Life after the English degree


Lately I’ve noticed that there seems to be a misconception about the career options available to students with an arts degree. It’s been my experience that “I’m studying English” seems to be synonymous with “I want to be a teacher”. Are the opportunities for an arts degree really so limited? The answer might surprise you.

Kate Cattell-Daniels, a theatre and drama specialist and English major, knows what she wants. “When I graduate, I’d like to be a professional actor,” she says, and feels that her degree is perfectly suited for helping her get there. Her classes target the skills she needs and provide her with the practice necessary to become a competent performer. “That competency in turn, I hope, will make me valuable in the industry,” she says.

Not all programs, however, have such an obvious link to a specific career. Like many other students, Kate’s biggest concern once she graduates is her employment prospects, but she says she’s comfortable talking to professors and finding the support she needs within the department. But what about other arts programs that aren’t so specialized?

Monica Scott, the Career Centre’s outreach consultant, has some very valuable insights for arts students who aren’t sure how their degree can help them. She emphasizes that it is not background or credentials on which students should focus, but rather the skills they’re developing. “We need to get rid of the term ‘dream job’. What are you interested in? What do you like?” she says. “This is the language we need to start using.”

She believes that exploring interests will help students narrow down the kind of work they want to do and build the skills required in the workplace.

Perhaps the most valuable insight Scott has to offer is a summary of the skills that arts students develop in their studies: critical thinking, argumentation, research, and, most importantly, an ability to explain and articulate their ideas. When it comes to the workplace, says Scott, “writing skills are gold”.

Helen Marshall, the managing editor of Chizine Publications and a PhD candidate at U of T, can attest to the truth of Scott’s advice. Marshall, who has a BA in English and a master’s in Medieval Studies, says her studies helped her hone the skills she uses every day, including critical thinking, time management, public speaking confidence, and the ability to read and process new material quickly. The most valuable asset she took away from her studies, she says, is her appreciation of literature: “I love the complexity of the written word and its power to genuinely move people, to make us more human.”

Her words echo Scott’s advice: do what you like. Nevertheless, Marshall says her biggest advantage when she was starting out in the publishing industry was being willing to do whatever
was needed. “You can’t limit yourself to only the work you want to do, and you can’t ever feel overqualified,” she warns students.

Sometimes, figuring out what you like can be trickier than expected. Kayla Sousa, a recent UTM grad with an HBA in English and sociology, would readily agree. Looking back on her student years, Sousa says she hasn’t ended up where she thought she would. She started her program wanting to be a writer. As she got further into her studies, she fell in love with sociology and social service. Today, she is part of the Career Centre’s outreach team and hopes to pursue a career in counselling. Her advice to students is to be easy on themselves. “It’s okay for your interests to change,” she says.

Marshall’s advice follows the same lines. “Pursuing the job you want, the thing you are most passionate about, is possible,” she says. “But don’t sell yourself short. This is the rest of your life we’re talking about.”

So is teaching the only real option for English students? Just walking into the Career Centre with its many binders dedicated to specific occupations will put that worry to rest. The opportunities may not be endless, but they are plentiful. The page on their website titled “Careers by Major” lists possible careers and organizations that hire students with specific degrees. Add to that the many other resources they offer, such as counselling and networking events designed to help students connect with professionals in the field, and suddenly career exploration doesn’t seem quite so daunting.

As Scott says, “You don’t have to have all the answers.” But you do have to start looking.

  • Jon

    Great article. “Selling yourself short” – I find that Art graduates tend to do this a lot, and that includes me. I think that while the skills received from an arts program aren’t as specialized (for lack of a better word) compared to those received in concentrations like science and business, the affluence gained in overall communication skills are nonetheless valuable in any career path.