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A Degree in English: What, Why, How? All You Need to Know

Written by Sunidhi Arakere, a second year student of English.

Deciding to zero into the world of an arts degree can be a daunting prospect, especially in India. However, a large part of this comes from the perception that a literature course is only for those who want to turn writing into a full-time profession. This couldn’t be further from the truth…

By I Kid You Not , in Careers , at January 11, 2022 Tags: , , ,

Written by Sunidhi Arakere, a second-year student of English

It is no coincidence that every epoch in history is defined by and studied through the literature produced by the people of its times.

World literature has for aeons been a window into the human soul, reflecting both unique features of its context as well as certain universal experiences that remain relevant centuries later.

How do you begin?

Deciding to zero into the world of an arts degree can be a daunting prospect, especially in India. However, a large part of this comes from the perception that a literature course is only for those who want to turn writing into a full-time profession. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

While the course will definitely bring your innate creativity and penmanship to the fore and improve your writing if that’s what you want to do, there are a whole host of options other than writing that someone with this degree can pursue.

Studying English after school:

There are no prior necessary subjects that one has to take to begin studying literature in the undergraduate years. Any set of courses in the secondary school years will do because English is a mandatory subject irrespective of your specialisation. I studied science in the 11th and 12th grades before switching to an arts course, for example.

Some things to keep in mind

There are, however, a few factors to keep in mind before choosing exactly what kind of Bachelor of Arts degree you want to go with. Some universities offer a B.A. (Honours) in English, some just a B.A., and some offer English as one major which is a part of a triple major course.

Here, I’ll make a distinction between B.A. and B.A. (Honours). The latter is a more rigorous and intensive course, ideal for those who are certain that literature is the field they are going to build a career in. It will involve papers that are more academically inclined and research-oriented, as well as a broader range of material. A B.A., on the other hand, would have fewer papers and a less research-based approach, ideal for those who want to have an undergraduate degree with a good command over English but want to pursue a different humanities subject in a future bachelor’s degree or in postgraduate studies.

Finally, the triple major option is for those who have two or three subjects they are interested in exploring before settling on their final choice of career or further study. This is the choice I went with because, in the 12th grade, I was still unsure whether I wanted to study English or Psychology. I chose the triple major combination of Journalism, Psychology and English, to ensure that along with my interests, I also had a vocational course like journalism that would add to my career options and skillset.

Now, in my second year, I have decided that literature is what I will be pursuing for a Master’s degree.

There are various triple major combinations available across the country that include English, such as:

  • Journalism, Psychology, English
  • History, English, Psychology
  • Psychology, Sociology, English
  • Music/Performing Arts, Psychology, English
  • Communication and Media, English, Psychology etc.

You should be aware that if you are certain that you want to study English, you would be best served with a B.A. or B.A. (Honours) in English alone. A triple major degree will still give you enough material to build on before you embark on a post-graduation, but it is likely that your major will fall under the purview of a department other than English. The English course will therefore not be given as much priority as that major.

My current course, for example, falls under the Media Studies department because of the journalism major. Most of the activities, conferences and events made mandatory for us are thus directed at the media field rather than at English or Psychology. This is a relative disadvantage, because when I begin a Master’s degree, batchmates who have previously specialised in English will probably be better acquainted with the methods of studying a rigorous literature course, and I will have to work harder to catch up. Be aware of this and only choose a triple major if you are unsure or unwilling to choose English once and for all.

What next, after an undergraduation?

You should ideally do an M.A. or M.A. (Honours) in English. These are structured similar to a B.A. and B.A. (Honours). A postgraduate English degree will boost your employability in any field and expand your skillset, while also giving you more exposure to academia.

After a Master’s, you can move on to acquiring a PhD if you want to enter academia full-time, as a professor and researcher. Undergraduate degrees in India are three-year courses, and postgraduate degrees are two-year courses. It takes between

Finding work with an English degree:

What choices does someone with an M.A. in English have? You could:

  • Teach: Either by clearing the exam to be a professor or lecturer in an Indian university, or by pursuing a B.Ed degree.
  • Enter journalism or another media field: As an anchor, content writer, programme host or editor. Having an undergraduate degree in a media course would help with this.
  • Write full-time or part-time: Be it scripts, lyrics, novels, essays, articles or poetry, if you have a flair for the creative, this could be your calling.
  • Explore PR and advertising: A public relations officer requires writing and communication skills that make an English graduate a good choice. You could also work as a copywriter in an ad agency if you want to try something more creative.
  • Be a librarian: A slightly unconventional and difficult-to-pursue option, but highly intellectually stimulating. It would help to have experience in organisational skills and computer literacy.
  • Try translation: If you are multilingual and fluent in a language other than English, this could be the way to go. Depending on the language, it can be very lucrative both full-time and part-time, with demand from both technical fields and more literary fields.
  • Enter the publishing arena: As an editor, sub-editor, proofreader, manager or marketing executive.

These are just a few choices from the vast number available. These options, as well as positions in academia and research, are available to someone with a PhD in English as well. Often, a PhD will also get you higher positions in any of the above fields too, although it is not necessary.

Is a degree in English the way to go for you?

If you’ve read this far and the question remaining in your mind is whether a literature degree is right for you or not, here are the things you need to know. While it is untrue that English majors have no scope whatsoever, it is true that if you are not clear about your goal, especially at the postgraduate level, you will be taking a risk by narrowing your choice down to English.

A degree in English at any level is only right for you if:

  • You have a purpose and an idea of what you want to study. English is a very broad field, and one could do everything from literary analysis to education to corporate communication. Before you select courses and subjects of study, consider what your end goal is and what knowledge and skills you’ll require to get there.
  • You know what your strengths and gifts are. You don’t have to be a fabulous creative writer, but you do have to be a good writer. Whether it is concise and clear communication, a flair for multiple languages, or hard-hitting and impactful creativity, know what your strengths are and choose subjects and goals that play to those strengths. If you select courses purely because they sound interesting, you will risk squandering your years of study.
  • You know that your passion for English is deeper than bibliophilia. While reading and a love for books is great as a foundation for literary study, it is not everything. You have to have the ability to delve deeper into any text and analyse it from multiple perspectives, the ability to convey your arguments in clear terms, and the ability to do this constantly, week after week and year after year, without losing steam. Literature degrees often cause reading and writing burnouts because you will be doing those things constantly for years of study. If you don’t have a genuine passion for studying English, you will not be able to cope with that burnout.
  • You can cope with rigorous research and academic work. Even if academia is not your choice of career, studying English will require you to work on research projects and analysis papers to some extent. If you’re not willing to embark on elaborate literary and philosophical discourse, this is not the degree for you.

College and university options for B.A. and M.A. students:

Now, if you got this far and are sure that this is something you will want to do, here’s a list of a few colleges in India that offer good degrees in English at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, that you will want to consider applying to:

  • St Stephens, New Delhi
  • Christ (Deemed to be University), Bengaluru
  • St Xaviers, Kolkata and Ahmedabad
  • Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce, Pune
  • Fergusson College, Pune
  • Mithibai College of Arts, Mumbai
  • Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
  • Lady Shri Ram College for Women, New Delhi
  • Loyola College, Chennai

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather a starting point that you cannot go wrong with.

So remember…

To get into a good institution and find lucrative work, there are several things you can do to boost your CV and skills. At the undergraduate level, internships in content writing, creative writing, publishing, proofreading and teaching can make you a great candidate for Master’s degrees. You should also maintain a comprehensive collection of your written work in any form.

Further, try maintaining an online blog that you can easily link to interested readers. Finally, the research papers that you do during your years of study should be of the highest quality possible, to enrich your experience and expertise. Getting them published in academic journals would also be the best possible advertisement of your skills.

Congratulations for being brave enough to go against the grain, and happy learning!

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