Careers With An English Degree: How Reading Books Can Paralyze You After Grad School

Finding a career with an English degree takes time. This article shows how to speed up the process. It also shows you how reading book after book is delaying you from finding success and a job with your english degree.

How to find a career with your english degreeIt’s November. I’m at the bus-stop, waiting for the evening bus out of town.  My grandmother has died. And I’m going home.

As I sit here, I begin to think about my life few years ago. I was an undergraduate and was heading home on the bus for Christmas.

It’s a long trip and I sat there with a big bag of books, determined to read the entire trip. The bus passed through small towns, and I remember how far my future seemed ahead, so many years to go before my Ph.D. would be done, and many papers, grants, odd jobs, books, and years that I would have to wait through before I got there.

I was determined to do it.  I could wait it out.

I saw this ability to delay getting a job, to delay working and instead study for ten years, as my greatest asset. All of this waiting, one day, would make me successful.

A few years later, sitting at the same bus-stop for a very different kind of trip back to my hometown, I feel very detached from that patient person I used to be.

That’s because I discovered the secret to moving beyond the paralysis of finding careers with an English degree. It’s simple.  You read too much.  And do too little.

Waiting.  To find a job as an English major.

“Don’t impress me with your degree.  Impress me with your knowledge.” Yu-kai Chou, Founder of RewardMe and Viralogy

You’ve worked your whole life for your degree.  You’ve waited for this moment. You’ve been trained to wait, to delay gratification, especially if you are a grad student.

Grad students are excellent at waiting.  They delay having a family till their thirties.  They wait for months to hear back about a publication in a journal.  They think about writing some fiction, and then decide to wait till they understand more about how literary theory works before trying their first novel.

They take a year off, work hard, and then wait to see what Ph.D. program accepts them. They wait to buy a house, wait to have a dog, and pull their partners around the country, chasing scholarships, jobs, and programs. Then they wait for ten years to find out if they are one of the “the lucky ones” who get jobs.

Life never really begins for them.  It is always in a stage of transition, almost ready to become real.

That’s because they don’t want a good job.  They want a great job.  They don’t want to be smart.  They want to be brilliant (which is the acceptable replacement for their first dream of being a genius).  They refuse failure.  They are willing to crawl towards a Ph.D., live in poverty, sacrifice family–anything other than being like everyone else.

And it is this slow, methodical quality that can really harm you as you try to find a career  with your English degree.

After I received my M.A., I waited for my career arrived. People congratulated me–you have an advanced degree, what wonderful things must lie in your future–they couldn’t believe that I had to work as a landscaper to pay my rent. They couldn’t believe I really didn’t have employable skills.

Like me, they assumed that because of my degree things would appear.

On resumes, I would basically just tell employers about my degrees, my awards, and let the rest happen.  They would know that I was valuable.

Nobody called.

It’s not a tower.  It’s an ivory wall.

Arrogant me.  I thought that employers automatically cared about my M.A. I thought that my graduate degree in the humanities automatically qualified me for a job.  My degree was impressive. I was impressive.

But to get a job with an English degree outside of academe, you have to demonstrate value.  That is, show your employer that you can earn them money with your skills, instead of regaling them with tales from of your former academic glory.

In other words, get over yourself and learn how to do something.

This was disappointing to me.  I assumed that I had been in graduate school learning a skill-set that would get me a job.  But when you graduate, you have to start over again.

Here’s the first step. . .

Take action.  Don’t just learn stuff.

Instead of writing that novel or brilliant piece of advertising copy, are you reading book after book, telling yourself that all this learning will pay off someday?

Are you tricking yourself to think that you should learn a subject first before ever attempting it? How could I do that job? I don’t have the degree?

I have a business idea.  But what does a scholar know about business?  Maybe I should enroll in a prestigious MBA program?

I like to write.  Maybe I could work at a magazine.  If only I had chosen to go to journalism school. Maybe I should go back and do a journalism major?

Don’t go to journalism school.  Write a good journalistic piece.  Publish it online.  Don’t go to business school.  Read a few books, find a market, find a product, and make it happen.

Stop reading.  Do something.

Don’t wait for a degree to give you permission to succeed.

Brian Clark was a lawyer.  He quit that and started a blog about online marketing called  It was a good decision. He made millions.  He didn’t go to advertising school, go back and get an MBA, or read every book on marketing before starting his company. He thought of something to do and then figured it out.

Another case study. Last week, I ran into someone from my old home town.  She did a degree in Woman’s Studies, which is about the lowest branch on the “employable degree” tree.  She is now a marketing manager at an advertising agency. She didn’t go back to school and get an MBA.  She trained herself, worked her way up, and then figured it out.

The point is grad students have become so accustom to learning, waiting, planing.  They see things in 5 year chunks.  They believe in delayed gratification.  They think life is like a classroom, if they only show up, scribble hard in their little notebook, and study, study, study, the teacher will notice them and reward them. These years of waiting, they will pay-off.  From lowly grad student to Assistant Professor of English Literature, Harvard.

They want to be the best.  But there are plenty of successes you can have on the way to being the best.

Don’t wait for a degree or total mastery of a subject to give you permission to try something out.

How to develop new skills fast: follow the 25/25/50 rule.

If you are sick of waiting, here’s a good rule to help you develop new skills in less time.

It comes from Bob Bly, a copywriter who has written over 70 books and made millions off his writing.

He says that we tend to take in too much information at once. That’s because it is easy to delay action by keeping busy. But just reading book after book leads to an overload.  As Bob Bly says, “You take no action–other than to order yet another course or report to read.”

In order to make sure that you take real action, divide your time like this:

  • Spend 25% of your time researching and studying the subject (marketing 101, how to be an editor, reading blogs about new skills).
  • Spend 25% of the time observing.  Read great writers, watch for examples of the principles you are reading about.
  • Then spend 50% of your time actually doing it. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t an expert yet, just get started.  Write a bad novel.  Write another less bad novel.  Write an article for the paper.  Volunteer at a magazine.

At first, it will be hard to spend 50% of your time doing.  Reading about “how to become an internet marketer” is relaxing.  Editing code, fixing bugs in your website, trying to find profitable niches, and losing money at Google Ad Words–these start to feel like work.

In fact, you will feel like you are stumbling in the dark when you could be consulting the book of an expert. Wouldn’t it be faster to read about how to do it, rather than trying to figure it out myself?

But the 25/25/50 rule works. I follow it every day.  I force myself to do something, rather than just learn.  Americans watch thousands of hours of TV every year, but 99% couldn’t even tell you the 3 basic plot-points writers use to craft screenplays. That’s because it is much easier to watch then do.

The next time you have an hour to work observe habits.  I bet you would much rather reach for the textbook than pick up the pen.

Your education of your resume is just fine.  If you want to find a job outside of academe with your B.A., M.A., or Ph.D. then you need some practical experience.  This means less learning, more doing.

Perfection delays action.

Academe loves perfection.  Six years to write a book is normal.  Ten years is better. But the real world doesn’t need perfection.  It is very tolerant of mistakes.

What simple action could you do today to get you closer to where you want to be?

Take an hour.  And do it.

*  *  *  *  *


Give me 126 Days. And I’ll show you how to break down big goal of finding a career into smaller, manageable daily actions.

best career book for english majors

This e-book  begins right where you are–broke, no idea of what you want to do, working a crappy job, and nothing more than a degree on your resume. It is written specifically for humanities majors (BAs, MAs, and PhDs).

Each week in the e-book contains:

1. A task–something practical that is working towards a larger goal.

2. A lesson and goal–practical mistakes to avoid, milestones to hit, and higher-level stuff to help you confidently turn your humanities degree into a career.

This is the guidebook for lost humanities majors. It is designed to accelerate your humanities career transition with a rock-solid strategy and step-by-step tactics.

Learn more 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Up Next:

"Ph.D. in English Useless Destroyed My Life": A Selloutyoursoul Reader Writes In

"Ph.D. in English Useless Destroyed My Life": A Selloutyoursoul Reader Writes In