Pursuing a degree in English can provide you with a strong base of skills that can be applied to a diverse range of career opportunities. Some English students become writers or editors, other go on to be teachers, and some use their academic skills in a completely different category altogether. Whether you become an editor of a national newspaper, or a coordinator for a women’s shelter downtown, a degree in English encourages you to develop a variety of transferable skills. The key for students is being able to market those skills to employers to gain a competitive edge over other applicants.
According to Kathryn Ward, SFU English undergraduate advisor, “with English, like many of the degrees at SFU, it’s about how you develop the writing skills, public speaking skills, analytical skills, and research skills,” that are required for being successful in your studies, and how you can transfer those skills into the workplace.
Although writing is a major component of many English undergraduate courses, students develop more than just writing skills. For one, says Paulette Johnston, former Arts and Social Sciences Co-op Program Manager, English majors develop analytical skills by picking apart everything that they read. Students also learn about the human condition, including “how people work, and how people work together.” Paulette explains, “Jane Austin, for example, is all about relationships of people, what people say, what they really mean, what they’re thinking when they say it, and how what they say is different from what they really mean. Often, that’s what you have to deal with at work.”
Paulette notes, “It’s a funny thing, I think most people don’t think that analyzing a novel by Jane Austin is going to prepare you for anything, but it really teaches you the power of words, how to look at a sentence and a paragraph and see what it’s really saying.” This can apply to the workplace when having to analyze a report explains Paulette, “You have to be able to explain what it actually says, what the key points are, what the key arguments are, what the flaws are, the badly written parts, and identify the connections the writer failed to make.”
But, of course, many employers look to students pursuing a degree in English for their superior writing skills. According to Kamal Binpal, Arts and Social Sciences Co-op Coordinator, “in a lot of the Co-op job postings, employers are looking for people with strong writing skills. We’ve had publication companies, in the past, looking for English majors and we’ve had companies that want people to do technical writing for them. They want people who have really strong skills in terms of written communication.” Writing itself is multifaceted, with an array of disciplines; poetry, literature, grammar, academia, prose, even technical writing. “There’s an Association of Technical Writers of B.C., specifically for technical writers,” says Kamal. “It’s actually a growing field. It’s evolved from the beginning; those horrible 900-page manuals to now, where it’s much more online.”
In many cases, the journey along a career path won’t be straight and simple. Sometimes, an unexpectedly rewarding experience can lead to the position or career that you were originally aiming for. Paulette remembers the story of one English Co-op student who was inspired by a technical writing Co-op work term she took, despite some initial hesitations. “She really didn’t have any idea what she could do with her English degree. For her very first work term, she applied for a job at a high-tech company, which was actually posted in Computing Science Co-op, not with us. They needed somebody to write a technical manual. She went to work thinking that writing technical manuals would be dead boring, and she found it was quite different. What she needed to do was to talk to developers of the software programs, try to figure out what they were saying and put it in a language that an ordinary person would understand. She found that her interviewing skills really improved from that and she also had a chance to write the manuals. From there she went to a position working in magazines. The reason they were interested in her was that she knew how to interview people.”
Interested in going international? Many English majors go international to teach English as a second language to students and adult learners. Most students who teach English abroad do so in Korea, China, or through the JET program in Japan. The possibilities, however, are much broader than that, as most countries world-wide have some sort of international teaching exchanges set up. If students decide to teach English overseas, aside from a degree, they can boost their resume and skill set by obtaining a TESL certificate, which teaches specific skills on teaching English as a second language.
“In terms of other jobs that are available for English students, it’s right across the board from working in summer programs with kids to working with organizations organizing summer festivals,” says Kamal. The thing to remember, says Kathryn, are the skills you gain through your studies and experiences and how you can use them to be successful in your chosen career. “Students should emphasize their writing skills, speaking skills, analytical skills, and research abilities,” amongst the many other transferable skills that you have the opportunity to build upon during your time at SFU, says Kathryn.