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The Cash Value of the English Major; or, One Way to Explain to Uncle Joe Why You’re Majoring in English

by Jeffrey T. Nealon

We’re all familiar with the refrain, repeated by everyone from newspaper reporters to your Uncle Joe at Thanksgiving dinner: “If you major in English, you’ll end up living in your parents’ basement. Sure, it’s an interesting major, but there are no career prospects. So major in something practical.”

In response to such charges, professors often pivot to a defense of the English major’s skills – critical reasoning, interpretive deftness, thinking creatively – and in addition offer the timely reminder that leaders of business and industry crave just those abilities in searching for new employees. (Steve Strauss, “Why I Hire English Majors”)

But let’s for a minute return to the practical concerns of careers, to dollars and cents. BECAUSE IT’S SIMPLY NOT TRUE THAT MAJORING IN ENGLISH IS RUINOUS FOR YOUR LIFETIME EARNING POTENTIAL.

According to Payscale.com, which tracks mid-career average pay (by major) for people with Bachelor’s Degrees, those who major in English Literature have career earnings that are well above the median for all majors (English ranks #130 out of 319 total majors charted).

English majors’ earning power turns out to be competitive with (and in many cases higher than) many of the “practical” majors that your Uncle Joe wants to steer you toward. For example, average mid-career pay for those majoring in English is only $1000 a year ($20 a week) less than those majoring in Accounting.

In fact, English majors on average take home HIGHER mid-career pay than those majoring in each of the following “practical” fields: Business Administration (English majors make on average $2400 a year more), Public Relations (English $3000/yr higher), Biology (English $3300/yr higher), Hotel Management (English $3400/yr higher), Human Resources (English $8900/yr higher), Web Design (English $11,800/yr higher), and Psychology (English $13,500/yr higher).

Indeed, if it’s purely about dollars and cents, English Literature turns out to be a more “practical” major (has higher mid-career earnings on average) than Forestry, Nursing, Computer Information Systems, Sports Management, Environmental Science, Journalism, Landscape Architecture, Education, Computer Animation, and virtually all Health and Communications fields.

So the next time Uncle Joe or someone like him conjures pictures of 40-something English majors still working at minimum-wage jobs, just offer him these hard facts; and then turn the conversation to something more interesting, English-major style.