Published: 10 August 2015

Why study for an English literature degree?

From Stephen Fry to Reese Witherspoon, a long list of famous names have studied English literature at university. Find what the degree involves and how it can open doors to a host of exciting careers.

Most undergraduate English literature courses include poetry, theatre and novels written in English. Many start with the father of English literature, Middle Ages poet Geoffrey Chaucer, while other courses will begin even earlier with works written in Old English, then travel forwards in time to Shakespeare, the romantic poets, 19th century novels and right up to the present day.

“The course will introduce you, through literature, to new ideas, giving you a sense of how people felt in different eras around the world, giving you new ways of thinking about the world,” explains Dr Paul Vlitos, English Literature with Creative Writing Programme Director at the University of Surrey.

Is an English literature degree right for you?

An English literature degree is best suited for someone who is loves reading and discussing books. What may come as a surprise for students who have spent most of their time learning in class, however, is that a degree in English literature involves relatively few contact hours compared with other undergraduate courses such as the sciences.

Students typically spend eight to 12 hours a week in lectures or tutorials with the emphasis instead on reading, assimilating books and regularly writing essays. Critical thinking and the ability to construct a clear argument are also essential skills for students wanting to read the subject at university.

The course is not, however, limited to studying historical classics. Students have the opportunity to sink their teeth into contemporary works as well, whether that’s teen vampire fiction such as True Blood or modern sci-fi.

“One of the things we’d hope is that you would develop specialisms,” adds Dr Vlitos. “In the final year there is the chance to do a dissertation and that might focus on a specific author that you have studied and want to look at in depth. You are engaging with literature in a really critical manner, not just telling us the plot.”

What jobs can you get with an English literature degree?

As with any degree, students choose to study English literature for all different reasons, from a passion for reading to part of a definite career plan.

An English degree can take you many places such as marketing, management, publishing, PR, editing – or more traditionally, becoming a writer, librarian or teacher.

At the University of Surrey, English literature students have the opportunity to undertake a Professional Training placement year as part of the degree. This enhances employability by giving students experience in degree-related professions such as publishing, marketing, the media industries, teaching, creative writing or arts administration.

So what are the skills students gain during the course to help them stand out in a crowded job market and propel themselves on to success in the workplace? An eye for detail, presentation, and the ability to write persuasively are all highly sought-after skills that English literature students cultivate.

The degree also has a long, credible history and that is something which employers value. Dr Vlitos adds: “Employers know an English literature degree is something quite challenging and know that you must therefore be a very self-motivated individual. You are someone who can sit down, do a task and organise your time effectively.”

Discover more about English literature and creative writing degrees and the student experience at Surrey.

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