What you can do with a B.A. in English

In the 2003 Broadway musical Avenue Q, Princeton, still in graduation regalia, wonders, "What do you do with a B.A. in English?"

The puppet has a point — and he isn't the first to question the value of an arts degree, particularly in the modern world dominated by tech-start-ups-turned-billion-dollar-businesses, financial and investment wizards, and science and technology goliaths.

But there's a new philosophy in town, one that says numbers can be taught but creativity and innovation can't— and when you crunch the numbers, that's where the money lies.

This philosophy sees not only a place, but a place of leadership, for people with B.A.s in the arts.

Arts Leaders Are All Around
Maybe you've heard of Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus? Or former Avon CEO Andrea Jung?  If not, surely you've heard of Conan O'Brien, Steven Spielberg, or Barbara Walters? You guessed it. They all received a B.A. in English before becoming successful in their fields. (Click here for more successful people with English degrees.)

What's in a B.A.?
On the surface, we know that people who study English are (1) interested in literature, (2) interested in analyzing literature, (3) enjoy reading, (4) enjoy writing. (Sometimes. Am I right?!)

These are certainly skills one hones in when studying toward a degree in English.

But you learn so much more.

1. Critical Thinking
The term "critical thinking" has become a buzz word, a catch-all phrase meaning you can think. Saying it is one thing — actually thinking critically is another. English majors learn and apply critical thinking in every essay they write. They read a plethora of material and decided what they want to argue about a subject – any subject – related to the works. They discover patterns weaved through works and create links between some where none have ever before been connected. They look at multiple documents, thousands and thousands of words long, and choose which 50-100 words best prove their argument. Then, they write all these connections, bridges, analyses down.

I do this kind of work every day in my job. I'm glad I had the practice in university!

2. Writing and Editing
These skills are underrated. You will meet and work with people who can write a sentence that is grammatically sound, spelled to perfection. But there is a difference between writing a sound sentence and writing a persuasive sentence. One, whether it shows up in a memo, in an email, on social media, in a report, or in an article, is forgettable. You read it, and nothing changes. The other, when you read it, you are changed. You are driven to an action.

A degree in English helps you learn to write sentences the second way — persuasively. You will learn how to use just the right words to be convincing, to motivate.

A tweet is not just an easy 140-character post. A tweet can be revolutionary.

in business, in non-profits, and in the private sector, persuasive writing is king.

3. Creativity
If you're like me, when you hear the word "create," you think about an artist at a pottery wheel crafting a man out of mud, or a painter splashing colour on a canvas and producing a universe.

I forget that writing is an act of creation, perhaps because, at a glance, writing on a page all looks the same. From across the room, typed text could be Ulysses, could be this blog post, could be lorem ipsum. In writing, the act of creation is not discernible at a glance.

It's not easy to stare at a blank page or screen and put words onto it; it's not easy to translate an idea from your brain into words that communicate a message in precise language. Remind yourself of these things, and you'll feel more the artist — which you are.

4. Ability to Comprehend
With a B.A. in English, your reading comprehension level is high — very high. That means you can read complex documents – even documents in a field otherwise unknown to you – and make sense of it. What value in the working world!

You can read through a report or article, quickly extract the valuable information, and apply it to the situation in your office. This is not to be taken for granted. What a skill – a time-saver and money-saver.

But I Don't Have Any Real Skills
I hear you. I was there, too, right out of school. A B.A. in English shows you can think and shows you can write — but it alone doesn't give you any experience.

The great thing is, you can build on your degree. Think about what field you're interested in. If it's journalism, brush up on your journalistic writing. Take a course, or start writing a blog. If it's public relations, again, take a course, join a professional association, and start doing.

If you'd like to be a comedian, then start writing; a business person, start planning. Think broadly, as you learned to do in university, and don't be afraid. Have ideas. Have confidence.

English isn't like some fields, which lead directly into one particular job. If you studied dental hygiene, you know what jobs you're looking for. Same with the trades, or even math or computer science.

But isn't that part curse and part kismet?

English majors have a strong base that can be honed in whatever area chosen. You can think. You can learn. You can communicate.

Just like Princeton, who bemoans that he can't pay the bills yet, 'cause he doesn't have any skills yet — you have honed worthwhile and valuable competencies getting your B.A. in English. Now, what are you going to do with them?

Get creative, get confident, and, like Princeton sings, you might change the world.

"But somehow I can't shake,
The feeling I might make,
A difference,
To the human race."

Author Amendment on November 9, 2015:

The new Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, has a B.A. in English Literature from McGill University. Fantastic!

Caribou Creative