English Majors at Duke Pursue a Range of Career Paths

Duke junior Margaret Gaw
Duke junior Margaret Gaw, who's majoring in English and minoring in chemistry.

Duke undergraduates Margaret Gaw, Cliff Haley, and Eliza Farley each have distinct plans for the future. 

Gaw, a junior on the pre-med track, is passionate about women’s health and health policy, and has plans to become a healthcare practitioner. Farley is headed straight to law school after graduation, she said, with the ultimate goal of becoming a lawyer. And Haley, a current senior on the cusp of the real word, hopes to go into the publishing field as an editor or marketing specialist. 

An aspiring doctor, lawyer, and publisher might each have vastly different learning preferences and undergraduate experiences, but these three students have found common ground at Duke: the English major. 

Gaw, Haley, and Farley all chose to major in English largely for the versatile set of skills and experiences that an English course of study offers. The antiquated stereotype that paints English as an impractical or even worthless degree couldn’t be further from the truth.

For Gaw, English and literature form a bridge between two worlds. As she studies medicine, a field rooted in science and objective research, Gaw found that delving into literature offered a new, invaluable perspective.

“In order to be a really caring and compassionate and competent healthcare practitioner, I’m looking to get a foundation in the humanities,” Gaw said, “because so much of healthcare is relational.”

The ability to understand and sympathize with patients is key to being an effective doctor, Gaw said. While a pre-med curriculum doesn’t place emphasis on the humanities and social studies, Gaw is able to fill these gaps with her English courses. 

“Through our classes, through reading and writing and discussing these incredible works, I'm just getting a whole new view of people and their environments,” Gaw said.

While taking Professor Corina Stan’s English course, Living with Others: Stories of Migration, Gaw noticed the connections between literature and healthcare. In both fields, one should have an understanding of human nature and knowledge of a range of human stories. 

Much of Professor Stan’s course focused on migrant and refugee experiences. As a future doctor, Gaw is grateful she read these stories. “If a refugee walks into a medical clinic and the physician has no background in understanding a humanistic approach to care for that person,” Gaw said, “I just don't think that they would have as effective care as someone who has read these books and has discussed different refugee experiences. It just adds so much more dimension to a person's understanding.”

But Gaw doesn’t study English solely for the purpose of elevating her career in healthcare, she said. She’s always loved reading and critically thinking about literature. Her English courses also sharpen her writing abilities, she said, which will help her communicate in the medical field and all aspects of post grad life.  

English majors spend four years honing their writing and communication skills, valuable assets in every corner of the professional world. That’s why studying English leads to such a broad, comprehensive wealth of career opportunities. 

The list goes on and on: English majors become teachers, novelists, brand strategists, content managers, communication officers, journalists, lawyers, and publishers.

“We English majors are good with words,” Haley said, the Duke senior pursuing a career in publishing. “Companies everywhere need people to write.”

Publishing is a relatively common path for English majors, and with good reason. “English has taught me what makes a book compelling and why,” Haley said. “It’s also taught me key skills regarding communication and articulation of opinions and thoughts.”

Many other English majors simply hope to build a career based on their love of English and writing. Senior Arden Schraff, who’s supplementing her English major with a creative writing minor, said she’s interested in freelance writing and becoming a novelist. 

English majors often become authors and professors, but it’s a misconception that these are the only careers they pursue. In reality, traditional careers like these only scratch the surface of the roles that English majors play in our society. 

There are countless varied reasons to major in English, but for Gaw, one thing is quite simple. Reminiscing about her high school days in AP Literature and reflecting on fascinating roundtable discussions, Gaw offered the most compelling reason of all. “It’s just really fun,” she said.