When I told people I wanted to study English the standard response was: “What are going to do with that degree? Teach?”
It was the summer of 2012. I was waiting for my GCSE results and was on my way to sixth form; already people were beginning to expect me to figure out what I would study at university.
It took me a while to decide what I wanted to do, as I’m sure it does many people at such a young age, but in the end my love of books and writing got the better of me. I decided on a degree in English Literature, with the intention of becoming a novelist. I wasn’t too worried about the next two years of A Levels and university applications, but I was faced with a difficulty I hadn’t imagined.
As applications grew nearer, my family and friends began to ask what I would hopefully be studying at university. I would proudly reply “English Literature!” I was excited and I expected they would share my enthusiasm about it. What I got in response, however, was the complete opposite of enthusiasm: they seemed confused, concerned even. “But what are you going to do with that degree? Teach?” was their reply.
The thing about studying a subject that is taught in school is that society automatically corners you with the assumption you’ll become a teacher. For some people, that’s great, that’s their dream. For me, it wasn’t and it isn’t. I see nothing wrong with being a teacher; on the contrary, I think teachers are amazing people with great patience and love for transferring their knowledge onto the next generation. That is an incredible thing, but it just isn’t me.
"My decision to take an arts degree did not go down well."
I think also, because I was quite bright and had chosen Maths and Biology at A Level alongside English, my family hoped I’d do something with a more solid future. So my decision to take an arts degree and my naïvely proclaiming I was going to be a writer did not go down well.
My parents, though they were a bit wary to start with, supported my decision because they knew how much I loved to read. But, their reactions made me seriously doubt myself and my decision, and arguing with them about my choice of course was actually harder than the application process itself. In the end, I went ahead anyway and eventually packed my bags to go and study English Literature and Language in London.
When I got to university I was excited about what this new period in my life was going to bring.
It was stressful moving, leaving my home and my friends, and then getting used to uni assessments. But I was eager to meet new people too, and to start my course. The friends I’ve made who study English are a diverse group of people: one wants to become a teacher, another an activist, and then you’ve got aspiring advertising executives, special needs assistants and so on.
It was eye-opening when, talking to a couple of my seminar tutors, I learnt that they hadn’t started out studying literature or even begun their careers by teaching straight away. Yet, here they were, experts in their field, teaching us about Shakespeare and Hardy. I felt so grateful to be surrounded by so many different people who were changing the way I saw my course. I was confident that there were many things I could do with my degree and that I didn’t have to decide what my final answer was right now, let alone when I was 15.
"Studying English doesn’t have to be all about preparing you for reading Hamlet with your future students."
I’ve finished my second year of university on a high note. I’ve learnt how to answer people when they ask that question every student and recent graduate is tired of answering: “What are you going to do with your degree?” Because I’ve come to realise that studying English doesn’t have to be all about preparing you for being a teacher and reading Hamlet with your future students, unless you want it to be.
For me, it’s about words and how much power they possess. It’s about how the combinations of those words mean something different to each person who reads them. Words have power and I’ve had the opportunity to hone my ability as a writer to manipulate them however I want.
People told me that going to university would be about finding myself, but then, because of what I chose to study, they also placed me in the metaphorical box of a career I’m not interested in. And that doesn’t feel great. There were times when I felt there wasn’t any room left for me to figure out my own potential and interests outside of that box.
This can happen to all of us, not just English or humanities students, but medical, scientific and engineering students too. They can follow the career paths that are the natural progression from their degree, but they can also be anything they want to be – and a medical student can be a teacher as much as an English Literature student can. Our degrees do not (entirely) define our futures.
"People placed me in the metaphorical box of a career I’m not interested in."
Right now, the dream is still developing. I’m glad I chose English and I still love writing and books – but I’m not sure I want the same things my 15 year-old-self wanted any more. That young girl inside me still wants to become a novelist, but, for now, that’s taking a back seat as my 20 year-old-self works on becoming a UN activist. Another big dream, I know, but I think it’s good to have them.
Back to that question you’ve probably heard too many times, “What are you going to do with your degree?”
I don’t think you have to have an answer. The big thing I’ll take away from these years and from my university experience is that we don’t need to rush into figuring our lives out at 16 or 17. I didn’t even really know who I was at 16. Even at 20 I’m not quite sure who I am, and if you ask me what my dream is five years from now it might’ve changed again.
Maybe I’ll even want to be a teacher by then. But for now, I’ve chosen the subject I love. Please don’t tell me that in choosing English there’s only one thing I can realistically do, as if it’s all mapped out for me already. That is just not the case.