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Debunking the myth of a valueless arts degree

By in Culture

It seems to be a common misconception that the only thing you can do with an English degree is teach others English. But is that really the only viable option aside from the anticlimax of the café barista?

The University of Saskatchewan’s College of Arts and Science doesn’t think so. On March 3, in a session aptly called Career Options for English Majors, the department set out to stifle the  myth by demonstrating the versatility and value of the English degree.

“We organized the event in response to some of our students who have either wondered themselves, or heard others wonder, what they can do with an English degree,” said Wendy Roy, undergraduate chair of the English department.

Former U of S English students Mark Ferguson and Caitlin Ward addressed that question by discussing their respective career paths and how their English degrees helped them gain the skills necessary for their current work.

“I believe the ability to think critically is a core value that all English majors will graduate with and will help you unimaginably for the rest of your life,” said Ferguson. “I never thought of studying or attending university as a job training centre as so many do, but rather a place to broaden horizons.”

After Ferguson graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English, he went on to complete a graduate program in journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. He was also an editor at the Sheaf for two years during his undergraduate degree.

Ferguson’s experience has brought him to the Canadian Light Source where he works as a communications coordinator and science writer.English degrees

“Basically I focus on making our research interesting to the general public… it’s a job that I love,” said Ferguson.

He also argues that the English degree is valuable due to the critical thinking and communication skills that it equips its students with.

“There are studies showing that most arts majors are actually better suited for the job market because of their ability to adapt, to learn, to think critically and to communicate,” said Ferguson. “And it’s pretty nice to work alongside someone who can write a proper sentence — I can’t believe how many cannot.”

Cynthia Wallace, assistant professor of English at St. Thomas More College, agrees with Ferguson.

“Many in the business sector would rather hire English majors than business majors because they’ve worked during university to develop broader minds and imaginations,” she said. “I have English major friends who have gone on to complete law school and seminary.”

Roy insists the value of an English degree lies in providing students with the opportunity to study challenging pieces of literature that reflect the values of various time periods and cultures.

“Reading these literary works allows students to develop empathy, to explore timely and important social and cultural issues and to consider how personal identities are formed and influenced,” she said. “The study of English helps people become better readers and writers and since most jobs today have a significant communications component, the ability to communicate effectively is highly sought after by employers.”

Also present was Brock Egeto, employment coordinator at the Student Employment and Career Centre, who offered advice on understanding and articulating skills while pursuing a career and introduced resources that can help with job searches — such as guides to career self-assessment, cover letters and resumés.

The final perspective at the event was delivered by both graduate chairs of the English departments at the U of S and the University of Regina, who discussed undergraduate degrees as preparation for graduate and other educational programs — including an additional informal half-hour session for those especially interested in graduate degrees in English.

A degree in English can lead to career paths such as an editor, publisher, journalist, teacher, librarian, website designer, advertising executive, technical writer or lawyer, as all of these positions require an analytical mind and the capacity for creative and resourceful thinking.

It seems fair to say that there are several opportunities for the English major and café barista, though reputable in its own right, is but one choice in a world of diverse and fulfilling options.

Image: Stephanie Mah/Graphics Editor

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