Careers and Grad School

🎓 We asked some of our alums to share their career stories. Here's what they told us.

Careers for English Majors

In recent years English majors from Geneseo have gone off to graduate school, law school, and medical school. They have gone to graduate school for literature, for creative writing, for technical writing, and for rhetoric and composition theory. They have also found careers in the business world. Recent graduates of Geneseo's English Department are now pursuing advanced degrees at institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University, Duke University, Harvard University, SUNY Buffalo, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, the University of Iowa, the University of Rochester, Georgetown University, Syracuse University, Washington University, the University of Delaware, and the University of Tennessee. One of our majors was awarded the prestigious Mellon Fellow in the Humanities for study toward the Ph.D. Others have received substantial fellowships for their graduate universities. Several graduates who have gone on to earn Ph.D.s are now teaching at colleges and universities and have published scholarly books.

Geneseo's Creative Writing students have gone on to graduate programs in Creative Writing at such institutions as Arizona State University, Bowling Green University, Miami University, SUNY Albany, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Brockport, SUNY Buffalo, Temple University, the University of Arkansas, the University of Iowa, the University of Massachusetts, Yale University, and Kyoto University in Japan. At least twelve of our graduates have gone on to publish their own books of poetry. Many are now in teaching positions around the country. Others have founded and edited small presses where they are publishing books and anthologies.

No profit grows where is no pleasure ta'en,
In brief, sir, study what you most affect.

- Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, 1.1.39-40

Careers FAQ

What degrees does the English Department at Geneseo offer?

There are two degree programs - English and Comparative Literature. These can be combined in a double major. You can also major in American Studies (American literature and History), in Theatre/English, or in English Education.

Why take a double major?

So your transcript will show that your interests and training are broadly based. For example, if you are a language major, or an English major with ability in foreign language (third-year level, e.g., Spanish 301-302), you can extend your qualifications with a second major in Comparative Literature. Since many requirements overlap, this is easily done and may make a difference when you apply for graduate school or for a job (e.g., library science, or work with immigrants, or international business and government).

Speaking of jobs, just how practical is literature and language?

Very practical - right now there are solid opportunities for graduates with the B.A. or with an advanced degree.

But aren't teaching jobs hard to find?

Yes, the market for teachers is tight, though there are always openings for talented, well-trained people. If you are strongly attracted to education, go into it. But teaching is not the only work for a literature major. Far from it - you qualify for a variety of responsible, well-paying jobs.

Do you mean working as a writer?

Communications is a big field today. Applicants with a degree in literature can be hired by business and industrial firms, by book, magazine, and newspaper publishers, by educational, civic, and service institutions, by government agencies (local, state, and federal), by advertising and public relations agencies, and by radio and television stations.

What would I do as a writer?

You will be an editor, a researcher, a reporter, or an information specialist. You might work on newsletters, brochures, technical manuals, publicity, news releases, speeches, advertising, business or scientific reports, radio or television scripts, grant proposals, articles and books on every subject, trade journals, questionnaires and tests, translations, planning and marketing data, or administrative guidelines. In short, you will locate, analyze, interpret, organize, revise, and communicate information.

Isn't that fairly routine and dull?

It's up to you! Business and government officials need people who can handle their material with imagination and originality - who have the ability to cope with unfamiliar facts and "learn on the job."

What choices besides communications are there in industry and government?

Many literature majors have made careers in sales, marketing, personnel work, systems analysis, programming, planning, production, management, training, consumer education, and administration.

How does studying language and literature prepare me for jobs like these?

By training you to observe and understand details, see their relations and implications, and express your conclusions with accuracy and clear logic. There are no skills more vital to success in any profession than reading, writing, speaking, and thinking. Literary study is a practical discipline because the techniques you develop are used to get the world's work done.

Is its subject matter useful too?

It seeks insight into human behavior, problems, relationships - people act as they do. This insight can contribute to sound managerial decisions and judgments.

What if I want a graduate degree that leads to a professional career?

The BA in literature (supplemented by certain courses) is one of the most useful preparations for law school, medical school, and library science, to name just three. Or you may go on to graduate work in English, English as a Second Language, Education or Comparative Literature.

So literary study can help me understand people, sharpen my ability to think, read, and write, and start my career. Is that all?

It offers pleasure, excitement, satisfaction. If you like to read, to use your imagination, analyze facts, defend conclusions, and explore human experience and values, you will find the study of literature both enjoyable and useful.

Where can I learn more about job opportunities for English majors?

Useful books include Dorothy Bestor's Aside from Teaching, What In the World Can You Do? (University of Washington Press) and John Munschauer's Jobs for English Majors and Other Smart People (Petersen's Guides: Princeton, N.J.).

Is there any place at the College here at Geneseo where I can get professional help in finding a job after earning my degree?

There are skilled specialists in this field available to you in the college's Career Design Center. But don't wait until graduation day to begin planning - talk with your department advisor early in your English program and go over and introduce yourself at the Career Design Center and of course talk with members of the department.

Grad School FAQ

When should I start thinking about applying?

Most graduate schools only admit students at the beginning of the fall semester. (If you plan to stay "out" and work before going on to grad school, you must still plan a year ahead; so apply this advice to yourself as if you were still an undergraduate.) In the summer before and early fall of your senior year, write to universities that interest you, requesting information about each school's English graduate programs and application forms for admission and financial aid. Information is free.

How do I know which school would be best for me?

Although no grad school is going to make you decide whether you want to specialize in 16th century sonnets or Toni Morrison at the moment when you apply, some schools are better in particular areas than others. Ask the professors who teach the courses which interest you most. If your interest is general, ask us about schools which are good in most areas. Think about where you do or don't want to live for the next five to eight years. Look at the information you get and see which schools offer the best programs of study and the best financial aid.

What about the GRE's?

The Graduate Record Exam scores are important. They are what many admission committees look at to decide how seriously to take your GPA, writing sample, and letters of recommendation. Although it varies from school to school whether GRE, GPA, or other parts of the application are given top priority, you can't second-guess this and should assume the GRE to be important. The Verbal score is the most important, although some schools also value the special field [English] score. Don't take the general and the subject on the same day--plan ahead. Score in the 700's and your chances are good of getting into a good graduate school, assuming your other credentials are equally strong. Few English departments care much about the Quantitative scores. Take the GRE in the winter of your junior year or the summer before your senior year or in October. There are two good reasons for doing this:

  • If you don't do well, you can try again in December. You can plan your applications based on your scores. (e.g., if you do well, spend the application fee for Berkeley; if you do less well, save your money.)  
  • ETS keeps scores for five years so even if you don't plan on going right away, you might want to take the test while things are still fresh in your mind. Get information about the GRE's and application forms in the Career Services Office.
To how many schools should I apply?

Finances frequently restrict the number of applications you will submit. Most schools require an application fee. The best bet is to apply to your "dream" school--you'll always wonder if you don't apply--to two or three good schools, and to one or two safety-net schools. If you do not get into a school that is at the top of your list, you can always get an M.A. and apply to a better school for the Ph.D.--a proven track record in grad school can be a help.

Should I apply for the M.A. or the Ph.D. program?

Unless you are absolutely sure you want to stop at the M.A., always apply for the Ph.D. Schools take M.A. applications less seriously for both admission and financial aid. You aren't signing any contracts; you can always stop at the M.A. level. If you are interested in teaching at K-12 level, you should investigate the M.A.T. (Master of Arts in Teaching) degree. The M.A.T. combines intensive work in a subject area with Education course work and practice teaching. Students who earn the MAT degree may well decide to go for the Ph.D.

What do they mean by writing samples and personal statements?

The former should be the best paper you ever wrote. And don't be afraid to make it better. Take it back to your professor and re-write it. If you are declaring an interest in a particular area (e.g., LGBTQ+ Studies or Medieval), common sense suggests that the paper be in that area. As you write your personal statement, put yourself in the position of your audience, a member of the admissions committee. You want to show the reader that you are smart and serious and ambitious but not conceited. This is not a time for false modesty, but neither do you want to sound over-confident. The personal statement is the only way the admissions people get to know you as a person. Don't go out of your way to be different merely for the sake of being different, but don't feel you have to be very traditional in your approach. Let your readers get to know you. Have at least one professor look over your statement.

This checklist might help you to draft your personal statement.

  • There is no way around it. Writing about yourself is about the most difficult and humiliating kind of writing that you will ever have to do. Simply recognizing this fact at the outset may be a big help in getting you through the ordeal. Grit your teeth and pretend, for the first draft, that you are singing the praises of a close friend of yours. You might even try writing the first draft in the third person, to see if that makes the process any easier.
  • Remember that you will also be judged--even if only unconsciously--by they quality of your writing. A good personal essay should not only be well-written, it should be (and appear to be) well re-written. Make sure that you smooth over the rough edges and carefully proofread before you print out your final copy.
  • Don't be afraid to be creative, but don't let creativity substitute for substance. If there is something unique that you have done, or that has happened to you, by all means put it in and highlight it. But don't push too far, that is, don't make this unique thing take the place of the variety of accomplishments that you need to show in order to make yourself look compelling to those who will read your statement.
  • Make sure others get to read the essay before you print out the final copy. This is not just, or even primarily, for proofreading, though this is important. You can miss the mark in an essay like this by being too humble, or by being too arrogant. It is often easier for someone else to pick up this kind of thing than for you to pick it up yourself.
What about letters of recommendation?

Most schools require two, many require three. Ask the professors who have seen you do the best work (in English) and who know you best. If a person seems reluctant to write for you, take this as a polite "no" and ask someone else. You MUST give letter-writers at least two weeks notice before a deadline - more advance notice is even better. NEVER assume someone will write you a letter before asking, and never list a professor as a reference without getting their permission. When you reach out via email or in person to ask a faculty member to write you a letter, ask what materials they need from you and how to submit them.

What about money?

In general, if a school wants you, the school will help you with some sort of financial aid (this is much more common in Ph.D. and M.F.A. programs - less common in M.A. programs). This can range from a full fellowship with fee-waiver (much more common at the grad level than undergrad) to a research or teaching assistantship (very common) to a first-year loan with the promise of a future assistantship. With times getting harder, money will get tighter. Two ways of reading the money question:

  • Although you should consider who offers you the best deal, remember that the quality of your Ph.D. determines--to an enormous extent--your value on the job market.