English Language and Literature Degrees: Courses Structure, Specializations & Career | Top Universities

Whether you’re captivated by Chaucer’s Middle English poetics, obsessed with the colonial subtext in the novels of Joseph Conrad, or take a keen linguistic interest in the rap music of Snoop Dogg, you’ve come to the right place. This guide is all about what to expect from English language and literature degrees, including English topics you may be able to specialize in, opportunities for a journalism career, teaching career, or careers in the arts and humanities sectors, as well as the key skills you will pick up along the way.

What does an English degree cover?

A degree in English language and literature is designed to get you reading books, analyzing theories, critiquing prose and verse, and taking a more critical look at the signs and words surrounding us every day. The aim is to get students thinking creatively and analytically about the English language; this differs from other modern language degrees as it is intended for students already proficient in written and spoken English. An English degree can focus equally on the literature and language sides, while others specialize in one or the other; this will usually be clear from the course title.

A course with a focus on English literature typically allows students to study literary texts from throughout history. Often you’ll start with modules covering a diverse range of literature from different periods; for instance, you could be reading Shakespeare one week and Virginia Woolf the next. Your reading will require you to study and analyze passages, relating texts to their cultural, social, historical and political contexts.

An English language-focused degree will train students to analyze the workings of the English language outside of literature, including language-based communication in all kinds of forms and contexts. This could include analysis of casual spoken conversation, text speak, advertising methods or the uses of language in specialized legal and medical discourse.

Entry requirements

You will often require a high-school or A-level qualification in English language or English literature. Other humanities and arts subjects, such as history and politics, are also looked kindly upon in the admissions process.

Course structure

Those looking to study English will most likely enjoy both independent and group study, but you can expect majority of time spent gaining your English degree to be undertaken solo, as much of the course will require you to commit to long periods of reading and research outside of class.

Because of this you’ll find yourself spending more time working at home or in the library than you will in seminars and lectures. Average hours of contact time with professors and fellow students vary, but you can expect approximately 10-12 hours a week in your first year and slightly longer in your following years as you take on a heavier workload. The rest of the time you are expected to conduct independent study and research for assignments as well as tackling the reading list. This solo work is often intensive, even in university holidays, and can take up around 20-30 hours a week.

As you’d expect, an English literature degree will have a strong focus on canonical and classic literature, meaning one book a week is a pretty average schedule for a single module. Bear in mind however that you will be enrolled on an average of four modules at any one time – not only is passion for literature a must, but also an ability to read fairly quickly. This intensive weekly reading is required for you to engage in criticism and analysis of the texts during lectures and seminars.

Key skills and assessment methods

The study of English literature and language will aim to stretch your independent thought and analytical skills. For this reason, lecturers will not spoon-feed you information but rather expect you to develop your understanding by reading assigned critical theory and journals along with the key texts. Seminars and group discussion provide a setting in which to test your ideas on your fellow students and gain a better understanding through idea sharing and debate.

An English degree is typically assignment-based, with essays and papers to be submitted regularly. Exams are also common, often coming at the end of each year. In some cases you may also be partly assessed based on your contributions to group discussions; the combination of assessment methods used really depends on the institution.

Depending on the country, it will take three or four years to earn a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in English, and a further one or two years to achieve a Master of Arts (MA). You may also be able to combine your studies with a second subject as a dual degree or double major, with popular combinations including English and history, philosophy, education, linguistics or a second language.

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English specializations

The chance to specialize in niche fields is common for those who study an English degree, but often once after completing your first year. This first year is commonly used to teach you basic literary theories and concepts along with a solid grounding in the history of literature and fiction. Shakespeare is also a common compulsory module.

From the second year onwards there will be a wider range of English topics and specializations to choose from, often taught by experts in each field.

Creative writing

Not all universities offer this specialization, but creative writing or other creativity-focused modules are a popular choice amongst undergraduates. This path of study will allow you to continue to analyze and read literature but with the eye of a practiced writer; be that poetry, plays, short stories or novels. The assignments will likely be creative tasks combined with analytical reports of your own work in relation to what you have been reading and researching. Students specializing in creative writing often go on to develop these skills further by studying creative writing at graduate level.

Linguistics

Although linguistics is also offered as a dedicated degree subject, an English degree also offer some linguistics modules. This will involve a deeper look into the way language works and its origins, within a more scientific framework than that commonly used in an English language and literature degree. Linguistics is also multidisciplinary and often calls upon the social sciences, allowing students to study language within the contexts of sociology and psychology. In some cases, students may also have the chance to study original or translated texts in other languages.

Postcolonial literature

The study of postcolonial literature means focusing in on issues of particular relevance to postcolonial writing, such as the construction of national narratives through history, identity and gender, diaspora, and the various debates surrounding postcolonial discourse in academia. Students will get to read a range of important postcolonial literary texts, and to explore postcolonial narratives and interpretations of contemporary culture.

Other English topics and specializations

As well as the above, other English degree specializations can include; 19th century literature, 20th century literature, contemporary literature, medieval literature, Caribbean literature, American literature, Shakespeare, modernism, feminism, playwriting and poetry.

All of these topics can be studied to an even greater level of specialization, leading to niche course titles such as Victorian Aestheticism and Decadence (Kent University, UK), Narratives of Magic and Witchcraft (Queen Mary University of London, UK), Literature and the Mind (University of California, Santa Barbara, US) and Jane Austen: Then and Now (University of Sydney, Australia).

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Careers with an English degree

As with other arts and humanities subjects, graduates with an English degree go on to pursue careers in a diverse range of roles and sectors. Often English graduates will choose to utilize their strong communication skills, along with their detailed knowledge of the written word. Popular career options for graduates with an English degree include:

Journalism and media careers

Within this wide-ranging and fast-changing industry, journalism and media career opportunities are extremely varied. English graduates are able to use their skills to work within editorial or production within print, online or broadcast media. Editorial roles require a strong attention to detail and good editing skills, while production requires a good eye for design and organization along with great communication skills.

Becoming a journalist is a highly sought-after and competitive career path, and those wishing to pursue a journalism career often invest in further study (such as a Masters in Journalism). With or without postgraduate study, those pursuing the journalism career path should make sure to build a strong portfolio before graduation, either through personal writing, paid work, or substantial contributions to university publications.

Teaching careers

Teaching careers are consistently open to English graduates due to the constant need for teachers around the world, and the high priority given to the subject at primary and secondary levels. However, this usually requires further study in order to gain a teaching qualification.

In the US, although some states require a specific graduate license teach, those who have graduated from a bachelor’s degree fit the minimum requirements so long as practical field experience, such as student teaching, has been undertaken. In countries such as the UK, you’ll need to take a PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate of Education) after your bachelor’s degree. When applying for teaching courses and placements, it will help if you have gained experience of working with children, adolescents or adult learners.

Marketing, advertising and PR careers

As an English degree graduate, you’ll have gained the great communication skills required for marketing, advertising and PR careers. Roles in each of these sectors involve working closely with people, both colleagues and clients, with a strong focus on your target audience. Once you gain some experience in the industry, you’ll have the opportunity to take on account management responsibilities, becoming an expert in how to market a particular product (which could be a sellable item, an individual person, a service or an organization).

Publishing careers

Publishing careers are again wide and varied, spanning book publishing, online publishing, scientific and medical journals, business to business (B2B) and commercial magazine publishing. Within these, common roles for English graduates include writing, researching, editing, sub-editing and copy proofing. A good first step within publishing would be an editorial or production assistant role, which typically involves both daily admin as well as editing and proof reading.

Civil service careers

Again your communication skills and attention to detail will come in handy for civil service careers. These roles are diverse but often will task you with researching and analyzing policy options, drafting material to be used as the basis for new legislation, liaising with external organizations, supporting ministers in government work and helping to manage their departments.

Other careers for English graduates

Other careers you may consider with an English degree include retail management (experience needed), politics, law or law enforcement (further qualifications needed), finance (as long as you have proven numeracy skills), sales, recruitment, library and museum work, academia (further study often required), and even teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) somewhere far away from home.

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Key Skills

Common skills gained from an English degree include:

  • Ability to critique and analyze a broad range of materials
  • Ability to communicate ideas and theories
  • Awareness of different theoretical schools and approaches to literary criticism
  • Leading and participating in discussions
  • Ability to work within a team to develop and present ideas
  • Excellent written communication skills
  • Correct use of academic citations and referencing
  • Ability to develop independent understanding of texts, concepts and theories
  • Academic research skills
  • Ability to work to independently
  • Time management and organization skills
  • Creative skills
  • Essay planning and writing skills
  • Basic IT skills
  • Knowledge of how language and literature has evolved and trends that have emerged through time