What do you want to be when you grow up?
This age-old question once seemed so simple. You could be anything you wanted, whether it be a pro-athlete or chef or firefighter or anything in between.
“I’m really passionate about writing and storytelling,” said junior Liam Lassiter. “My world dream is to be the next J.K. Rowling.”
For other college students who aren’t as sure, returning home for the holidays this time of year to inquisitive family members can prove daunting.
What do you plan to do with your major? What’s your five-year plan? Do you think you’ll make money with your major?
Since the great recession, English majors are down more than a quarter, the biggest drop of any major, while computer science and health field majors have nearly doubled, according to recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
“I feel like it just has to do with the way our world is going,” said senior Claire Hogan, a computer science major. “Everything is centered around technology now.”
Trends at the University of Richmond from 2008 to 2018 mirror this data. The number of undergraduate English degrees awarded dropped from 34 in 2008 to 17 in 2018, while undergraduate degrees awarded for the computer science major jumped from eight to 19, according to fact books from the UR Office of Institutional Effectiveness.
Senior Anthony Isenhour, a double major in biology and English, said that many students going into college believed they needed to choose a major like business or science to find a stable and high-paying job, since that’s what their parents told them.
“I see the reverse when I’m talking to professors and reading articles written by scientists,” Isenhour said. “They’re like, ‘Hey, we need people who know how to write and communicate.’”
When Lassiter decided to solely major in English, he said his parents had been disappointed at first. They thought an English major contrasted with the safe career path a business major would provide, he said.
Bertram Ashe, professor of English at UR, said he doesn’t believe there is a one-to-one relationship between your major and the world you’ll inhabit after graduation.
“The presumption that once you get an English degree you are going to be a barista at Starbucks or you can’t get a job because no one wants to hire English majors is patently untrue,” said Ashe.
Ashe said it was difficult to overcome the false narrative that surrounded the English major.
“It’s extraordinarily difficult to stand in front of 18 and 19-year-olds and essentially say to them, ‘What you think is blue sky is not really blue,’” Ashe said.
Although the typical computer science major makes more money immediately after graduating than the typical English major, pay is nearly equal across all majors by middle age, according to the Washington Post.
“That’s surprising to me,” Isenhour said. “Because the perception of being in college is that certain majors make a whole bunch of money, and then others make the standard middle-class amount.”
English majors age 25 to 29 actually had a lower unemployment rate than math and computer science majors in 2017, according to the data.
That fact made total sense to Lassiter, since he thinks the things he learns in his English classes are applicable to any job market, and employers want to hire candidates with strong writing skills, Lassiter said.
Ashe said he wasn’t surprised either. Philosophy, English, history and other similar majors learn to write, think critically, communicate, read complex texts and interpret data, he said.
The number of English majors at UR had followed the downward trend found in the national data, but recently has started to rebound, Ashe said.
He said he credited this upswing to the English department’s entrepreneurial approach to encourage more students to major in what they were passionate about and not just what they thought they should.
The most consistently popular major at UR from 2008 to 2018 was the business administration major, growing from 141 to 226 degrees awarded, according to the fact books.
“We know that there is a stigma attached to majors like philosophy or English or history, where people in [the business school] think these people are insane,” Ashe said. “They do not understand why people would major in this. And I’m sorry to say, but the culture of the University of Richmond is such that if you major in English you are swimming against the cultural tide.”
While Ashe is making the case for the English major to UR students, top economists are also saying that the world needs more storytellers, according to the Washington Post article.
Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller’s new book “Narrative Economics” argues that stories drive the market place, according to the article.
Even more so than economics, Ashe said the best and scariest example of the viability of an English degree has to do with climate change. Although the scientific community has had command of the facts for decades, they struggle to communicate them to the public in a way that will make people understand the high stakes involved, he said.
“People have thoughts about their lives, the country, race, individuals, but they don’t come to that knowledge in a vacuum,” Ashe said. “They come to that knowledge by virtue of a kind of narrative.”
Ashe said he had seen firsthand how learning the art of storytelling had lead students to be successful in all facets of professional life.
Based on a 400-level seminar he taught in 2011, UR students who graduated with an English major have pivoted to currently work in a wide range of careers, including a marketing manager at POLITICO to a tour manager for country music singer Logan Mize.
So, how should you answer the stress-inducing question, “What are you going to do with your major?” Turns out, it might still be as simple as when you were young.
Ashe says, “You need to lean in, look them in the eye, and say, “Anything I want.”
Contact contributor Sydney Charlton at firstname.lastname@example.org.