Lit major. I got a liberal arts degree form Sarah Lawrence, which doesn't really have majors. During my stay there I studied theater, political science, quantum physics, creative writing, Italian, architecture, cinema, drawing and printing, chaos theory, literature, color theory, and computer science.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:36 AM on July 17, 2008

10 years out from graduating I'm a web content editor for a couple of massive web sites.

You can do anything; law school, med school, teach any and all levels of school, advertising, technical writing, copy editor, reporter, grant writer, research assistant, finish school to become a librarian, marketing, book publishing...

What can't you do is more like it. Look around, jobs are easy to do when you have this degree. It's not like having a degree in actuarial science or philosophy where you either have one very specific job or you're basically a really thoughtful, educated bum. What do you WANT to do? Go and do it, and use your amazing language and writing skills to turn out the most ass-kicking resumes and cover letters. No matter what the job, going after it with gusto and panache works.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 3:56 PM on July 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Liberal arts degrees kind of leave you stranded because there's no clear cut path, so most people end up trying a few really odd things and happening onto something unexpected. Don't be discouraged if it takes you a few tries. I'm in my forties, and my friends with lit degrees work for political organizations (they always need writers) journalism, education, tech support, and PR. We actually seem happier than our friends who had clear paths cut out for them in engineering and business.

Personally, I found teaching fulfilling for a few years. Now I work in a library. I'm not sure what I'll do next. To be honest, excellent reading and writing skills have made popular with all of my bosses for whatever job I could talk my way into.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 4:24 PM on July 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

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