An important part of college counseling is helping students decide what they want to study in college. Students who are planning to study liberal arts subjects may not be familiar with all of their options. Those who like to write – and earned high grades in their high school English classes – may assume that the English major is their best choice.
However, unless a student is passionate about studying literature, choosing an English major is probably a bad idea. Consider this “routine” by comedian John Mulaney:
Yes, you heard me, an English major. I paid $120,000. How dare you clap? How dare you clap for the worst financial decision I ever made in my life? I paid $120,000 for someone to tell me to go read Jane Austen and then I didn’t. That’s the worst use of 120 grand I can possibly fathom.
. . . .
[At graduation I strolled] across a stage, the sun in my eyes . . . to receive a four-year degree in a language that I already spoke.https://lyrics.lol/artist/454473-john-mulaney/lyrics/4199137-i-didn-t-drink-the-water-the-entire-time
He is not the only skeptic. The trope of the English major working at Starbucks has spread so widely that college English departments have taken to posting plucky statements on their websites about the great jobs awaiting their students after graduation.
Here is one from the University of Washington:
You’re more valuable than you think. The skills you develop as an English major, such as writing, editing, problem solving, critical thinking, and analysis, are highly prized by employers in nearly every profession. In this age of information and technology, the particular skills you’ve developed while engaged in studying, analyzing, and writing about literature are in more demand in the workplace than ever before. Employers in all career pathways consistently cite writing, communication skills, the ability to work independently, and adaptability at the top of their lists of desired skills. As an English major and student in the liberal arts, you will develop these skills in abundance.https://english.washington.edu/careers-english-majors
Encouraging statements notwithstanding, Mulaney’s point stands – the English major is mostly about reading and analyzing literature. There are very few jobs requiring this specific skill. Other majors, even those which appear to be removed from commerce, train students for careers. History majors learn information and analytical skills which they can put to use as historians, journalists, and even media pundits. Similar claims can be made for economics, psychology, and even political science. Further, these departments all claim to impart similar skills in communication, analysis, and the ability to work independently.
The result is that one of the most well-worn career paths for English majors following college graduation is teaching English in a secondary school. Before spending six-figure sums for an undergraduate degree, note the low salaries paid to English teachers.
Fortunately, there is a more attractive and increasingly popular alternative to the English major – the Communications major.
If your last college experience was over twenty years ago, your reaction might be to marvel at my ability to pick a major even less well regarded than English. The Communications major has been considered a refuge for those looking for a singularly undemanding route through college. See e.g., https://www.hercampus.com/school/utah/its-time-end-stigma-surrounding-communications-majors/ (“[h]istorically, a lot of women used to get humanities degrees, such as Communications or English, with no real intention of using them just so that they could find a husband in college (AKA a Mrs. Degree”). It has even been mocked on “the Simpsons” as “a phony major.” See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDMKXFeBNVU&ab_channel=Mclesh
However, times have changed, and some colleges are transforming the Communications major into a pathway to learning job-critical skills that help turn a liberal arts degree into a career.
What is the study of “Communications”? There is no universal answer – most departments content themselves with vague references to studying how people communicate. The University of Washington defines it as a collection of particular types of communication:
The Department of Communication advances the study and practice of communication across a range of contexts, including face-to-face interactions, public discourse, mass media, and digital media.https://www.washington.edu/students/gencat/program/S/Communication-1035.html#credential-60414917f10b3ebc884f13b4
The key here is “practice.” Although Communications departments – and the allied majors of “Media Studies” and “Digital Media” – require students to take three to five courses discussing theories about communication, many departments also offer courses which teach marketable skills.
The University of Washington major includes a few such courses:
- Introduction to Public Speaking
- Essentials Of Argument
- Writing For Mass Media
However, for the most part, these are lecture courses which do not offer students opportunities to practice those skills.
One college which addresses this issue is Ohio State.
Ranked in the top five among high impact communication programs, Ohio State’s School of Communication provides undergraduates with a rigorous and innovative curriculum; state-of-the-art multimedia classrooms; multiplatform labs and a podcasting studio; hands-on training through internships and on-campus experience through its award-winning student media group The Lantern and its student-run public relations firm The PRactice; alumni networking and mentoring opportunities; and access to internationally renowned faculty.
There is no greater tool in the world than successful communication in all forms—written, spoken and conceptual—and The Ohio State University’s School of Communication provides students with the training and skills needed to harness the power of communication.Undergraduate | School of Communication (osu.edu)
That same page notes that like other colleges, Ohio State students can choose from groups (“clusters”) of courses directed toward specific careers:
- Communication Competencies for Leadership
- Communication For Advocacy, Politics & Citizenship
- Health, Environment, Risk & Science Communication
- Strategic Communication
Most interesting is Ohio State’s emphasis on clinical work. Consider a recent course offering: Business & Professional Speaking. Only 15% of a student’s grade is based on exams. The rest depends upon the student’s performance in presenting six speeches and in two interview exercises typical of communications in the workplace. Note: if you want to know what matters in a course, check what counts most toward the final grade.
Although a few large colleges like Ohio State provide some skills-based training, many still concentrate on theory. You can usually identify them by reading the department website and scrutinizing the courses offered. Examine syllabi for those courses if available.
The Communications major at NYU is an example of a typical department focusing more on theory than practice.
The Department of Media, Culture, and Communication’s academically rigorous bachelor of science degree is grounded in the liberal arts, providing you with the necessary tools to analyze the sociological, political, and cultural dimensions of our media landscape. The program’s diverse faculty encourage MCC majors to think broadly and deeply about topics at the intersection of media and culture.BS, Media, Culture, and Communication | NYU Steinhardt
Note the emphasis on analyzing the “sociological, political, and cultural dimensions,” and the absence of any language suggesting skill development. Boston College is another example:
The Boston College Department of Communication is committed to the intellectual and ethical development of analytical and creative communication skills in our students, with particular emphasis on the effective functioning of circuits of communication, the impact of technological innovation on human beings and institutions, and the power relationships that develop through this interaction.Major Electives – Communication – Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences – Boston College (bc.edu)
Students seeking clinical training should not overlook smaller colleges. Consider the University of San Diego:
The communication studies major offers students flexibility and choice. Students can select courses that relate to their interest and post-graduate plans, and our faculty have made course recommendations based on themes. Choose from the following cluster of courses for specific interests: law and advocacy, global communication, strategic communication, journalism, entertainment industry and graduate School.https://www.sandiego.edu/cas/communication-studies/curriculum/#tabs-major–scroll-to
USD offers a more ambitious menu of courses – and skills – than most colleges:
- Interviewing and Negotiating
- Public Speaking (two courses)
- Introduction to Media Writing
- Global Team Development (including an exercise in providing diversity training)
- Video Production
- Writing for Magazines
- Strategic Communication (Public Relations)
- Writing for Screen Media (including screenplays)
At Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, the major is bundled with the fine arts in the College of Communication and Fine Arts. See https://cfa.lmu.edu/. Its students are offered courses where the final product is a podcast or a 150-panel graphic novel. Another class on Communications and Consulting provides a case study where students take on various consulting roles.
At its best, the Communications major is an English major for the modern era, designed to graduate students trained to communicate in the various forms and media used in commerce and society.
A practical consideration is the different internships offered to students majoring in English and Communications. Consider the English and Communications departments at my local university, the University of Arizona.
Each department lists internships from organizations seeking its students. Here is the link for internships advertised by the English department: Internship Opportunities | English (arizona.edu). There are seventeen current openings. Ten of them are internal, i.e., working for organizations operated by the University. None of those ten opportunities pay for the intern’s work. In fact, none of the internships listed there pay a dime except for a few that offer a “needs-based stipend.”
Here is the link for the Communications department: The Digest (google.com). There are fifty-one openings. Many of them are paid. Some are outside the Tucson area. Indeed, the sheer variety of organizations marks a sharp contrast with those advertised by the English department.
English majors are recruited to write and edit, mostly for college departments and community organizations. Communications majors are invited to consider interning for various foundations, local businesses, a nationwide sports league plus a local sports podcast, environmental organizations, and more. Many of those are paid internships. The skill sets to be used in these jobs are more diverse, including not just writing, but marketing, journalism, graphic design, and photography.
Communications is a path into the world of commerce. English majors are at a disadvantage because they have not had the opportunity to master a range of skills that Communications majors can choose to learn as part of their major. Of course, English majors can fill the gap by taking courses outside their major, but that reduces their options in planning a path through college and into the workplace.
It is telling that the web page for the English Department at the University of Arizona contains this legend: “Follow Your Passion.” If studying literature is your passion, then consider the English major (but perhaps as a minor). However, if you excel in writing but lack that passion, consider majoring in Communications.
Studying liberal arts is a challenging path. All students on that path should seek out opportunities to learn skills that broaden their appeal to employers. Courses on social media, graphic design, and digital media will be helpful. Some of these may even fulfill general education requirements. At the right college, majoring in Communications will give you a head start in obtaining those skills.