I graduated from college in 2016 with an English degree and the idea that I wanted to go to graduate school and then work in publishing. I changed my plan five times over the next year and a half. Throughout school, people told me English was “a BS major.” I got all the stereotypical questions: “So you want to teach?” “What are you going to do?” “Are you okay with being poor?” It annoyed me, but I was shooting for what I wanted — to be a writer.
I wouldn’t change my English major, but looking back, there are a few things I would encourage other students to do or things I wish I’d done differently. Here are the three things I suggest anyone with a “useless” major do to prepare for a happy, successful career.
1. Take an internship that interests you, even if it’s unrelated to the job you want.
Everyone tells you to apply for internships, but too often, college students disregard an internship that could provide marketable experience just because it’s not directly related to their major. My advice is to balance the two ideas. Take an internship that interests you, but don’t stress if it’s not related to your major. Relevant experience doesn’t always come in the package you’d expect. This is especially important for students studying in cities where their desired industry isn’t thriving.
My first internship was with a not-for-profit organization working as an advocate. Even though I was interested in the work, I ultimately wanted to work in publishing and write after college. I took the internship anyway despite a few snarky comments from classmates about the legitimacy of my unpaid position. The experience led to being offered an internship at the only publishing house in my city, which led to a paid job at that publishing house. I got my foot in the door of my dream job by taking a chance on the advocacy internship first. The supervisor who hired me for the publishing internship mentioned the project management skills I’d learned at the not-for-profit as the reason they’d chosen me over the other applicants.
I realize not everyone can take an unpaid internship. If I hadn’t lived at home during the summer of my first internship, I would have been so stressed out about money that I would not have completed it. I get it. If that’s the case for you, see where you can offer your services and talents without making an hourly commitment every single week. Clubs are less of a time commitment, but they still offer opportunities to build your resume.
Research groups on campus you may be able to help with special events to get experience on your resume. If you’re an art major, this may mean designing fliers for a group’s next event. If you’re an English major, you might write or proofread content for a group’s websites or event updates. If you don’t have a specific skill to offer, see if you can help with organizing, and be willing to learn. Some groups only meet once a month, so the time commitment is more manageable than an internship might be. Keep a list of everything you do and a portfolio for your job applications.
2. Save up an emergency fund, so you can take a few risks.
A decent-sized savings account allows you to feel more comfortable taking risks after graduation. You can afford to take an unpaid or low-paying internship for a while where you gain experience in the field you’re most excited about. It can help you fend off those feelings of desperation that come from thoughts like “I need to get a job NOW and pay my bills!” You can hold out for a job you want and not just take the first one that comes along.
Everyone should have an emergency fund because, well, you will experience emergencies, but if you’re coming out of college with a “useless” degree, an emergency fund can help take the stress off as you navigate your first few years of post-college life. I wish I’d saved more when I was in undergrad. I had some money put away, but I dipped into it more than I should have. If I could go back and change my undergrad experience, I’d have gotten serious about saving sooner instead of spending so much money on eating out or buying clothes that ended up wearing out super quickly.
3. Take all the extra help and critique you can get from Professors.
If you’re graduating with a fine arts major, this idea is helpful, but the networking aspect is valuable for any graduate. When I was working on my English degree, I took way more workshops and forms classes than were required. The experience I gained was priceless. My writing improved so much in those few years just because I let other people see it, offer advice, and show me the parts that only made sense to me. If I hadn’t pursued extra help in those classes, I’d still be making a lot of the same mistakes, and that’s why I want to encourage students to take all the feedback they can get.
You will need recommendations from your professors when you graduate, but have you thought about the value they might add to your job search right now? They might offer advice on how to navigate the world post-graduation with a “useless” major. Think about it. They teach in the area they studied, meaning they know what it’s like starting a career in your field. Chances are, teaching isn’t the only thing they do, or isn’t the only thing they’ve ever done. They have insights into your industry. Don’t miss out on the extra help you could get from them.
This being said, we all know professors who don’t like being bothered, and they may send you to career services rather than explain the issues of the field to you. Others are much more helpful and excited to talk. Be respectful, but find the one you jive with and talk to them. Your first interaction may be an email asking for a critique of your work, but it could turn into a mentorship that helps your professional development. At the very least, communicating with your professors will help them remember you when you need a recommendation letter.
I know from experience it’s difficult to approach graduation with a degree that people don’t seem to respect or understand. If it’s right for you, stick with it, and make sure you take advantage of as many opportunities as you can. Doing so made all the difference for me!
Jeanna Paden is a freelance writer from Memphis with work forthcoming in Foothill Journal and Red Mud Review. She is a fierce defender of English as a college major and Hufflepuff House. Connect with her via her blog or on Twitter.
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