Grad Year: 2006
Other areas of sudy/degree(s):
B.S. in Biopsychology - Brain, Behavior & Cognitive Science, 2006
Given that this writing is about my decision to become an English major and the subsequent effects of that decision on my professional life, let me begin in an appropriate manner: self-indulgently. There’s a story that has entered my family’s canon of stories (as much as we have a canon) in which we are out to dinner with some of my father’s co-workers, mostly college administrators and professors. One of them has asked me what I want to study, and I respond, “Well, I’d like to study English,” and at this point, unbeknownst to me, the gentleman next to me at the table raises his hand as though to give me a high five, but I continue, “But I don’t know how I’d make any money with that.” At that point, the table starts cracking up and I turn to see the English professor slowly put his hand down, dejected. Why I thought I’d be raking in the big bucks with a B.S. in Biopsychology is beyond me, but when I finally—and inevitably, as far as my friends were concerned—did become an English major (a double major, actually) I realized that there are incredible opportunities that begin with the intense, focused study of language. What career doesn’t involve reading, analytical thinking, and attention to detail? Rare is the dinner party in which I’m asked to explain chemical synapses, but understanding how to edit, how to persuade, and how to establish a consistent voice come up more often than you’d likely imagine.
Becoming a Lawyer
As a law student—and, hopefully, future lawyer—I’m reading more than I ever did as an undergraduate. And, while there are almost no assignments during the semester, I often do as much writing in my three or four hour exam as the average English class requires for the entire course. In courses that don’t offer exams, students typically complete one culminating paper of moderate length. In fact, I just edited one of those for a friend last night; it was well written, but there were a lot of small and difficult mechanical errors, things I just take for granted now. I was reminded again of the value of my education, because the paper I edited may have been docked for things I just do automatically. Of course, if I were really Machiavellian, I wouldn’t tell anyone about my English degree, and then I’d never have to edit another paper again. I could use the extra time to contemplate what an awful person I was.
But you don’t want to hear about sneaky, underhanded tactics, you want to hear about being a lawyer. In my limited experience thus far, it has involved a lot of reading, writing, and research. One learns of a situation in need of legal analysis, researches the applicable law, and writes a memo or brief either neutrally presenting both sides of the issue or arguing persuasively in favor of one position. At this stage in my career—that is, the embryonic stage—those basic steps make up the majority of what I do. In all likelihood, that won’t change for at least five years, when I’ll have enough experience to start arguing cases. While television and movies and John Grisham may give you a certain perspective on what it means to be a lawyer, the vast majority of it doesn’t involve fiery speeches or Jack Nicholson yelling, “You can’t handle the truth!” It involves writing.
Advice to undergraduates
My first advice to current English concentrators would be to take a class in which I am the GSI. More helpfully, I would suggest putting real effort into your work. There is a lot of opportunity for students to rush through papers the night before they are due, and more often than not, they are riddled with grammatical errors, leaps in logical reasoning, and typos. I have heard plenty of students brag, “Oh, I wrote that paper in four hours last night.” I have rarely heard someone say, “I wrote that paper in four hours and I ended up getting an A.” Invest time in your work and you will be rewarded, not only with a grade, but by actually learning how to use English well.
I would also suggest going to see your professors. This is something I wish I had done more as an undergraduate, and it is something I believe can be helpful. I always felt intimidated by the professor, or afraid that my question was too trivial, or just certain that I could figure out the answer myself. I still think learning on your own has value, but the professor can almost certainly steer you in the right direction. Furthermore, as a GSI, let me say that no question is too trivial. I don’t want you to think I’m having a party in my office hours that you’re not invited to—office hours without students are boring affairs. Ninety minutes in, I want nothing more than an interesting question from a student, and second on my list is a boring question from a student. Finally, I would advise students to pursue something interesting. If that’s English, great, but if you have a deep, abiding love for Environmental Biology or Philosophy or Musicology, pursue that. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t even ask that question about making money. I would just be an English major, because that’s what I’ve always wanted to be.
Related Career FieldsLaw