Getting a Job with an MA in English Literature in Today’s Current Economic Climate

What are you going to do with that?

That was the normal response when I told someone I was doing my MA in English Literature. The dreaded question, the demoralizing question – what am I going to do with my MA? It’s a question that everyone in the field hates but it’s one that’s worth asking and worth analyzing.

People don’t necessarily ask the question because they think English Literature is useless, they may simply be confused that it’s an option because at some point over the last half century society began to view a university degree as a job requirement rather than higher education. While this may seem to be a subtle difference, the way the system promotes universities to high school students impacts the way they learn.  If you study medicine, you’ll become a doctor, if you study law you’ll become a lawyer, if you study WWW or XXX you’ll become YYY or ZZZ, etc.

It’s this line of thinking that confuses people when you tell them you’re studying English Literature. So what – you want to become a teacher? You want to be a writer? They are completely befuddled that you would go to university to learn about something that interests you, study what you enjoy, rather than prepare for a well-paying job. And that mentality creeps into the psyche of an English department and creates a self-deprecating attitude amongst English scholars. Which is a shame, because English Literature can be one of the most challenging and rewarding fields of study.

There were two other common responses from people who heard I was studying English Literature which may be a bit more positive than the first:

Wow, that’s really hard.

Yes it is really hard, so don’t sell yourself short on how difficult it is to study literature.

Ideas take time to process and they don’t always add up – no one agrees on anything. We study concepts that ask questions rather than formulas that give answers. Debate is the most important aspect of studying literature and that makes it hard. Professors at the graduate level aren’t trying to teach you iambic pentameter, they’re trying to help you stretch yourself and take existing complicated concepts and complicate the conversation even further. Because, that’s what learning is – exploring ideas as far as they can go. It’s about losing yourself in Derrida and somehow finding yourself in Fugitive Pieces. Most people don’t know about either, which can make it terribly isolating.  

Writing six grad-level research papers in 8 months is extremely hard, especially when you’re the one who has to come up with the questions, let alone compelling answers.  But somehow, you make it through. You shove all these concepts into your head and your mind goes to mush, you spit thousands of words onto a paper and some of it even makes sense. You hit your deadlines, you present your seminar presentations and you get through it. All of this is hard enough for people studying fields that are somewhat concrete, but as an English scholar, you swim around in a sea of information that comes from all different directions and you struggle just to stay afloat.

So, if someone asks you why you’re doing a Masters in English Literature, tell them because it’s hard and constantly challenge yourself is helping you grow.

I really enjoyed my English class in second year, it was my favourite class.

While studying literature is hard, it’s also stupendously enjoyable. I was undeclared in my first year of undergrad. I had spent the previous year working full-time as an apprentice electrician. It was good money and the work wasn’t awful, but I didn’t enjoy it. Wiring 50 thermostats a day is okay for the first week, but weeks become months and months become years. As much as it’s handy to know how those things work, I didn’t derive much pleasure from wiring thermostats for commercial buildings. Since I was looking for more meaning to life, I took an array of classes that interested me: English, psychology, history and writing. History and psychology were interesting, but I found their attempts to be objective tedious. I fell in love with the unapologetic subjectivity of literature. I tried to be ‘serious’ in my second year, and aimed for an English and political science double major, but I became disillusioned with the prescriptive nature of political science. So, what did I do? I took a stand and committed myself to the useless degree – English Literature. When people asked me why? My answer was simple and true: I’m studying English Literature because I enjoy it.

An interesting thing happens when you study something you enjoy – you find yourself working tremendously hard. I never skipped class and read all my reading lists. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to. It was a genuine pleasure reading everything then going to class and talking about it. I couldn’t believe it. I was thinking, so you’re telling me that if I read all these books and share what I think about them for 4 years, I’m going to get a degree?

That led to even more opportunity. I was able to study in England for my third year through the Carleton student exchange. I was constantly pinching myself. I read The Picture of an Artist as Young Man while travelling to Ireland;  I studied creative writing at the same university as Ian McEwan; I spent a month backpacking around Europe because the British university schedule has a month-long break for Easter – and all of this was helping me get a university degree.

I could go on for hours about all of the moments I’ve enjoyed while studying English Literature, but I won’t. However, I will say this, I recently read an article about how to not be a miserable millennial (It was on my Facebook feed and I can’t find the link). The crux of the argument was that you need to challenge yourself and you need to find something that you enjoy. Studying English Literature is just that, it’s an enjoyable challenge.

But I want to conclude this section by defining an enjoyable challenge, because it doesn’t normally start well. Anyone who’s read A Tale of Two Cities can understand. The first 200 pages don’t make any sense. The story is hard to follow and you don’t know who’s who or what’s what. But, at some point, everything comes together and what was a challenge to follow and what felt like a chore, becomes a treat. By the time you reach the end of the novel you forget that the beginning was a slog. The more effort you put into something the more reward you get out of it. And that’s what’s important to remember in life after English, because, this skill transcends English Literature but is only truly learnt through narratives, through bildungsroman to diaspora narratives, to post-colonial novels. Stories have a hero or heroine and they have a struggle and they work hard to get through it. And in these economic times, you have to embrace your inner literature hero or heroine to find a job that will challenge you and that you will enjoy, because no one is going to do it for you. But here are some tips for success…

The biggest challenge after finishing a degree is that you are no longer in the safe confines of the academic structure. There’s no syllabus or grade for getting a job. Job hunting is the Wild-West, everyone has a different idea of how to do it – there’s no guaranteed method. The job market is more subjective than studying English Literature (which actually plays into your hands if you allow yourself to be open to the chaos).

Pretend getting a job is a research project.

Somewhere in our heads we have an idea that once we’re out of school we have nothing left to research. With no supervisor to guide us in our research or believing that more research won’t get us any closer to another degree, we can get caught in a trap that stops us from working hard because the goal isn’t as clear-cut as meeting degree requirements.

Treating a job hunt like a research project does lead you to something: a job, or at least a working understanding of how jobs work. Also, even if you don’t have a supervisor, it’s important to have someone you can trust and who has a job and has searched for one before, to discuss your job search.  Most people who have jobs went through periods of unemployment and are normally happy to give advice.

  1. Research yourself

This may seem like a strange research project, but it can be very helpful. As English scholars we are often introspective, but find a way to separate the characters, plots and theory that we study, from ourselves. Our personalities aren’t normally a subject of study and the idea could feel uncomfortable. But, it’s worth doing.  

If you don’t know your own personality here’s a great exercise that will help you figure yourself out.  Write out every job, volunteer or paying, that you’ve ever had. Describe the job, what you learnt, what you enjoyed and what you didn’t. Do it slowly and truthfully. Try to step outside of yourself.  

Job Description Skills Positive Negative
Grocery Clerk Stock shelves, bag groceries Customer service, organization, moping, cleaning Made money at 14 allowing me to take my girlfriend on dates Really boring
Summer Camp counsellor   Oversee 10 campers throughout the day Organization, problem solving, patience A lot of fun, spend most of my day outside, get to teach kids Draining, emotionally stressful

 

As you go through your work history, you’ll start to notice that the same skills, positives and negatives keep repeating themselves. This will give you an idea of what skills you’ve accumulated, what you like and don’t like doing. You can take this information and start researching jobs.

2. Research jobs

Start with a wide net and begin to narrow. Don’t limit your search to traditional job stereotypes. Get the I have a master’s degree so am better than these jobs idea out of your head. That thinking is archaic and counterproductive.  

There is a corporate success narrative of the person who starts in the mail room and becomes CEO. He didn’t plant magic beans or have a gown sewn together by mice, he kept track of where all the mail goes. He started to recognize patterns in the mail, started to understand how the flow of information works throughout the whole organization. He essentially learnt how the whole business ran, who all the main players were. Why? Because he’s curious enough to pay attention to what is going on.

If the mailroom guy says to himself I’m only making minimum wage, so I’m going to follow my job description and do no more because I want more money to do more work and mindlessly sorts through mail, he’ll have a wonderful career mindlessly sorting through mail. However, if he says to himself, hmm, there’s a lot of mail, where is it all going? Why are people sending letters? What can I learn from them? he’ll probably do well.

If you think you should be making $40h and you’re only making $14h, pay attention to the people who make $40h and work as hard or harder than they do. You have to put yourself in the employer’s’ shoes, why would they hire or promote someone who is just mailing it in?

I’ll use my own story as an example.

In the summer semester of the MA, I gave myself my own ‘Get a Job’ research project. I applied the same research skills I had learnt in undergrad and the previous 8 months of grad school to looking for paid work. I set up an appointment with a career counselor at Carleton, began to gather information, attended career workshops and panels, told everyone I knew that I was actively looking for work (I would regularly talk with my friends and family about the literature research projects I was doing) and  I researched myself and realized that there were certain consistencies in my experience. I really enjoyed working with people, working construction and working with small business.

This new insight led me to  reflect on what I learnt from Franny Nudleman’s American Cultural Theory course where we studied Rob Nixon’s book Slow Violence. The book puts forward the idea that a lot of the environmental catastrophes in developing countries are the effect of systematic mismanagement of resources by large corporations over time, rather than one specific evil entity. The book helped me to understand that working with small business helps, even a little bit, slowly undo the damage of slow violence. I combined that with what I learnt in my Digital Humanities course from Brian Greenspan about the way technology has changed the way we think and I decided that I wanted to go back to work at a local lumber yard I had worked part-time throughout my undergrad. I asked the owners if I would create a Facebook page and a Twitter handle for them while doing my old job. I was making close to minimum wage, I was working in the store and in the yard doing anything from piling stacks of lumber to data entry to taking large custom orders for customers and contractors. I managed their social media on my personal phone while still maintaining all of my other duties. I was happy to get as many shifts as possible so I could pay my rent; but had to find more work. So I created a LinkedIn account and explored old contacts, and contacted people I knew who had jobs I was interested in. I met with a technology salesman, website owner, freelance designer, web consultant, and a director of communications.

For months every week was different. I would work at the lumber yard a few times a week while trying to balance my time so I could be available for more stable employment – it was the hardest time of my life.

Depending on shifts at a lumber yard, creating and maintaining a social media marketing strategy with no budget or direction and meeting with people who have great jobs who tell you that you’re the type of person they want to hire but have no openings at the moment is emotionally, physically and financially exhausting. You become resentful of anyone who has a stable paying job, bitterness creeps in and you really start to question your decision to ever study something as useless as English Literature.

But then things slowly started to change…

A web designer who had recently started building websites for independent lumber yards in the U.S. started to notice what I had been doing with social media at the lumber yard I worked at and hired me part-time to write content for his website. This small opportunity allowed me to learn how to manage a WordPress blog and provided a huge boost in my confidence.

I met with a designer who was working on a government contract as a writer and he helped me change my mindset in my job search. There’s a natural tendency to fill a resume with all of your accomplishments. I wanted my resume to reflect the fact that I had a lot of experience in many different fields and that I was able to rely on those experiences to solve problems creatively. While this is all true, the designer pointed something out that I hadn’t thought about. He told me Employers don’t care as much about what you’ve done as they do about what you can do for them. Boom.  It made so much sense. For example, do employers in Ottawa really care that I taught English in Korea for a year, or do they want to know I can manage large groups of people? Do they care that I have a Masters in English Literature or that I can do exhaustive research, write for the web and write in plain language?

That subtle switch in mindset went a long way. I went from feeling like I deserved a good job because I had done a lot of work in the past, to thinking How can I find ways to be useful for future employers?

A few days later, I heard about a casual 90-day writing contract for a small government department. I had a phone interview and only talked about how I could help rather than what I’ve done. I got the contract. Also, during this time, my social media marketing strategy was helping sales at the lumber yard. The owners saw it as something of value and I negotiated a contract to be able to get paid for what I had been doing for free for 7 months.  Things were finally starting to work out.

And to be honest, it wasn’t that different from the ebb and flow of a semester in grad school. I started my job search with an idea and I worked hard, did a lot of research, made connections and I did it all when I was broke. My experience studying the subjective nature of literature allowed me to be more patient in my job search. English Literature studies didn’t teach me to focus on guarantees or formulas that have worked in the past, but to think creatively and look for original ideas.

Everyone’s story is different, and there is no one way to find a job. My goal with this piece was to outline ways you can take advantage of the skill sets you learnt while studying English Literature. The current job climate isn’t great and complaining about it won’t get you a job. However, the sooner you’re able to accept that it’s a constant struggle it does actually get easier.

Also, things are looking up for graduates who can write. With the amount of online content that goes up everyday communication firms are constantly looking for young talent who can work under pressure and write creatively. That doesn’t mean they’re looking for someone who can write an award-winning short story in twenty minutes. It means they want someone who can take complicated ideas and put together concise coherent content that explains what they’re doing to their clients and customers while meeting a deadline. Seems awfully similar to a seminar presentation or a grant application… And this isn’t subject to one industry. This is for anything from NGO’s to large corporate companies to government to small business. If you can consume large amounts of information and explain it to people in way that makes sense there is no limit to where you can work, especially if you’re willing to work. 

Follow Matthieu Foreman on Twitter

 

Matthieu Foreman

6 Responses to “Getting a Job with an MA in English Literature in Today’s Current Economic Climate

  • This is a fantastic post. I’m in the middle of my own job search right now, and I have degrees in English and Art. (People actually react even worse when they find out you are studying art. It’s enough to make me feel really optimistic about my English degree.) I agree with your point about job hunting being a constant struggle. I didn’t expect it to be as hard as it has been, but accepting the difficulty has made it easier for me too.

  • Great post!!!

  • I can relate to this soo much, I am currently doing a BA in Literature and want to go on the do am MA

  • A very long read :- I sent the article link to one offspring with two English Lit. degrees who has chosen to return to a love of drawing and illustrating comics … freelance… from home office… living in my home.

    Thanks.

  • I’m considering doing a masters in literature, but what is the jump like from undergrad to postgrad?

    • Stress is probably the biggest difference, depending on the school. Projects are larger in scope and tend to weigh on you more. There aren’t any courses that you can just mail it in.

Leave a Reply Text

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *