More Than Just Words on Paper: Reflections on an English Degree

In my first year at UBC, I was a Science student on weekdays and a barista on weekends. I stuck out my coffee-making career into my second year, which was when I decided to pursue English Literature and Psychology. The “So You Wanna Be A Barista” jokes didn’t start until after I’d transferred into Arts, and, ironically, after I’d decided to quit my job.

This post isn’t meant to set fire to any major or lord one degree over another. It’s a reflection of what I’ve gained from studying English and the value of an English Lit experience to me. In the end, your degree is more than just the words and credentials you get on a sheet of paper when you graduate; it encapsulates the in-classroom and perhaps out-of-classroom experiences, skills and knowledge associated with a traditional educational experience. Could I return to making fancy coffee before or after graduation? Yes, absolutely. I won’t deny it. But I disagree with the “Starbucks and McDonald’s Are Your Destiny” mantra that’s so often said about English degrees and Arts degrees in general.

Yep, we study a lot of words from a lot of dead people in English Lit. Not all dead people, but a lot of dead people. The stereotype, in my experience, rings true. But studying stuff dead people said (or wrote) doesn’t make it antiquated. Darwin’s theory of evolution from the 1800s is still applied to current research. We probably use the law of supply and demand in our everyday lives, whether we are aware of it or not. Similarly, discussions of equality and democracy in Orwell’s Animal Farm are still relevant to world and political climate today.

We don’t just study stories, much less “dead” stories from dead people: we study rhetoric, the art of justification and persuasion, omnipresent in any situation; we examine gendered attitudes from the 19th century and how they manifest in the treatment of women’s mental health a topic still relevant to current conversations; we dissect aspects that form Canadian culture and how countries position themselves relative to each other; we criticize how grand illusions of capitalism and social ascension have hidden the harsh reality of social stratifications. We keep century-old words alive by analyzing them, repurposing old themes and constructing new ones, connecting art and history to life, and life to history and art.

I’ve heard people say that English Lit is a soft major. I agree with that statement, but not in the way it’s intended – English is a major where you can hone the soft skills of written communication, analyzation and argumentation. You can then take those skills you’ve sharpened and apply them to other fields or areas of your life. Once again, it’s more than just words on paper, more than just writing essays. Our degrees extend beyond wittily quoting Shakespeare at parties and writing angsty, unrhymed poetry.


Through constantly writing essays and defending our theses, we learn how to analyze from multiple perspectives, think critically about issues and organize evidence in order to create a logical argument that can be easily understood by the recipient. We discuss different perspectives with our peers and are challenged to listen to new interpretations while maintaining or adapting our own. We try to convince people to believe our interpretation of the literature, our version of the events, above all others. Those versatile skills can create a strong foundation to support many jobs moving forward.

Although you practice a very specific, very academic type of writing throughout an English degree, you can still take those writing skills and adapt them to other styles of written communication. One of the things I love about the skill of writing is its flexibility in pretty much anything. It’s like a magic ingredient that can spice up any dish. You can mix it and match it with so many other skills, with an almost endless number of permutations.

Put writing and marketing together and you can create social media blog posts, write whitepapers or create a paunchy, hyper-directed, thematically-cohesive email for prospects. Keep in mind you that may need to write succinctly to persuade someone to buy something in 3 sentences or less. Maybe you’d like to try technical writing, where, as Polonius has taught us, brevity is indeed the soul of wit. Perhaps you’ll decide instead to take the route of law, where you might be substantiating arguments to defend clients on a regular basis.

Or hey, what you do doesn’t have to be directly related to reading, writing or argumentation at all, which is pretty cool too. Start a juice company, become an athlete, go into project management. A degree doesn’t have to dictate your job or your life. Maybe an English degree won’t help you in certain jobs. Maybe it doesn’t give you the necessary background, or the expertise you need. But regardless of what you end up doing, an English degree can still provide you with a valuable skillset.

I don’t know if studying English can maximize your return on investment or make a ground-shattering impact in an industry. I can’t even tell you if my English education will lead me directly to a job, or if I’ll have to supplement my degree or take workarounds to make ends meet. What I do think my English Lit experience has given me so far is a lot of practice with writing, a solid foundation and a strong skillset, and, maybe most importantly, a much better understanding of who I am – things I don’t know if I would have gotten, at least not to the same extent, had I chosen a different path.


What I do think my English Lit experience has given me so far is a lot of practice with writing, a solid foundation and a strong skillset, and, maybe most importantly, a much better understanding of who I am . . .

Whether you chose English because you love it, or you think it worthwhile, or even because you didn’t know what to specialize in or thought it an easy degree, I hope your English education gives you at the very least an experience that helps you mature, and gives you at the very best invaluable skills and insight into the world, into yourself, and into your understanding of both.

Kristine is an English Literature and Psychology double major at UBC. When she’s not glasses-deep in projects, Kristine enjoys listening to falling rain, inventing bad puns for unlikely scenarios, and cultivating her coffee snobbery. The em dash is her aesthetic.

Image: Cropped from “Work” by Nick Youngson via Pixabay. License: CC BY-SA 3.0.

Image: “Research Computer Laptop Business Work Browser” via MaxPixel. License: CC0 1.0 Universal.

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