Hit the books, make bank as an English major

If you’re a working professional who’s thinking about going back to school, you’re in good company. Students older than 35 are projected to account for 19 percent of all college and graduate students by 2020.

But, a college diploma is a hefty investment. Pursuing an undergraduate degree at a four-year institution will cost you about $25,000 a year on average. It’s important, then, to choose a degree that will maximize your earning power after graduation.

So, which degree path yields the best return on investment? Here’s one route you may not have considered: Becoming an English major. Stereotypes of starving writers aside, English majors can — and often do — find their way into lucrative careers. (Public relations, anyone?)

PayScale Inc., a Seattle-based data firm, reports that workers with a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature can expect a median salary of $40,400 in the first five years of their career. Their median career pay jumps to $68,200 when they have a decade or more experience under their belts.

It’s not just about the money, either. Pursuing a degree in English can yield a greater sense of purpose. According to PayScale, 46 percent of English majors believe their work makes the world a better place.

Despite what you may have heard on the Internet, becoming an English major is not a one-way ticket to poverty. Nor is it a waste of time. If words delight you and grammar makes you swoon, rebooting your career with an English degree could the ticket to a fulfilling and well-paying occupation.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

First, we’ll examine some of the top-paying careers you can snag with a bachelor’s degree in English. Then, we’ll examine the hard and soft skills you can expect to develop while completing your degree. Finally, we’ll look at the versatility an English degree can provide in an ever-shifting economy.

Let’s get after it. Or, if you prefer Shakespeare, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”

What can English majors earn?

Quite a lot, actually. Here are some of the top-paying jobs for folks who graduate with a bachelor’s in English.

Technical writer

English majors are often associated with brooding novelists agonizing over their latest masterpiece. However, lucrative jobs exist in the non-fiction world, no starving or angst required.

Case in point: Technical writers. If you have a gift for making complex ideas comprehensible, then this could be the job for you.

Technical writers are responsible for drafting technical documents with the needs of their end users in mind. They write documents for products, and they sometimes supplement their writing with photographs, diagrams, charts and other visual aids to make the product more understandable to users.

The pay

Technical writers make good scratch. A senior position in this field fetches a median salary of nearly $80,000 a year.

What’s more, you can do the work in your jammies. Freelance job boards are flush with telecommuting gigs for technical writers.

Factors to consider

  • Technical writers usually don’t get a byline. If you’re seeking notoriety, this may not be the path for you.
  • The job also includes working closely with subject matter experts, so good interpersonal skills are a must.
  • Accuracy and attention to detail is essential in this line of work.

For more information

  • Freelance Writing has a library of how-to articles about breaking into the freelance technical writing field. It also publishes a job board with a variety of writing gigs, including those for technical writing.
  • The Society for Technical Communication offers training, publications and other resources for technical writers.

Director of communications

If you’re a director of communications, then your main priority is building and protecting your organization’s good image. This includes cultivating relationships with stakeholders, gauging the public’s perception of the organization, and communicating to internal and external parties during a crisis.

Public relations sometimes gets a bad rap for spinning the truth. In reality, though, it’s an honorable profession with ethics, truth and professionalism at its core.

The pay

The median salary for these professionals comes in at about $71,000 per year. The maximum potential salary can run as high as $123,000.

Factors to consider

  • People skills are critical in this field. Much of the job is building productive working relationships with a broad range of people, including reporters and other media professionals.
  • Top-par communication, both verbally and written, is essential for this role.
  • Directors of communication often develop long-range initiatives, so the ability to plan, execute and evaluate a plan is important.

For more information

Senior copywriter

Copywriters are responsible for the text, or “copy,” you see in a company’s promotional materials. Some copywriters work in a stable of in-house creative professionals, while others work with an independent agency that generates original copy for a variety of clients.

This is another job you can complete from home. Like technical writing, copy writing lends itself well to freelancers, and freelance job boards often have a robust selection of these types of gigs.

The pay

The average wage for a senior copywriter comes in at about $72,000 a year, but writers have been known to snag up to $97,000 a year. With that kind of salary, you’re guaranteed to steer clear of the “starving writer” stereotype.

Factors to consider

  • Like the other careers we’ve examined, this one requires solid people skills. These folks collaborate heavily with designers, product managers and business administrators.
  • If you become a copywriter, you’ll be writing about a wide range of topics, many of which may be unfamiliar to you. Curiosity and strong research skills are a must.
  • You must be able to write quickly and write well. If you can’t bang out polished prose in a heartbeat, don’t fret. These are skills you can learn once you master the art of the writing process and practice it diligently.

What do English majors learn?

Billy Collins once observed that majoring in poetry is like majoring in death. As an English major myself, I’d agree with that assessment.

Still, “moody navel gazing” isn’t the only skill you can put on your résumé when you graduate with a degree in English. You also develop useful hard and soft skills along the way.

Meeting deadlines

Read 300 pages of Paradise Lost by tomorrow. Then, write a five-page critical analysis of the themes of loss and redemption therein.

Being a successful English major is all about meeting deadlines — sometimes, seemingly impossible deadlines. But as anyone who’s worked a job knows, deadlines make the world go ’round. They’re a key part of being a professional.

The good news: A bachelor’s in English will teach you how to meet and beat your deadlines.

Writing quickly and writing well

Remember that high-paying copy writing job? You can only land high-paying gigs like that if you can pound out solid, well-composed sentences in rapid succession.

Studying English will whip your writing into shape, and fast. You’ll be writing. A lot. And that’s good. The more you write, you better you’ll get.

Added bonus: Your professors will give you feedback on every piece you write, which can help you improve at an exponential rate. Remember: Feedback is your friend. Welcome it with open arms.


Research suggests that reading literary fiction improves your ability to empathize, or understand what another person is thinking and feeling.

You probably won’t see empathy tests on a job application anytime soon. Nevertheless, it’s an essential skill for navigating both your career and your life. Empathy can be a powerful tool for leaders to engage and retain employees. It’s a skill we know we need, but we rarely get any explicit training on how to cultivate it.

Fortunately, it’s one we can learn through reading good literature, the kind that makes up the core of most university-level English courses. Plus, it will introduce you to a wealth of new ideas that will enrich your life and challenge your assumptions.

Talk about disrupting yourself.

Training for the future

Perhaps the most compelling reason to study English is that it lends you a great amount of flexibility. English majors can be public school teachers, professors, reporters, communications specialists, marketers, publishers and bloggers.

They can work in large companies or in small organizations. They can work for a corporation or work for themselves. Their mastery of written language opens a spectrum of opportunities.

The job market is rapidly morphing, and the data suggests that the “traditional” 9-to-5 might be evaporating.

The booming freelance market is just one indicator of this fundamental shift. Freelancers represented 35 percent of the U.S. workforce last year, and more people (including Yours Truly) are choosing to freelance by choice.

But no matter how much the market changes, there’s a good chance people will always need good writers. People will always have a message to convey, and they’ll always need skilled communicators to convey it with accuracy, clarity and grace.

Feed your writing skills, and in return, they will help feed you. And I’m not just talking Ramen Noodles.


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