How to Be a Successful English Major

This post was originally published on my Wordpress blog in 2016.

I graduated with my BA in English from the University of Maryland in 2011. (Go Terps!) I've had a bit of time to reflect on my opportunities there, both the ones that I missed and the ones I grabbed by the you-know-where.

By the horns, man.

By the horns, man.

Five years later, I'm under-employed and only a little published, but I'm starting to get the hang of this whole "succeeding with an English degree" thing. Seven years later, as I update this old post, I'm pretty darn well-employed. Here is some advice for students and prospective students. I hope it helps you succeed, and be happy wherever you are in the process of figuring life out.

1. Do meet the visiting faculty.

Michael Dirda was the visiting professor my senior year. The students in the honors program (more on that later) each received our own copy of Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life at graduation. A year later, I started to read it... and highlight it, and write in the margins. This year, when writing my Ursula Le Guin list, I discovered that Michael Dirda had reviewed her 2016 releases just a week before in The Washington Post. Two days ago, I tore an article out of The New York Review of Books to give to my stepdad, who doesn't read much but did introduce me to Algernon Blackwood. Guess who wrote the review of Blackwood's works. I'll give you a hint: I sat in the sunny lounge outside his office at least once per week, doing homework and checking Facebook and napping, never so much as giving him a howdy-do.

I was there, man. I was there, glancing up from my sandwich to barely notice him enter his office. It was an okay sandwich, or was it a burrito?

I was there, man. I was there, glancing up from my sandwich to barely notice him enter his office. It was an okay sandwich, or was it a burrito?

Look, visiting faculty members are people who are really accomplished and well-known in their field. That's why they're on the college's marketing materials: look at us, we borrowed Michael Dirda for a year! Ain't we special? You might ask, who the hell is Michael Dirda? You are not expected to know, but you should probably Google these things and find out. The man won a Pulitzer prize for literary criticism. Now that I'm Out in the World, I think maybe it would have been cool to meet him, to discuss reading and writing, to be memorable to him. Oh well. I may yet.

2. Don't be shy.

Meeting your professors is not about sucking up to potential letter-writers. It's about building relationships. These are your people. Studying literature and writing is your common ground. In some departments, it's true that a number of professors are more interested in their research than in teaching, but in the English department, the whole area of study is based in discussing literature. Even the nerdiest nerds will want to nerd out with other nerds. Sign up for small classes. Participate. Go to office hours. If you have something to talk about – and you will find something to talk about – it won't feel like a forced schmooze at all. It'll be fun. Be yourself, and be open to growth. You never know how these relationships will end up growing with you.

For example, I sent my son's birth announcement to Michael Collier, who was a reader for my senior poetry project and also happens to run the Middlebury Breadloaf Conference. I am so glad I took my adviser's recommendation to ask for his help. Poets write really nice congratulatory emails when your son is born, you know? And it's all so sincere.

You liked my poems! You may also like my tiny human! (And he did.)

You liked my poems! You may also like my tiny human! (And he did.)

3. Do take the fun classes.

As soon as the registrar is open, jump on the courses that interest you. Sign up before they're full. I had to study canonical American Literature, but I got to study Tolkien and mythmaking and women in science fiction. Just because you're having fun doesn't mean it isn't serious.

A small sampling of my homework.

A small sampling of my homework.

4. Don't forget about other subjects, or Don't overload yourself with reading assignments

More than once during the one semester I took mostly English classes, I had to read 250 pages in less than two days. Often enough, I had to go to class and wing it, because I didn't have time to finish the readings. This is a bummer. Nevermind grades: when you don't have time to engage with the work, it decreases the value you get out of your classes. How you balance your time is up to you. It depends on your interests and your institution's requirements. For me, the English major only required 36 of 120 credits. I did more coursework in environmental science than English literature, so I got to splash around the creek in galoshes taking soil samples in addition to sitting in the courtyard reading a book.

Water sampling from Paint Branch was also my classwork.

Water sampling from Paint Branch was also my classwork.

I pissed off a fair number of pre-med students and English department junkies with my infuriating lack of academic stress. Variety was my secret. That, and getting full nights of sleep after going over my written notes once or twice per week. I promise it works better than caffeine-bingeing, Adderall-popping cram sessions, or whatever the kids are doing these days, and it takes less time than you think, so your social life is safe.

5. Do start to dream of Life After College (but don't feel like you have to plan every detailed step) 

There was nothing I hated more than being asked about my major. If humanities students had a nickel for every time we heard, "So, what are you going to do with that, teach?" we could pay off our student loans in a year. If you do want to teach, then consider working on your state's teaching certification requirements while pursuing your B.A. If not,

6. Don't think you can avoid hard work (but also, don't freak out)

English majors tend to be a clever lot of kids who could squirt out an A+ essay two hours before it was due. Hopefully, your coursework in college will be more challenging, and you'll rise up to it. Outside of coursework, though, there are jobs, internships, and volunteer programs. You might not know exactly what you want to do when you graduate, and that's fine. (It had better be, because I'm just starting to figure it out myself.) However, do gain experience in a few different things that will help with the rent, before you have to actually pay rent. Think of it as leveling up with side quests as the main quest slowly develops. Your grand scheme will come into focus, and you'll be able to explain how the smaller schemes prepared you for it.

I used to be a student like you.

I used to be a student like you.

For example, you might deplore the idea of a conventional 9-5, but if you plan on freelancing, travel writing, or any of those other exciting alternatives, you're going to want to start building a portfolio. OTOH, you might hate being broke but enjoy explaining bitcoin to people, in which case technical writing is for you, because you get paid a lot of money to explain things. Practice on a blog if you can't find an internship or class about the topics that interest you. Check out The Writer's Market in addition to asking your profs for advice, because the market has certainly changed since they started out, and since I started out.

Remember those other subjects? I'm not saying you should sign up for classes with ice in your heart and dollar signs in your eyes, but if you're handy with web apps, develop that skill in a web programming class. It can't hurt.

Some of us have to work our way through school. You might not be able to afford to be choosy, if you need a job to balance with school. Nevertheless, your work experience is so valuable for developing professional skills. It's not fair that some students get to accept unpaid internships for experience, while others couldn't dream of accepting unpaid work. Keep your head up, and know everything will come together into a career after college if you stay focused.

I believe in you, whatever you are!

I believe in you, whatever you are!

Former English majors are everywhere: owning coffee shops, administrating wildlife sanctuaries, directing youth programs, and contracting with NASA, to name a few that I've personally met. You can enter virtually any field. Just do yourself a favor and don't enter it empty-handed. Take pride in what you do, even if it doesn't seem like much at the time.

I know our assignments on the postmodern condition don't make working life seem very appealing – I had to read Death of a Salesman five times, for crying out loud – but even full-time office work might not be so bad, if you find a good team you jive with. You won't know unless you try.

I had an office job for about 300 work days. This is 100% accurate. Source:  College Humor

I had an office job for about 300 work days. This is 100% accurate. Source: College Humor

7. Do take advantage of honors programs.

Small classes, interesting coursework, and a swanky line on your resume are perks of participating in Honors. But have you considered it can also be a huge money-saver? Honors programs often include graduate-level courses. You may even complete a research project or thesis paper. If you end up going to grad school, this is great for your application. Or, you could be like me and not go to grad school, because I've already taken some neat seminars and written a 40-page project. I might decide to go to grad school later in life, but for now I know what I'm missing, and I'm okay with that. I also took enough workshops that I'm comfortable not pursuing an MFA, at least not yet.

Small classes, interesting coursework, and a swanky line on your resume are perks of participating in Honors. But have you considered it can also be a huge money-saver?

In any case, find out what the requirements and deadlines are at your (prospective) school(s), make note, and go for it. If you don't get in, ask if there's any space in the seminars, and if you could have special permission to join one. (Of course, if you are going to be a pest, be a well-prepared pest: be ready to explain which class or instructor interests you and why you need to be enrolled. Be prepared to take no for an answer, too. You'll get other chances to study neat things with cool people.)

8. Do read your professors' work.

So, I moved to Arizona from Maryland. Browsing a local bookstore, I found a whole shelf of fiction novels by a former professor. I don't know why this was surprising, that my award-winning fiction professor has in fact produced fiction. I chalk it up to age-based narcissism, the baffling tendency of young people to focus on themselves as real, while everyone else is some kind of vaporous abstraction whose significance is limited by the nature of one's relationship with them -- like when you see your teacher buying groceries and you're like, "omg you buy groceries????" Yes, they buy groceries. (Now get off my lawn.)


Anyway, I know you're already reading a ton for your classes, and that, for me, being told what to read (or what to do in general) is the best way to get me to not do that thing. But hey, you should. You don't need to study their whole body of work, but reading an essay, story, or article they've published can be really enlightening. It will give you a leg-up in your classes, and something to talk about during office hours.

9. Don't listen to the haters.

Too many people undervalue the arts, the humanities, and higher education in general. Those people may try to put you down. Or, they may worry about you and try to dissuade you from taking a career path without a clear outcome. Their worries are valid, but they aren't prophetic unless you let them be. Whatever it is you do, somebody out there will pay you for it. Seriously: Professional cuddling is a real thing. Focus on whatever it is you do, and keep growing.


10. There will be time for a hundred visions and revisions.

I was a cliché after graduating: I went West and lived out of my car, couch-surfing and staying at campsites, writing poems and seeking stories. I learned what real hunger feels like, which is not a romantic experience, but it is a very human one. I hustled Tarot readings for income, and posed for art students. I got a dog and brought her on road trips. I got my heart broken and kept it that way for a while, for the romance, which seemed really critical. Emotional and financial stability took a long damn time, and the financial bit is still wobbly. I don't recommend it, and yet I wouldn't go back and do post-graduation any other way.

That is, the long and winding way.

That is, the long and winding way.

If I could do anything differently, I would take myself more seriously while I was in school, by applying myself to career-building internships instead of simply groaning at the prospect of dressing all fancy and "being fake." (It's not "fake it 'til you make it." It's "try it in good faith, and you'll get the hang of it; if you don't, then you've learned something useful about yourself." At no point whatsoever do you have to be fake, so cool it, Caulfield.)

But, hey: I'm still here. I know who Michael Dirda is, now. I can name-drop a handful of accomplished writers I consider mentors, peers, and friends. I can recommend magazines, conferences, programs and writing centers in several cities. I've worked for a marketing firm, I've worked freelance, I still do Tarot readings, and as of this revision, I'm living the dream working at the library. I'm writing, reading, and living. I can give advice. Perhaps you will take it and share it.

Let your little light shine.