How I Succeeded and Failed with a B.A. in English

The Bitchy Editor’s post How Your B.A. in English Prepared You for Failure got me thinking about what constitutes failure or success in relation to a degree. I have a B.A. in English. It is my only completed degree so far. I was, by some standards, a success: I actually used it to get a job. It was still a giant mistake.

I was trying to double major in English and wildlife ecology, until I was so burnt-out and broke that I decided to just finish the degree I was closest to and get the hell out. I only needed one more class for English. I was working a string of temp jobs and just beginning what looked like a promising writing career, and I could see myself doing something like writing or editing until I could make a living writing my own stuff. So I took that one class and got out.

I bounced around in temp jobs until I was hired as a copy editor of construction textbooks. I thought, hey, I’m good with words, and I’d like to learn about construction. Perfect!

Not so much. The job killed what little attention span I had, and after staring at a manuscript all day, I found that the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was write. When I did force myself to write, it was not great prose. It was, well, forced.  I’ve never been a heavily stylized writer; I aim for an invisible style. But everything I wrote then was as flat as a plumbing manual for vo-tech students.

It took me four years to realize two things: I wasn’t going to get any better at my job or start liking it more; and I probably wasn’t going to ever make a living as a writer. Which meant that my temporary day job was really just my job.

The moment I stopped thinking of it as temporary, I knew I had to get out. I had lost any ability to concentrate, and I was pretty sure I’d be fired in the next few months. And if I somehow escaped being fired through hard work and dedication, my reward would be an endless stretch of boredom ahead of me. The problem was, copy editing was about the only thing I was qualified to do. I had an English degree.

To alleviate the boredom, I often took my lunch break at the Devil’s Millhopper, a state park a few minutes away. One day it occurred to me that this was the only part of my day that I actually enjoyed, and I remembered the field trips I’d been on in my wildlife classes in college. They were at least tied with creative writing workshops for enjoyment level. I didn’t have a biology degree, but maybe there were jobs I could do anyway?

I got on Texas A&M’s wildlife job board. Most of the listings were across the country. Most required degrees. But some of them didn’t. I kept checking religiously, until I saw a posting for a paid internship on a military base about an hour away. No educational criteria was listed, but based on the pay I figured they couldn’t expect much. I tried to keep the desperation out of my cover letter. I explained that I didn’t have a degree but I did have several wildlife classes and I was looking to change careers, and I was a fast learner. I didn’t quite say please please please give me a chance I promise I won’t disappoint you, but I think it was implied.

I got a call the next day. It was the shortest job interview I’ve ever had. The woman on the other end asked if I was afraid of snakes.
“I have a healthy respect for them,” I said. “But I don’t, like, run and scream at the sight of a garter snake.”
“Okay,” she said. “How well do you handle hot weather?”
I said, “This past summer my car broke down and I rode my bike to work, five miles each way, for a few months. I was fine.”
“Can you start in two weeks?” said my new boss.
I don’t think I actually said, “Hell yes!” but it was implied.

The job was hot, tedious, and sometimes dangerous. Along with the snakes, there was unexploded ordnance scattered about. The commute was long. My teammates were annoying. Every day, I came home exhausted, sunburned, and tick-bitten, and flopped onto the futon to stare blankly at the ceiling fan for an hour. But for the first time since entering the workforce, I didn’t dread getting up in the morning.

When the season ended, I applied for another field job, and when that ended, for another. The third I stayed at for almost four years before accepting that I’d made it as far as a B.A. in English could take me.

So here I am in grad school. I am ten years older than most of the other students. I’d like to think this makes me wiser or more responsible, but really it just means I wasted a whole lot of time.

Published by

Bethany Harvey

I’m a biologist, environmental educator, occasional firefighter and frequent cubicle monkey living in North Carolina. I write literary short stories and SFF novels, and hope to someday figure out why it doesn’t work the other way around. You can find me yelling about politics on Twitter (@bethanyharvey) or about under-appreciated wildlife at OverlookedNature.com.

27 thoughts on “How I Succeeded and Failed with a B.A. in English”

  1. Hi Bethany, I loved your post. I, too, have a B.A. in English. I double majored in English and Computer Science. Two definite pole extremes, but it fun. Anyway, I’m back in school after a long time away too. I’m getting a masters in adult education.

    I wouldn’t say that you’ve wasted time. Sometimes we need those experiences to help us find our way. And regardless of how good or bad they were they help us become the people we are.

    Erica, a fellow blogging 101 participant
    The Ink Slinger

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Yay, another returning student! I would say that I have learned from my experiences, but I wish I had learned faster. I think it’s a good idea to major in English and something completely different. You have something to fall back on, and you can also write well. Mine would have been a good plan if I’d finished both!

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  2. Hey Bethany,
    This story is so honest and tells about your struggles.
    I feel you are still not happy with the way things are. I hope you find a better and more peaceful phase of life soon to your satisfaction. I myself changed four jobs before taking a permanent retirement. Your writing skills are obviously good. I won’t say that you are a Shakespeare in making but you do good enough to keep reader interested and don’t put too much pressure on them.

    I wish you a great weekend.

    Anand 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes they were different from each other 🙂 Very different 🙂 Thanks and have a nice Sunday Bethany. Greetings from India 🙂 Would you mind being nominated for an award? I have to do many nominations and I am wondering if you would be happy because it would mean some work on your part too 🙂

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  3. Hi ☺ My first degree was a B.A. in History and English. I felt it was totally useless and so undertook a B.Sc. in computer science where suddenly my writing and research skills gave me a massive advantage. I subsequently went on to get a graduate diploma in Education and a Masters of Management. All 4 were done part time because i came from a dirt poor situation and needed to earn money. Point is, no learning is a waste. Anyway, loved reading your post ☺

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  4. Rode a bike in that heat? I’ve spent time in Texas in summer and and just about passed out every time I had to leave air conditioning. Your experiences have set you up well for a writing life. Conflict and tension and wildlife – I’d buy your memoir.

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  5. I seem to have opened a can of worms by calling my education useless! And y’all are right — I don’t regret taking English classes in college. The fiction writing workshops, especially, taught me a lot. What I do regret is actually getting only an English degree. You don’t need a diploma to write short stories; you do need one for a lot of other fields.

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      1. If it’s the same award title it won’t be. 🙂
        I feel it won’t be even when they are two different awards. I understand Bethany you have a day job and many other things–please feel free to combine. I am completely free yet I feel a bit of pressure because of so many nominations in the past. That’s why I asked you in a comment yesterday about nomination. You can even decline if you wish so.

        Sincerely,
        Anand 🙂

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    1. Thank you! It’s not so much that I don’t do these things as that every blogger I’ve interacted with already has multiple awards, so I can’t think of 15 new ones, and at this rate it’s going to get to the point where we’re all posting nothing but awards lists. I think I will have to address this in a big combined post soon (with links, with no obligation or expectation of participating). I do appreciate it.

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      1. Thanks Bethany, I think that might be a great way to go about it! I went almost mad trying to find people that had not been yet nominated and I take so long working at my laptop that several times the people that I was going to nominate were already being nominated (sorry double word) and I still have another one to accept 😉
        Turtley Hugs

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  6. Hi Bethany,
    This is a wonderfully honest post, and it completely reiterates what I have been thinking about my own BA in English as of lately. Although I just finished this year and technically I have not been handed my degree yet, I am also already having these anxieties and uncertainties about where my BA is going to take me. It has actually stopped me from continuing on into further study this year, and I have decided instead to take time out to really think about where I am going career wise. I did do a Sociology and Politics degree along with it, so really I am just trying to decide which path to take. I think your post really reflects a lot of mutual feeling amongst the BA in English crew across the globe, and your dedication to go back and study in order to find something you truly love gives hope to all of us out there who may be feeling similar. Thanks again for posting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I had to get some real-world experience to figure out what I wanted to do. I don’t know how 18-year-olds are expected to choose a field for their entire lives. I had no idea. I didn’t even know ecological restoration was a thing you could study and get a job doing until about four years ago.

      On the other hand, I think most people get stuck if they take too long between first and second attempts at college. I had the freedom to just ditch my job for a lower-paying one or move 500 miles to go to school on federal loans which are just barely enough to live on. If I had anyone else depending on me, I wouldn’t have been able to do this.

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  7. It’s refreshing and inspirational to see that you, like me, have made the most out of your English degree as best you could and now you’ve tackled another passion, unrelated to the first. Maybe there’s hope for me yet! I, too, will be older and wiser—and will have wasted much time 😉

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  8. My mother always told me, “What will be will be.” I’m a firm believer we are where we are because that’s where we’re supposed to be. I studied accounting and climbed the corporate ladder but fate stepped in. My job was eliminated and my husband, fed up with his business, wanted to spend our money before the taxman took it all. So what did we do? We traded suburbia for a forty-foot fifthwheel and took our maiden voyage to Florida, came back to Canada and traveled Mexico. I wrote two e-books and have a third coming out in January 2016 and now live in Mexico.. You can never go back, so you might as well forge ahead.

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  9. We all seem to be confused over what we want to do and what we are doing. I am having a trouble myself. I have joined B.Sc. Geology but I am not sure if I will pursue Geology as a career. Don’t know what this will lead to.

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