So you want to be a teacher?" is probably the most common remark made to young people who decide to take an English degree. But in fact, English prepares you for a huge range of careers, particularly those requiring the ability to write concisely, present complicated issues verbally, and analyse and question information presented to you.
"I firmly believe that good English students make the best employees in public relations," says Mark Houlding, managing director of Rostrum Communications. "They are sharp, analytical and able to condense very detailed information into something short and interesting, all of which is vital in PR."
Anne Kiss, who recruits graduates for the court reporting company Merrill Legal Solutions, also values English degrees. "Obviously, we look for people who are good with words and nothing demonstrates that better than a degree in English. These graduates also tend to be better at punctuation and grammar."
Nicola Lombardo, who manages a team of school-based personal advisers for Connexions Sussex Careers, isn't surprised by such employer attitudes. "I think it's largely because everyone understands what an English degree is and it's recognised as very rigorous and traditional."
She adds that other ideal roles for English graduates include researcher, lecturer, copywriter, journalist and television producer. "English graduates also go on to become barristers, speech and language therapists, negotiators, politicians, playwrights, authors, editors, theatre directors, as well as drama and literary critics. The list goes on," she says.
"Because we'd like more concrete information on what our graduates go on to do, we've just commissioned a longitudinal study, but we do already know ones that have gone into marketing, public sector project management work, blue-chip management roles and a huge variety of media-related jobs," says Professor Sue Zlosnik, head of the department of English at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU)
Like most universities, MMU runs a single honours English degree, as well as some joint degrees (here, you can study English alongside creative writing, film or American literature). You can also study English as a major or minor subject with a range of other subjects such as French or history.
Professor Zlosnik points out that each university offers a slightly different slant on English degrees, so it's worth doing your homework about the institutions you apply to. "Our university has a very strong tradition in cultural studies, for instance, and our degree is very modern. We don't teach Renaissance, but focus on a lot more contemporary literature."
MMU looks for applicants that are hungry and eager to read, as well as people who are willing to embrace independent learning, rather than expecting to be spoon fed. "Sometimes I think I would rather see someone who brought me a reading diary than has done English A-level. That's because I'm looking for students who are able to really think for themselves, rather than just waiting to be told the answer by a teacher," she says.
Dr Dafydd Moore, senior lecturer and subject leader in English and creative writing at the University of Plymouth, points out that studying for an English degree is very different from studying it at A-level. "We ask people to be much more aware of their own position in relation to talking about literature. That's quite challenging to your students, but it is necessary."
He adds that the degree moves firmly away from character analysis. "You can forget answering questions like why you think Othello is deluded. Nor are we into analysing texts line by line and ensuring everyone understands every word."
Then there's the types of texts you'll study. "We don't just study dead white men like Shakespeare and Chaucer. We look at a lot of contemporary writing by women and other historically marginalised groups. We also encourage students to see other kinds of documents alongside literature - for example, how magazine culture might relate to high literature. We take insights from other disciplines too - cultural theory, psychoanalysis and philosophy, for instance."
Julia Brook, a press and PR officer for the Chartered Management Institute, believes she made the right choice. "My English degree gave me the ability to research and write well, attention to detail, how to recognise what makes a good story and, obviously, the capacity to cope with a large amount of reading. I think that most people who embark on a degree of this nature do it for love of the subject so the fact that it enhances these types of skills is an additional bonus in terms of career."
Things To Consider When Choosing An English Degree
Is there a wide range of optional subjects available within the course?
Are there any core texts of subjects which need to be studied and will they interest you?
Is the course traditional, including perhaps medieval studies, or is there a more contemporary slant?
Is there a range of non-British literature available to study, such as Australasian or Afro-Caribbean writers?
How many individual contact hours with your tutors will you have?
Steve Forster, 25, studied English literature at Buckingham Chilterns University and is currently working in the publishing division of Capita.
"I wanted to study English at university because I'd really enjoyed the A-level and felt really passionate about the subject. The degree wound up exceeding expectations, not least because it opened my mind to a lot of genres that I wouldn't have considered reading before - such as science fiction.
I was also really impressed with how many other disciplines are involved in the degree - philosophy, psychoanalysis and psychology, for example.
When I finished university, I got a job in finance but it wasn't for me and I managed to move into publishing. Employers in this sector seem keen on English degrees and the skills I learned on the course are applicable. My role covers copyright in the education sector which involves having to identify lots of third party material. If you're reasonably well read, you can pick it up quite quickly."Reuse content