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Report: English Majors Employed at Comparable Rates, Educators Can Do More to Prepare Students for Careers

College students who graduate as English majors actually find jobs at about the same rate as those who major in other subjects, according to a recent report commissioned by the Modern Language Association (MLA).Dr. Paula KrebsDr. Paula Krebs

Report on English Majors’ Career Preparation and Outcomes draws on findings from a number of different sources, including the Hamilton Project, the National Humanities Alliance, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, and Humanities Indicators.

According to the report, the unemployment rate for English majors, 2.3%, was not far off from that of all college graduates, 2.17%.

In fact, this rate for English majors puts it below the unemployment rate for computer and information services majors, 2.8%, though still higher compared to a number of other majors – business, engineering, philosophy, physical science, and history.

The salaries that English majors make isn’t far off from that of other pursuits either, according to the report. In 2018, at career peak, the median annual earnings for English literature and language majors working full-time were $76,000, only $2,000 below that of all majors, $78,000.

And for those who have gone on to earn graduate degrees, the median annual full-time salary at career peak was $86,000 for all majors and $83,000 for English literature and language majors, the report noted.

Similarly, the report cited research that showed that the median earnings of full-time workers with an undergrad degree in English and any graduate degree was $65,851, approximately $5,000 lower than that of all majors with a graduate degree, $70,917.

Job satisfaction for English majors is also comparable to that of other majors, according to the report. 90% of terminal bachelor’s degree in all fields reported feeling very or somewhat satisfied with their jobs, and humanities majors came close with 87%.

The idea that English majors have poor career prospects and are relegated to service jobs is a “persistent misconception” and “false narrative.” But there is no denying that there are still gaps between lifetime median earnings of humanities majors compared to some professions, such as business, engineering, or science, even if such gaps are later narrowed, the report noted.

Women comprise the majority of English majors – they earned nearly 69% of all English bachelor’s degrees in 2014 – but are generally paid less, according to the report. In 2018, the median annual earnings for men who are English language and literature majors was about $74,000. But for women, that number falls to around $61,000.

However, this gap may have more to do with overall wage gaps between the genders – especially for women of color and women with disabilities – as opposed to specifically English majors, the report noted.

“It is not simply that English degrees hold less value on the job market; it is that the majority of our students are women, who continue to encounter widespread and pervasive salary inequities in the workforce, as a result of persistent discrimination,” the report read.

Along lines or race and ethnicity, Black and Latino graduates in the humanities typically earn less than their white counterparts. Among those ages 25–59 who are English majors, the median earnings of Black graduates in 2010–14 was $46,000 and the median for Latino grads in 2009-2013 was $48,000. Meanwhile, for English grads overall from 2009-2013, the median was $53,000, according to the report.

The report’s findings are consistent with that of employer surveys done by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), according to AAC&U President Dr. Lynn Pasquerella, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy.

“Employers deeply value the skills, competencies, and mindsets of humanities majors, particularly when it comes to oral and written communication, working on diverse teams, and the capacity to speak across differences,” Pasquerella wrote in an email to Diverse.

Faculty, staff, and higher ed administrators should use and keep up to date with credible sources of data about salary and outcomes to assuage student concerns, the report suggested. Internships, career preparation and networking are also important – included in the report are a series of case studies of higher ed institutions who have taken steps towards preparing their English majors.

It is also valuable to get input from people outside of academia, such as from career services centers, about employment trends, the report noted.

“[The report] reaffirms the value of degrees in English for job satisfaction as well as career opportunities in general,” said MLA Executive Director Dr. Paula Krebs, who holds a Ph.D. in English. “[It also points] the way forward for English departments and faculty members to make those degrees even more rich in terms of how articulate they can be about the skills, values, and perspectives that students get from English degrees.”

Fleshing out these benefits can help students feel good about majoring in a field they might be passionate in but reluctant to major in due to “prevailing myths,” Krebs said.

The number of English majors has been on the decline. Over the past decade, the number of students pursuing degrees in the humanities has declined in several countries, according to The New Yorker. And in the U.S. alone, humanities enrollment has gone down by about 17%, said Dr. Robert Townsend, program director at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. He also leads work at Humanities Indicators and holds a Ph.D. in history.

“I think that if the field is going to turn around the recent decline in majors, we need to offer better answers on the careers question, and this report is a masterful effort to muster the best available data to make that case, and put it alongside clearly articulated reforms in departments,” Townsend said. “This is urgently needed in English and across the humanities.”

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