Why I chose to study Literature in university

Are you thinking of pursuing a Literature undergraduate degree? As a lit grad myself, I think that’s a great choice! I hope my account offers you some insights about this choice of major and whether it’s what you envision it to be.

My reason behind my choice

I grew up with a fondness for the English language that decided to stick around, and by secondary school I knew I wanted to major in something related to the written word. Since creative writing was a little out of reach at the time, literature became my dream major.

It helped that I had good literature teachers who were passionate about the subject as well: I actually dozed through the first few lessons on A Midsummer Night’s Dream until things suddenly clicked and the gobbledygook began making sense.

People around you may tell you that studying Literature isn’t ‘safe’ or practical, and it’s a concern you may hold yourself. There’re also folks who will ask you if you’ll become a teacher, in a manner that assumes that’s the only career option you’ll have. Believe it or not, I’ve heard a younger girl call literature a ‘disgusting subject’ while we both stood in line waiting to clear customs. She’d also questioned who’d even study literature as I stood there processing the irony of it all.

Don’t feel disheartened! Literature is a lot more fascinating at undergraduate-level, and there is a case for studying what you enjoy. Admittedly, I made my choice after factoring in my polytechnic diploma qualification (in media), but if you don’t have a fallback the way I did you can consider pursuing a minor or second major to boost your prospects. For the latter, you may have to achieve a minimum GPA/CAP.

You can also do some self-learning or exploring out of school.

I’ll cover some great reasons and skills you’ll get out of Literature in a bit, in case you need some assurance (or to assure someone else)!

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Some stereotypes to debunk

1. Literature is easy (because you just read all day)

Your professors will assign a lot of readings because a huge amount of the literary work you’ll study is text-based. Before every new semester, you’ll be visiting Book Depository/second-hand groups/the library the moment you get your hands on a module syllabus.

So yes, it’s true that you’ll read all day—but for good reason.

I recall a TA telling us we wouldn’t be able to finish reading everything during my first week of university. That’s because you’ll be searching for additional readings or texts to cross-reference, or for added context. You’ll be looking up theories from different disciplines to augment your argument, add to discussions, or examine a work through one (out of many) theoretical lens.

It’s a lot different compared to reading for leisure, for sure.

2. You don’t acquire ‘real-world’ skills

When we talk about real-world skills, it’s the technical (aka hard) skills that usually come to mind. Skills such as programming, accounting, design…the list goes on.

It seems like there’s none of these to be gained from studying literature, and employment prospects will be lower than average.

Here’s what I can share: a literature degree—and all humanities degrees in general—does impart very valuable soft skills. The first would be communication skills, because there is absolutely no way you won’t acquire this after being exposed to so many kinds of writing styles and great poetry/prose.  You’ll also learn how to present your arguments and opinions clearly and convincingly.

Another would be analytical thinking. Well, you may think, it’s not like other degrees won’t cover this anyway, and you’re right. The difference is that you get to hone it a lot more in a literature degree. When engaging with any text, for example, you’re looking at it as a product of its time. You could ask (or be asked) about how it’d look like if it were written today. You could discuss if the text challenged the status quo, or further insights you’ll gain when comparing it against the author’s corpus or fellow contemporaries works.

You will learn how to be critical of everything you read and think. Are you projecting your own lived experiences onto your understanding of a text or work? Is the narrator unreliable?

Studying literature also helps you cultivate empathy and a sense of connection with others. This helps greatly when doing any kind of design thinking work, or marketing, or job that needs you to get into a user/client/patient/charge’s shoes.

These are transferable skills that will do you good in any job or capacity. In fact, a recent survey by NTUC LearningHub found effective communication to be the top adaptive skill that employers (across six industry clusters) are looking for in the post-pandemic world[i].

3. You’re stuck in a communications or media-related field

Like me, many Literature majors enter these sectors. That’s because literature graduates have the skill sets that are a great fit for said fields, but it doesn’t mean that your options are limited. You’ll find Literature majors in publishing, teaching, business, law, marketing, public relations, and more.

Today’s job market and circumstances demand that we upskill and keep learning all the time, and the generalist nature of a literature degree opens up a lot of possibilities. You could pursue a Juris Doctor qualification; strong comprehension and communication skills will put you in good stead. You could do well in business—Michael Eisner, a former CEO of Walt Disney, double majored in literature and theatre[ii]. In an article by USA Today, he brings up how literature is ‘unbelievably helpful because no matter what business you are in, you are dealing with interpersonal relationships’[iii].

Here’s an interesting thing I learnt: the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, studied literature during his undergraduate years[iv]!

Still a bit uncertain? I understand your position: COVID-19 has made prospects for fresh grads worrying and an arts degree, in general, may feel like a huge risk to you. Here are some external resources discussing about the value of a literature (and sometimes humanities) education that may help:

  • A BBC article on how ‘worthless humanities degrees may set you up for life’
  • A British Council article on a survey on the educational background of individuals from over 30 countries (while published in 2015, it still offers interesting insights)
  • An article about parents who do not approve of their children studying literature (with insightful points)

Do remember that a minor in Literature is also an option too! I hope that, regardless of what you choose, that your university education will be a fulfilling and enjoyable time. Take care and stay safe!

[i] https://www.ntuclearninghub.com/employer-skills-report-2021/
[ii] http://www.michaeleisner.com/bio/
[iii] http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/covers/2001-07-24-bcovtue.htm
[iv] https://www.uottawa.ca/gazette/en/news/justin-trudeau-class-2017-i-have-faith-you

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