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What is an English Degree Like in the US?

Learn what you can do with an English literature degree from a US university.

A small college study group sits on the floor each holding open the book being discussed.

Students majoring in English literature spend their time reading, analyzing, and writing about a wide range of texts in the English language. English literature teaches students many of the skills that are in high demand in today’s workforce. According to the World Economic Forum, eight of the ten in-demand skills trending for 2022 are taught in English classes. These skills, such as analytical thinking and innovation, critical thinking and analysis, and creativity, have helped English majors find work as lawyers, teachers, writers, and marketing professionals.  

But what is English literature? What is it like to study English literature at a university in the United States? Are English students employable after graduation? Keep reading to find out more about English literature degrees at universities in the United States. 

What is English literature?

Even for students who love to read and write, English literature as a major may be a tough sell. Starting salaries are low. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers First Destination survey, English majors make $36,268 after graduation. The projected median lifetime earnings of an English literature major ranks 44th ($2,610,935) out of 85 popular majors, according to Temple University economics professor Douglas Webber. Once the fourth most-popular major in the United States, English literature is now the twelfth most-popular, the lowest in fifty years of tracked data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). 

English majors have marketable skills

Before you exchange your love of reading and analyzing literature for a more employable pursuit, take note: it is skills that matter in the workplace, not the major

An advantage of studying English, especially now, when STEM-based majors are in high demand, is that employers are currently looking for candidates with stronger communication and soft skills

Hard skills are measurable abilities, such as computer coding or calculus. Students enrolled in STEM-based classes learn the hard skills they will be able to use as computer scientists, web developers, engineers, and finance professionals. English literature students learn a valuable and marketable hard skill that many STEM-majors do not have: how to write effectively.

English literature majors also graduate college with a stronger grasp on the soft skills needed to get a job. These skills are harder to measure and harder to teach. Many have to do with the ability to communicate and make decisions effectively. Some of those skills include:

  • Cognitive flexibility: Studying English literature trains English students to consider others’ opinions, think from different perspectives, and adjust their communication style to the audience.

  • Judgment and decision making: Writing a 15-page term paper with an argument and supporting evidence requires judgment, analysis, and decision making.

  • Creativity: Reading poetry and writing short stories puts English students in touch with their creative side. Creativity is one of the hardest soft skills to recruit for and one of the most valuable.

  • Critical thinking: Writing a feminist critique of a work of literature, for instance, trains English students to not only think critically, but also to write a clear and evidence-based analysis.

Why should I study English literature as an international student?

It is hard to argue with the data: English majors do not earn a lot of money throughout their career. So, why should you consider English as an international student at a university in the United States? How do you justify the cost of studying abroad when the salaries are low?

English is the language of globalization

According to a World Economic Forum (WEF) report studying the relationship between English and the economy, job seekers with excellent English skills earn 30-50% higher salaries, especially in countries where English is not the national language. That is because English is the global language of business. 

Speaking the same language, according to the WEF

  • Lowers the cost of transactions across borders

  • Increases trust, which results in more trade

  • Globalizes skill sets, opening the doors to international job prospects

Both India and China, for instance, are considered countries with moderate English language proficiency with above-average demand for English language speaking skills. 

Proficiency in English translates to a better quality of life

The WEF also correlates English language proficiency with the Human Development Index (HDI), which measures education, life expectancy, literacy, and other metrics that affect the overall standard of living. Countries with low proficiency scored lower on the HDI, while countries that scored moderately proficient or better scored higher on the HDI. Better English-speaking skills align with better qualities of life, especially in emerging economies.  

Make sure you research the importance of English proficiency in your home country. Salary information for English literature graduates in the United States will not be the same in India, China, or many countries in Africa, for instance.

Why should I study English literature and not communication? 

If the ability to communicate better is a significant benefit of an English literature major, why not just study communication at your United States college? Communication students study career-ready skills such as marketing, public relations, and digital media. English literature students study books. Would it make more sense for you to study communication?

As areas of study, English and communication have a lot of overlap. Both areas develop a student’s ability to write effectively, conduct research, and analyze different perspectives. However, where communications students learn more about incorporating technology into their area of study, English literature students graduate with the following strengths:

  • English literature students read more: Believe it or not, deep analysis of challenging works of literature is a highly transferable skill. Strong written analysis skills can lead to successful careers in research and development, as well as law.

  • English literature graduates have equal prospects: Note that the starting salary for a communications degree holder is approximately $3,000 more than an English literature grad, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), and they have almost the same projected lifetime earnings. So, for about $1.40 an hour less, English literature students get the added enrichment of studying and learning the great works of the English language canon, an excellent deal for book lovers.

  • English literature majors have more opportunities for teaching: An English degree is more marketable if you want to be a teacher. English literature majors will have an easier time finding work teaching English, from private high schools to English as a Second Language (ESL) programs.

Do English majors just read literature from England? 

While literature from England and America traditionally makes up the core of an English major’s studies, most programs include a focus on international literature from all over the world. The department of English at the University of Kansas, for instance, places “emphasis on community and global engagement, and our abiding interest in our shared humanity through the stories of others.” 

Most undergraduate English programs in the United States have courses that focus on different geographic locations, from Caribbean authors to Asian authors, as well as different points of view, from gender to socioeconomic studies. Be sure to check with your program and your advisors before settling on a university. Review their areas of study, graduation requirements, and class offerings to be sure the fit is right for you.

What is it like to study English literature as an undergraduate student in the United States?

Similar to other undergraduate programs, the English department at Florida International University (FIU) requires students to focus on four areas of study and pick one for their specialization or track. These areas include literature, writing and rhetoric, creative writing, and linguistics.  

Literature: The term literature refers to an artistically or intellectually valuable body of written work. The works of literature that English students study span thousands of years and miles.

Writing and rhetoric: These classes build students’ abilities to form and support arguments to communicate an idea. Students study rhetoric and classic examples of great writing to develop better writing skills themselves. Writing and rhetoric skills are essential in almost any professional endeavor, especially business and marketing career paths.  

Creative writing: Creative writing is different from writing and rhetoric—students are generally writing fiction or nonfiction and not creating an argument based on something that has already been written. In creative writing classes, students’ writing is read and critiqued in workshops with other students.

Linguistics: Linguistics is the study of language—its structure, rules and variations, and what it can tell us about the society that uses it. Linguistics is the closest English students get to a scientific pursuit, as it involves the systematic study of the structure and behavior of language in real-world situations. 

Which required classes do English literature majors take? 

Undergraduate students in the United States traditionally pick their area of study, or major, at the end of their sophomore year. Students are usually required to take basic classes in arts and sciences at the undergraduate level during their first two years of school. Exploring different areas of study before deciding on a major helps students make better decisions, based on their first-hand experience, instead of basing their choices on what they think they want to do for a career.

For students attending the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), these general education classes fit into the following categories:

  1. Analyzing the natural world

  2. Understanding the individual and society

  3. Understanding the past

  4. Understanding the creative arts

  5. Exploring world cultures

  6. Understanding US society

  7. Quantitative reasoning

Students in the English literature program at UIC must complete 78-84 credits in general education classes and related electives out of the required 120 credits to graduate. The remaining 40 or so credits are dedicated to core English requirements, English electives, and concentration or specialization requirements. Concentration or specialization requirements are classes in the area of literature on which students wish to focus their studies.

Some of the core English class required courses required at most universities in the United States include: 

  • English literature I: Beginnings to 1660

  • English literature II: 1660-1900

  • American literature: 1900-present

  • Core writing classes

  • Core theory and criticism classes

Some electives and concentration classes that are common at universities in the United States include: 

  • Colonial and postcolonial literature

  • Culture and media studies

  • Gender theory

  • Introduction to writing fiction

  • Latinx literary studies

  • Russian nineteenth-century novels

  • Topics in criticism and theory

  • Topics in Asian American literature and culture

  • Women and literature

What does an undergraduate class schedule look like for an English literature major? 

Let us take a look at a sample class schedule from UIC that combines core general education classes, core English literature classes, and a series of elective courses that count toward a specialization or a concentration. 

First year, first semester: 13-17 hours

  • Academic writing I: Writing in academic and public contexts

  • Quantitative reasoning

  • Foreign language

  • General ed: Exploring world cultures

First year, second semester: 16-18 hours 

  • Academic writing II: Writing for inquiry and research

  • Introduction to literary study and critical methods

  • Foreign language

  • General ed: Understanding the individual and society

Second year, first semester:16-18 hours

  • English literature I: Beginnings to 1660

  • American literature: Beginnings to 1900

  • Foreign language

  • General ed: Understanding the past

  • General ed: Analyzing the natural world I

Second year, second semester: 16 hours

  • English literature II: 1660 to 1900

  • Introduction to gender, sexuality, and literature

  • Foreign language

  • General ed: Analyzing the natural world II

  • General ed: Understanding the creative arts

Third year, first semester: 15 hours 

  • Black cultural studies

  • Literature and popular culture

  • General ed: Earth, energy, and the environment

  • General ed: Understanding US society

  • Topics in American literature and culture, 1900-present

Third year, second semester: 15 hours

  • Disability studies

  • Topics in literature and culture

  • General ed: Mathematical reasoning

  • Women and film

Fourth year, first semester: 15 hours

  • Women’s literary traditions

  • African and Caribbean Francophone literature in translation

  • Totalitarianism, writing, and cinema

  • Diaspora, exile, genocide: Aspects of the European Jewish experience in literature and film

  • Studies in the moving image

Fourth year, second semester: 15 hours 

  • Topics in postcolonial and world literature in English

  • History of modern philosophy I: Descartes and his successors

  • Roman satire and rhetoric

  • The Bible as literature: Hebrew Bible

  • Topics in Shakespeare

Should I go to graduate school for English literature? 

When students decide to study English literature at the bachelor’s level, they choose to follow their passion. The job market is tough after graduation, and the data available from the United States suggests that an English Lit degree is not especially lucrative. Therefore, students decide, despite the data, to embrace their love of reading, writing, analysis, and language and find ways to put those passions to good use.

What they find as writers, editors, and in other professions as English majors is that grad school for English lit probably will not benefit their career. For many jobs that draw English majors, professional experience and a strong writing portfolio will open more doors than an expensive master’s degree. 

Other times, English lit majors find that a graduate degree or higher in a different area of study would benefit them more. So, they go back to get an education degree and teach English, or they go back for a computer science degree and transition into project management, or they decide to go to law school.

According to NCES, around 33,000 students graduated with general English lit bachelor’s degrees and approximately 4,200 students earned master’s degrees in 2017. By contrast, 138,000 students graduated with business administration bachelor’s degrees and 104,000 with master’s of business administration (MBA) degrees the same year. Based on these figures, approximately 13% of English majors decide to study English as grad students, and 75% of business majors opt to pursue an MBA.  

Who should consider studying English literature in graduate school? 

There is only one reason to go to graduate school for English literature: to become a professor at the university level. Sure, your education will help you in several professions, but rarely does schooling give you a better chance of getting hired compared to professional experience.

English professors, on the other hand, will often need a master’s or even a doctoral degree to find work, and even then, academic positions are challenging to find and extremely competitive in the United States. Many master’s degree holders work as teacher’s assistants, part-time teachers, or adjunct professors, with very little job security and few benefits.

Before you despair, the job landscape internationally is different from the job market in the United States. An English degree in China, for instance, opens the door to ESL teaching jobs. A master’s degree could mean a more lucrative position in that industry, which is expected to grow more than 22% in China from 2018-22, according to Research and Markets. Make sure you research openings in your country before you decide on a master’s degree. 

You should also: 

  • Ask yourself if teaching at the college level or higher is what you want to do for your future career.

  • Talk to English grad students and get feedback about the classes and the workload.

  • Talk to alumni about the job market after grad school.

  • Talk with professors and advisors as well.

What do English majors study at the graduate level?

A master’s degree in English literature is an opportunity to focus on one area, or era, that fits within the landscape of works written in English. From early colonial literature to postmodern poetry, grad students have the opportunity to become experts in their niche. Students read feminist, socialist, and postmodern criticism and write their own. They analyze novelists’ letters and nonfiction work to understand their subject matter better. And finally, they write dissertations, theses, capstone projects, and other long-form criticism. As with many other areas of study, English provides a broad undergraduate education in the United States and a deep education at the graduate level.

Teaching English 

But literature is not the only English graduate school specialization or option. Many English undergraduate majors decide to take their love of literature to the classroom and become teachers. Some schools, such as FIU, offer a bachelor of arts degree in English with an English education certification. FIU’s program allows students to certify to teach up to the secondary level in the state of Florida.

Alternatively, students who wish to teach can enroll in separate certification classes or in a master of education program. Before considering teaching, be sure to check the requirements in your country. A certification earned in the US may not be enough, or may not be necessary, back home.

Creative writing

More than 35% of all graduate-level students enrolled in an English-based master’s program are studying creative writing. A creative writing degree is a master of fine arts (MFA) degree and has grown in popularity with students and at colleges across the United States. According to The Atlantic, the number of programs available increased sevenfold from fifty-two to more than 350 from 1975 to 2016. Many schools, such as the University of Kansas, require a creative thesis, novel, or similar written work as a capstone or final project to graduate.

Creative writing programs teach students how to funnel their creativity into producing novels, poems, short stories, and more. Students work with adjunct professors and their classmates, analyzing great literature and reviewing and critiquing each other’s written works in a workshop setting. Many students enter these programs in hopes of becoming professional writers, but often find other creative endeavors or teaching positions.

What are the career paths for English majors?

Deciding to study English literature is a choice to do what you love with your life. People passionate about books, reading, and understanding human nature make great English lit students, and these people figure out a way to build a career out of their passion. Employment data or job growth trends alone cannot specify all the possible career options available for English Literature majors.

Why developing employable skills is essential for English majors

If you are concerned about finding work after you graduate, but do not want to give up on your passion for books and reading, there are ways to close the employment gap. One of the best ways is to major in English, but at the same time develop complementary skills that are currently in high demand.

An English major with a computer science minor, for instance, can leverage the skills learned in this highly employable section of the economy to find a first job after college. According to a recent Burning Glass Technologies report, liberal arts graduates, such as English majors, see as much as a $32,000 annual increase in pay when they couple their degree with high-demand skills in their market.  

Take a look at job markets in your country or the city where you wish to live after college. Which jobs look interesting to you? What skills and experience do they require? Are there any similarities in the skill sets requested between jobs? Compile a list of the most common skills and try to find a way to build a resume showcasing your experience in those areas before you graduate. Join clubs, work internships, and find a minor that works for you—and the economy. One of the best ways to follow your passion, and to convince your parents that English lit is a good idea, is to be prepared with a marketable back-up plan.

What can you do with an English major?

English majors often try to find work writing or teaching. There are several professions in a variety of industries that require strong writing skills. Let us take a look at a couple of options that may seem obvious (and a few that may not).

Copywriter 

Job description: Develop written content for marketing and other purposes  

Median salary: $51,000, according to PayScale.com

Growth projection: 0% (little or no change), according to the BLS

High school teacher 

Job description: Instruct high school students in English and other subjects 

Median salary: $49,000, according to PayScale.com 

Growth projection: 4% (average growth), according to the BLS

Public relations specialist 

Job description: Help organizations maintain a favorable public image often through media, including writing 

Median salary: $48,000, according to PayScale.com 

Growth projection: 6% (average growth), according to the BLS

Technical writer

Job description: Communicate often complex and technical information clearly and concisely through how-to guides, instruction manuals, and other documentation types  

Median salary: $60,000, according to PayScale.com 

Growth projection: 8% (faster than average), according to the BLS 

Why study English literature in the United States

According to U.S. News & World Report, fifteen of the top twenty-five arts and humanities programs in the world are located in the United States. Opportunities to express personal ideas, criticism, and interpretations combine with creative writing classes where students can learn how to put those ideas and arguments into words. Advisors can help English lit students follow their dreams while building an employable resume, and the breadth of internships available in the US allows students to test their plan in a professional setting.  

However, before you apply to an English lit program, take time to explore your options. Make sure there are positions available back home after graduation. A degree from a US university can help you stand out in a crowded field as you apply for writing, teaching, editing, or marketing positions, but make sure there are jobs in your market before you apply. 

Do not be discouraged by the negative press—there may be a few bumpy roads ahead, but your love of English literature will last a lifetime. It will reward you with insight, empathy, and a better understanding of the world around you as you grow and mature.

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