Why English Majors Don’t Have to Finish Last
“What if my degree isn’t marketable?”
I have always been fascinated by the assumptions behind this question. They get echoed back to us in remarks like:
- “Ugh, what are you going to do with philosophy?”
- “You majored in psych? Enjoy grad school for the rest of your life.”
- “Hell of a job market out there for that English degree!”
Someone has apparently decided that math, science and engineering are the only majors that matter. Back in 2009, a survey seemed to confirm this, with Businessweek reporting that “only 6 percent of employers want to hire humanities or liberal arts majors, and only 5 percent seek graduates with social science degrees.”
Is that true? Are thousands of students getting painted into a corner by their degrees?
The real truth is: it’s not whether your degree is marketable. It’s whether YOU market it!
In Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin delivers a brutally honest speech to a demoralized sales team. His message? There are no weak leads, only weak salesmen:
The same is true of college. Someone who knows where they want to work can position virtually any degree to get hired.
This is even true of supposedly “unmarketable” majors. Just because something doesn’t directly ladder up to a high-paying career doesn’t mean you’re doomed to wait tables forever. Invariably, I find myself reminding my DIY Degree students of this whenever they email me about credit-by-examination.
With a new approach, you can reframe your degree to not only get the job you want, but actually blow a hiring manager away.
Don’t believe me? Go to Monster.com and tell me how many job postings include the words “Bachelor’s Degree in X OR EQUIVALENT.” That’s code for “if you don’t have the degree I want, tell me why yours fits.”
Let’s examine five “unmarketable” majors and some reframing scripts to achieve maximum impact:
The common assumption: “All I can do is go to grad school or intern at a therapist’s office.”
How to reframe: Let’s say you have decided against psychology and are now eyeballing a career in marketing. Here’s what you might say to persuade a hiring manager your degree fits:
“You know, it’s funny. Most outsiders think business is just about numbers and money, but I totally disagree. My psychology courses really opened my eyes to the human element. There are so many biases, barriers and personality quirks that go into a buying decision, for example. It’s not simply about having the best product. If you don’t understand the emotional state of a customer or what’s going through their head, you miss huge opportunities to win them over. My goal at Acme Corp. is to soak up as much marketing experience as I can and whenever possible, try to apply my psych training to tackle your challenges from a unique perspective.”
Why it works: First, you show insight by identifying a missing piece: the human element. Second, you give examples of psychological phenomena that affect what the hiring manager cares about: sales. Finally, you show some humility (“I want to soak up as much marketing experience as I can”) and offer a hint of intrigue (“a unique perspective”) as to what the hiring manager can expect from you.
The common assumption: “All I can do is teach philosophy or pontificate on the is-ought dichotomy in my mother’s basement.”
How to reframe: So you’ve decided that leading college freshmen through Hegelian dialectics is no way to go through life and want to forge a career in journalism. How about saying this?
“Frankly, I expect a learning curve for getting up to speed in this role compared to a journalism major. That’s just reality. However, my philosophy courses actually gave me an incredibly strong framework for being a journalist. As we studied the great thinkers of western civilization, I really focused on the methodology: critical thinking, chains of reasoning, evaluating evidence, a thirst for different perspectives and clear expression of ideas. I’m committed to writing the most insightful, evocative and compelling articles I possibly can and I think XYZ Corp. is a terrific place to develop my skills.”
Why it works: First, you employ a strategy known as the damaging admission by conceding you are somewhat less qualified than a journalism major. Next, you immediately pivot to why, DESPITE this weakness, you are still totally capable of doing an amazing job thanks to your philosophy training. Finally, you close by promising what the hiring manager wants: great content.
The common assumption: “All I can do is write boring memos and buy coffee for my boss.”
How to reframe: Here, we’ll assume that you don’t want to work at a PR agency and are instead dying to work as a social media manager. Here’s something to say if questioned about your degree:
“To be honest, I decided that a traditional PR role wasn’t for me before I even graduated, and this career was a total no-brainer. Each day after class, I raced home to answer questions in the Facebook community I was running about [insert topic here]. Before long, I was not only updating the page, but also doing podcasts and creating editorial calendars for an ongoing blog. I loved the rush and the sense that I and I alone had to keep the train running on time. That’s what led me to you guys. I know I can turn any project you throw at me into a smooth-running machine.”
Why it works: Right off the bat, you explain why you broke ranks with the other communications majors. Next, you clarify that this was due not to laziness or idle drift, but a burning passion that lies somewhere else (not, coincidentally, somewhere directly in line with the job you’re applying to). You proceed to give examples containing the code words a project manager ought to know and close with a powerful statement of value.
The common assumption: “All I can do is ride the 9-to-5 grind to an early grave in my corner office.”
How to reframe: Not everyone is cut out for corporate life. Want to ditch business and break into a service-based organization? See below.
“I did briefly consider a management career. In my internship at ABC Corp., I got a lot of hands-on experience supervising a team and coordinating projects, which was great. If I’m being honest, though, my real passion is in caregiving. This was especially clear to me whenever I volunteered at Habitat For Humanity and the local Boys & Girls Club. I care way less about making a six-figure salary than I do about making a difference, and I would love to use the skills I’ve learned so far to carry out Red Cross missions. I’m willing to start at the bottom in order to make headway in this field.”
Why it works: You are explicitly disclaiming the goals most business majors have and replacing them with a personal mission to do good. This alone is disarming, as it suggests you really do have the selfless nature required of a devoted caregiver. Next, you express a sincere willingness to learn on the job and start out small. In a field like this, enthusiasm matters more than experience and can often render your degree irrelevant.
The common assumption: “All I can do is write novels or get my master’s.”
How to reframe: Let’s say you have zero interest in an academia and want to work in public relations—a career you might assume requires a communications degree. Try this:
“No question, I lack the formal training of a communications curriculum. I knew I was looking at an uphill climb, so I took it upon myself to enroll in Dale Carnegie seminars in New York City and read the 10 best PR books at my library cover-to-cover. Since then, I’ve offered to help some local businesses expand their outreach, with pretty promising results. Believe it or not, my English degree gave me a good springboard for this, because you learn the craft of communication from the true masters. I think that with a little training, I can grow into one of the best PR people you’ve got.”
Why it works: You make the damaging admission, but immediately back it up with the steps you took to compensate and what you did to build on that. Next, you play up the relevant features of your English degree to position it as a benefit instead of a burden. Finally, you close by vowing to not just enter the field, but ultimately dominate.
Are you willing to market yourself?
What this approach requires of you is a focused career vision. After all, what gives these reframing scripts their power? It’s not just confidence or enthusiasm. It’s the impression that you have selected this particular company out of many possible options, often after thankless work performed with no outside prompting.
Am I saying these exact scripts will work every time? No. What I am saying is that you have control over how you are perceived, and a little framing goes a long way. Conversely, relying on a degree to speak for you is lazy, short-sighted and destined to disappoint.
Anyone can do this. The day you realize your degree is not simply “marketable,” but something YOU market, will be a turning point in your career.
Jay Cross runs The Do-It-Yourself Degree, where he teaches students how to graduate in record time via degree-by-examination. He also resides in Connecticut and believes all of life’s major realizations occur on a mountain.
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