A 'How-Not-To-Style-Your-Life' Guide

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

On Being an English Student

I suppose I should start this post by setting the scene, if you will. It’s a cloudy Wednesday afternoon, March is teetering on the edge of becoming April and I’ve set up camp in a coffee shop in a half-hearted attempt to be productive. Having survived another three months of student living, I’m home again for Easter, once more indulging in the luxuries of central heating and reliable plumbing that civilisation has to offer.

Sanity vaguely intact, my second semester of university is over, and with the exception of my looming exams, so is second year in general. Instead of burying myself in my duvet with junk food and Netflix (like I usually do), this time around I thought I’d procrastinate my exam revision by writing a post all about studying English at university. Priorities!

First of all, I love university, and I say that with absolutely no hesitation. My course is fantastic and I’ve had the privilege of meeting some of the most amazing humans on the planet in the process. Everyone says it, but I really couldn’t imagine myself studying anything else, anywhere else.

Pleasantries aside, this is where the rose-tinted glasses come off and the reading glasses go on. The library is open.

There is one word that will conjure fear in the hearts of even the strongest of English students: employment. If an English student ever tells you that they're not worried about their future job prospects, they are lying to your face. English is one of those frustrating degrees that can serve as a great foundation for further education but is seldom enough to land the most sought after graduate jobs. Unlike students of medicine or veterinary science, for example, there is no clear career trajectory for us. As much as I hate the phrase, there is a level of truth in calling English a ‘gateway’ degree. It can give you the key to a multitude of careers, but it won’t always open the door for you.

This can be a disheartening and potentially expensive realisation to have halfway through your degree. Frankly, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked whether I’m going to do a law conversion or a teaching qualification once I graduate.

The saving graces of English, however, are the transferrable skills it gives you. An English degree isn’t just about studying the works of other people. Since starting university, I’ve noticed that my ability to think critically and the quality of my own writing have improved in equal measure. It really is the truth that the best way to refine your writing is to read more, and one of the best ways to do this has to be dedicating three years of your life to reading books, plays and poetry.

This leads me perfectly on to my next point: I’m basically spending £27,000 in tuition fees to read books. That’s it. For nine grand a year, I get two lectures and two seminars a week, simply being expected to spend a further 40 hours studying independently. I get six contact hours a week, which works out to roughly £60 an hour. I know my fees also go into the students’ guild and other aspects of the university, but it just seems unfair that I pay the same as a science student who receives up to 30 contact hours a week and access to facilities that stretch beyond the library. *Sips tea* but I guess that’s none of my business.

It really is unfortunate that English can be an incredibly expensive degree. When you’re reading two books a week and buying them new (which I do NOT recommend), you can be spending up to £150 on texts a term. Additionally, the amount you’ll be spending on wine because you’re expected to read TWO BOOKS A WEEK can quickly become astronomical as well. Don’t even get me started on the killer anthologies that break both your bank and your back as you lug them all the way to campus.
One of the most common things you’ll hear about an English degree is that “there’s no right or wrong answer”. One of the biggest problems that an English student can face is the subjectivity that comes from essay-based assessment. Although departmental moderation helps to standardise the grading process, at the end of the day, the mark you receive tends to be reflective of your lecturer's personal opinion. It can be heartbreaking to spend weeks researching and developing an argument, only for your grade to reflect the extent to which your marker agrees with you. Whilst thorough research and original thought will be noted and rewarded, it doesn’t always compensate for the innate subjectivity of the degree as a whole.

Despite the bad stuff, I have just one more thing to say: of all the drunken conversations that you will have in your life, your best ones will always be with English students. We have no competition. If we start trying to explain Derrida and ‘diffĂ©rance’ to you, however, just smile and nod and let us get the rage out of our systems. It won’t be long before we’re back to discussing the bourgeoisie and proletariat symbolism in Harry Potter.

If you made it to the end of this stream of consciousness, I can only thank you. If this has inspired you to write your own ‘on being a ___ student’ post, please let me know on Twitter (@ollypenderghast) because I’d genuinely love to read them! Also, if you have any other questions about studying English at university, please don’t hesitate to ask me in the comments below!
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8 comments

  1. This has been such a nice post to read and it's really made me want to do my own! If I do get round to it I shall let you know.
    But reading this I can't believe how little contact hours you get! I thought I had it harsh compared to some of my friends but this is another thing.
    It really shows how much you need to love your subject. Reading all your posts really shows you do as they're all so beautifully written.
    But still, thank you for this post, it's really interesting to see what other courses are like. If people do tweet you with their posts it would be great if you could retweet them or something alike, I'd love to read more also!

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    1. Thank you so much, Sylvia, that really means the world to me! It is quite strange when I think about how few contact hours I get but as long as I keep telling myself that it 'encourages independent thought' hopefully I'll start believing it soon... I'll be sure to share other people's posts and if you do decide to write your own I'd love to read that too!

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  2. I'm currently a year 12 student and over the past few months, though it feels like years, I've been asked several times what it is I want to do at university. An English degree has always been a possibility. I just want to ask, what exactly made you sure that it was right for you? Was it a gut feeling? Or is it something more? I feel like I'm having a breakdown trying to figure out what I want in life.

    Thank you,
    Aida (@alovesvintage on Twitter)

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    1. Firstly, congratulations on surviving your first two terms of sixth form, that in itself is highly commendable!
      English was always my favourite subject in school and I guess that lingered in the back of my mind as I considered alternative routes. Throughout secondary school and my first year of college I considered everything from law to medicine to pharmacology, but nothing ever really 'stuck'. As college progressed (and I started to fail chemistry more and more) I just sort of asked myself, why not study English? If you want to go to university but you're unsure of what you want to do when you're older, the best thing to do is pick a subject you're good at but also enjoy, and that's what English was (and still is!) to me.
      Even when you get to university, there's always a possibility that you could switch to another degree (if you present a strong enough case) so please don't feel like you're trapped in a decision you make now! It's also perfectly normal to not know what you want to do in life, that just makes you human. I hope this helps and if you have any further questions please don't hesitate to ask!

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  3. I'm going study English at Exeter next year so it's really great to hear an honest view point - I will definitely stock up on the wine ;)
    www.ruby-rubes.blogspot.co.uk

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    1. I'm so happy to hear that! Exeter is such a wonderful place and in my opinion, has one of the best English courses around. If you'd like any advice/tips specifically relating to Exeter, please don't hesitate to ask me in the future!

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  4. Absolutely loved this post! I've been a long time lover/reader of your blog and I'm so excited to say I've recently accepted my unconditional to study at Exeter Uni! Just wondering, do you have any recommendations for student accommodation/halls of residence? I really have no idea what are the best ones!

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  5. Looks like I'm super late to this party, but I thought I'd say that I really enjoyed reading this post. My mum did English lit at university and I start a creative writing degree in September, so I get what you're talking about. I also live in fear of the words "employment" and "why"

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