The Magic Building Where English Majors Work: Making Sense of Creative Writing’s Job Problem

September 10, 2014 | 22 8 min read

[Note: The student I describe is a composite character of many students I’ve met in my 20 years of teaching.]

A few months ago, Tracy came to my office. She was majoring in something practical, “but I love reading, and I love writing,” she said.

She wanted me to talk her into becoming a creative writing major. But she needed assurances.

Her eyes got a little dreamy. “I know that somewhere out there, there’s a building where I can work and get paid to do what I love. Tell me. What is that building?” she asked. “How do I find it?”

My heart broke a little then, because once upon a time, I dreamed about that building, too. “Well, there isn’t just one building,” I said. “There are thousands of buildings.”

“You mean publishing houses,” she said, nodding her head.

I hear this a lot from students: I want to work in publishing. Usually it means that they love the world of books more than they actually want to be writers—and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

So I told her about a class we offered on Literary Editing and Publishing. I told her about the internship program in New York to which she could apply. “But Tracy, I want you to know that it’s hard to get a job in publishing. At least in the way that you imagine it.”

“It is?” She looked incredulous.

“Yeah, there’s this thing you might have heard of. It’s called ‘the internet.’ Traditional publishing—books, magazines, newspapers—it’s all shrinking.”


“But independent and small press publishing is growing.” I told her all about it.


“But you need to know this. Many people who do it have a day job and work on their publishing ventures on the side.”

“But what about…” She named a best-selling book by a self-published author.

“Yes,” I said. “There are some success stories, but that’s not what happens most of the time. The problem is that there are more people who desperately want to be writers than there’s a readership to completely absorb them.”

I shared stuff like the 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing.

“Oh,” she said. “I figured with all things that are published, I could find a job as an editor.”

“Well, you probably wouldn’t search in terms of editor.” I hate saying this, but it’s the truth. “Search for words like communications and content.”

I did a quick Google search and found a full-time job in Connecticut for an English major to serve as a “communications specialist.”

Her face lit up. “What kind of company is it?”

I scanned the website. “They make welding electrodes and filler wires.”

“Oh.” Her face fell.

“It’s a full-time job where you would think critically, communicate clearly, solve problems, and apply your writing skills.”

No response.

“You’d get to travel to trade shows.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t see myself doing something like that,” she said.

“Why not?”

“I’d feel like I wasn’t really using my degree.”

“But it says right here they’re looking for an English major.”

“I love books!” she said, “not welding.”

“I know, I know,” I said, “but with a good job and good insurance, you’d have a stable life and money for books and maybe time to write, too.”

She looked around my office, at the books lining my shelves, the pile of stories waiting to be read, the three 20-page proposals that needed to be read by 3 o’clock for the College Curriculum Committee. “I’d really love to do what you do,” she said. “Teach English.”

“You want to major in English Education? Teach high school?”

“No, I want to teach college. How do I do that?”

I sighed. “Become a writer.”

Her eyes lit up again. “Yes, that’s what I want!”

“You’d go to graduate school.”



Tracy’s eyes practically rolled back in her head. “Yes!”

And even though she was still a [pre-professional major], not an English major, I pictured the day in the near future when she’d come to me asking for a letter of recommendation. Every time I write one, I ask myself: Am I contributing to the contingent faculty crisis in English?

In the last 20 years, I’ve written approximately 50 letters for students applying to graduate creative writing programs, and only two of them are currently in tenure-line jobs. The rest are pretty evenly split between those in non-tenure line jobs in academia and those working outside academia entirely.

When is the right time to tell people about their job prospects? In graduate school? Before they even apply to graduate school? Or sooner than that even—in their first creative writing class? Never? Let them Google it because it’s just too depressing otherwise?

I hadn’t even read a word of her writing yet, but I knew how Tracy’s story might go. I decided to be honest.

I took a deep breath. “Look, I need to explain something to you, Tracy. Last year, 4000 students earned a graduate degree in creative writing. And do you know how many tenure-track teaching jobs there were to which they could apply?”

“A thousand?” she guessed.

“A hundred.” I showed her the report from AWP to prove it.

“Oh.” She looked at the floor. “But what about Professor Jones? I had him for freshman composition. He’s a writer, and he teaches. He got one of those 100 jobs.”

That’s when I explained the utter unfairness that Professor Jones was one of our amazing full-time contingent faculty members. He’d published multiple books and had applied for hundreds of tenure-track jobs in the five years since he’d graduated with his MFA. “No, he hasn’t gotten one of those 100 jobs. Not yet.”

“But he’s teaching and writing, just like you,” she said.

That’s when I explained the utter unfairness that Professor Jones made half of what I made for doing pretty much the same job. I pointed to my computer screen, to the job at the welding company waiting in Connecticut. “You’d probably make as much there with your BA as he does right now with a graduate degree. Maybe more.”

Tracy pulled at her hair. “But it’s not fair! They told me to go to college and follow my dreams! Where am I supposed to work?”

“Please calm down. This isn’t the only job in the country,” I said. “It’s just the first one that came up on Google.”

But I knew why Tracy was angry. All my students are dealing with a post-employment economy and a trillion dollars of student loan debt. I recognize the looks on their faces. I grew up with a father full of the same righteous anger and disillusionment. He hired out on the railroad when he was 20 years old and fully expected that he’d have a job for life. But then the economy changed. The world changed. How many times did I find him quietly seething in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette, shaking his head in rage and disbelief?

That look broke me.

I was Tracy’s age when I went to see my college professors to discuss what I should do with my life. Even though I was a first-generation college student, no one dissuaded me from majoring in creative writing or from applying to graduate programs. There was no reason to.

At that time, there were only 10 undergraduate creative writing programs in the country.

Today there are 592.

When I was in college (1987-1991), there were only about 50 graduate creative writing programs in the country.

Today there are 418.

And honestly, even if my professors had tried to dissuade me, I wouldn’t have listened. I wouldn’t have wanted to take that job at the welding company either. And because I was born at the right historical moment—before all this started to happen–and because I got my graduate degree just as the number of tenure-track creative writing jobs started to open up, I landed my first job (with no book) and have remained employed ever since.

If I was 26 right now rather than 46, maybe I’d say, Screw it, and do something else for a living.

Or maybe not.

Poor Tracy. Oh Christ, all the Tracys in this country looking for that magic building. Who believed all that marketing jazz from colleges all over this country. Your future starts here! Knowledge to go places! Tracy just wants her degree to mean something, and the key is finding the magic building where all the English majors work.

“Oh God,” Tracy says, “how am I supposed to pay back my student loans?”

I asked her how much she owed, and she told me. I swallowed. Hard. Also, I’d like to mention that Tracy had a child/a sick parent/a dying grandparent.

“Tracy, do you want to be a writer?”

She thought about it for a second. “I don’t know.”

I gave her the short version of this advice, which I’ve been giving for years. The job you get after graduation has nothing to do with whether or not you are a writer. And applying to (and being accepted into) a graduate writing program has nothing to do whether or not you are a writer. “If what you love is reading,” I said, “why don’t you major in literature?”

“Because creative writing is more practical.”

I almost choked on my coffee. “Oh my. What kind of classes do you think we offer in the creative writing major?”

Tracy paused. “Well, I figure it’s like the bookstore. There’s a mystery section, a young adult section, biographies, graphic novels. You know. And we learn how to write them.”

I patted her hand. “I’m so sorry. It’s not like that at all.” I explained that the taxonomy of creative writing was about choosing a genre.

“Right,” Tracy said. “That’s what I said. Choosing a genre.”

“Not that kind of genre.” I counted them off on the fingers. “Fiction. Poetry. Creative Nonfiction. Screenwriting. Playwriting.”

“So you’re saying I major in creative writing and get a job as a fiction writer or a screenwriter!” Her eyes got bright again.

“Or maybe something else.” I counted them off. Marketing. Teaching. Tech Writing. Non-profits. Publishing. I ran out of fingers, but I kept going. Library science. Law school. Student Affairs. Business. Publishing. Television. Peace Corps. Politics.

Tracy look frightened.

“We don’t give you the map,” I said. “We show you a sky full of stars to navigate by.” I broke out my horrible faux British accent. “’All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.’”


It’s a poem. About finding your way without a map.”

“Screw that. I want the map.” She raised her voice to me a little, using a tone I’ve come to call “buyer’s remorse.” Tracy said, “I want you to teach me how to get one of those jobs you just mentioned.”

“We will! We’ll teach you how to write and think and speak and read and analyze and empathize and imagine.”

“But then why don’t you change the major from all those genres to something I can actually beeeee,” she pleaded.

“Like this, you mean.” I pulled up my university website and navigated to the Department of Technology and its degree programs.

I explained that my brother had graduated from this very university from this very department twenty years earlier. He went straight into a good paying engineering job with a company that made automobile parts.

“In this major, they identify the things you can beeeee…” I counted them off on my fingers:

1. A computer technologist
2. A construction-site manager
3. A graphic arts manager
4. A manufacturing engineer
5. A high-school teacher of technology

I held up my other hand. “And they create a curriculum that tracks you right into those careers.”

1. Computer Technology
2. Construction Management
3. Graphic Arts Management
4. Manufacturing Engineering
5. Technology Education

I brought my hands together with a clap.

Tracy shook her hands in the air. “Yessssssssssssss! It makes so much sense! But here’s what you guys in Creative Writing do!” She ticked off the five genres on one hand:

1. Fiction
2. Poetry
3. Creative Nonfiction
4. Screenplay
5. Playwriting

And on her other hand, she ticked off five “random” careers that our students have landed lately:

1. Residence Hall Director
2. Associate Professor of Communication Studies
3. Staff writer for BuzzFeed
4. Career Adviser at a small, liberal arts college
5. MFA student/poet/reading series coordinator

Tracy brought her hands together crosswise. “They don’t match up. Well, except for that one guy who got into grad school for poetry. How are the rest of us supposed to know what to do when we graduate?”

“You turn the wheel,” I said, reaching over and rotating her crossed hands until her fingers aligned.

“How do I do that?” She’d never looked more serious.

“With your mind.” I touched the side of my head. “And transferable skills.”

“You have to teach us how to turn the wheel!” Tracy said. “You can’t just expect that we’ll know how to navigate on a starry night.”

“I’ll give you that,” I said. “We could do better. But that’s also what the Career Center is for. Have you ever gone there?”

She looked like she might punch me.

“Tracy, do you know what happened to my brother?”

“He became CEO of the company.” She crossed her arms sullenly.

“No. He changed companies just as the economy crashed in 2008. He lost his job, and there weren’t any others like it in the region. He needed to think of something else to be, but for a long time, he couldn’t. And do you know why?”

Finally, she got it. “Because he didn’t major in creative writing.”

I smiled. “Sort of.”

“Because of this.” She brought her hands together. “Because they only gave him one star to steer by.”

I wanted to hug her then. “You don’t go to college to train for your first job, but for a lifetime of jobs,” I said. “That’s the real world.”

I told her to sign up for our Intro to Creative Writing class. “If you love it, then consider changing your major. Or stick with [her pre-professional major] and get a creative writing minor.”

Tracy thanked me and walked out the door. I’ve never seen her again, but I hope she found what she was looking for.

I really, really mean that.

Image: Flickr/Kevin Dooley

has been teaching undergraduate and graduate fiction workshops for 20 years, most recently at Ball State University. She’s the author of The Circus in Winter (2004) which was a finalist for the Story Prize and has been adapted into a musical, and Comeback Season (2008). Her stories and essays have appeared most recently in PANK, Inside Higher Education, and Necessary Fiction. She writes about novel writing (and teaching novel writing) at her blog, The Big Thing.


  1. Wow, thanks for writing this. I graduated with an English major four years ago and got an unrelated job right away–thankfully. But I’m starting to wish I had given the publishing thing a try, and have even been thinking about making a career change. The truth is though, I’m not willing to be an unpaid intern after having a good salary and benefits.

  2. Thorough, interesting piece. Thank you for your insights. I got an English degree 100 years ago and made a decision never to take a non-writing job. I’ve been a journalist, a business writer, a marketing writer and a nonprofit writer. I’ve sought ongoing education in the fields in which I was writing as well as in writing and editing. It’s been a good career and one I could have never predicted when I was in college. It’s completely possible to apply creativity to all kinds of writing and it’s meaningful to do so. That being said, I later did an MFA and now make little money but love writing fiction and poetry. The truth is, any time I’m writing, any kind of writing, I feel lucky to be doing what I love.

  3. Hi Cathy,

    Good points. I’m class of ’91, and took creative writing undergrad, and soon found that writing was unlikely to pay bills. Eventually I went overseas and taught English, and ended up teaching eight years in various countries. While it’s not for everyone, anyone with a four-year degree, even in non language fields, can get a solid job, and it’s something very conducive to writing.

    Often I read articles like yours, and how writers struggle to find jobs at home, and I think, “Why not teach overseas?” It may not be for everyone, and having kids or other obligations might make it hard, but teaching ESL is perfect for the single recently graduated aspiring writer. It can help pay off student loans and, for myself, gave me experience that I’ve used in later writings, and this has paid dividends. And whether saving or paying off loans at $5,000+ a year, it’s a great cultural learning experience that can allow the writer time to figure out the next step in life, even if it’s to return home and enroll in an MFA program.

  4. ” ‘I never pay my insurance policy,’ Moreland said, ‘without envisioning the documents going through the hands of Aubrey Beardsley and Kafka, before being laid on the desk of Wallace Stevens.’ ” (from Dance to the Music of Time)

  5. This article was probably well-intentioned, and it makes some valid points, but the tone is unbelievably condescending and off-putting.

    Also, is it just me or does the Millions constantly churn out these cautionary tale pieces about MFAs/creative writing/publishing, and if so, why? Are there really that many people out there laboring under an illusion of bountiful tenure track jobs and a huge reading public?

  6. Some of these magical buildings where English majors work are the buildings that house technical writing companies. I know you mentioned tech writing in your post, but I wish to emphasize it a bit more – while not an easy career by any means, it is often easier to get into tech writing than, say, marketing.

    Technical writing companies (and in-house jobs in various companies that hire technical writers for their own needs) do come in two flavors though: one emphasizing English, the other emphasizing engineering. I used to work for a company emphasizing English, and most people there were various types of English majors. The office of one of our competitors was just a few blocks down the street, and most people working there were engineers.

    You did not touch the subject of minors to any great degree, but that is one point I’d also emphasize for any generalist degree. Get some tangible and useful minors, they can really help when looking for a job.

  7. Cathy, great post. As the Career Adviser at a small liberal arts college mentioned in the article, I have these kinds of conversations frequently. The ideal, as you put across, is to balance encouragement with a healthy dose of reality. I never tell students they shouldn’t major in what they love, especially if that’s creative writing–but I also want them to understand that they may need to think creatively about how to use their degree. This includes considering nontraditional career paths outside of the usual publishing/teaching dichotomy.

  8. Lol at advising Tracy to work for a welding electrode company. She does sound like an idiot though, maybe it would be a good fit.

  9. Excellent piece. It is important for students to understand how difficult it is to get their dream job. For almost 30 years I have practiced law but I have also written seven books and edited an anthology. That’s in addition to writing for such publications as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and blogging for La Bloga on Latino literature. It can be done. I’m lucky that I enjoy my day job and in some ways I feel quite free because I don’t have to use my creative writing to put food on the table.

  10. Oh Cathy, what a great piece (as all yours are)! I think it’s fascinating, though, how many students it sounds like have this grand illusion that writers (with MFAs or otherwise) don’t have to hold down other jobs. From so much I’ve read, for most all writers, it’s a balance of day job and craft (which comes down to “Who’s hungry enough to stick with it and want it more in the end”). Purpose, passion, and persistence. Good luck to Tracy and all the others students you advise who aren’t entirely convinced otherwise.

  11. Sorry– what I have to say is going to come across as arrogant, frustrated, and dismissive, but I’m certainly frustrated, I’m sometimes dismissive, and I’ve lived long enough to have earned a smidgen of arrogance. Sorry also that I have to say it all anonymously. I don’t flatter myself that my reputation as a writer could be damaged by posting a comment of dissent. Rather, I have really good friends who chose the path described in this piece, and while they know my position, it’s not something I like to flaunt online.

    {A few months ago, Tracy came to my office. She was majoring in something practical, “but I love reading, and I love writing,” she said.}

    ^ Okay. Stuff like this is where it all falls apart, re: creative writing at the university level. “Practical” could be anything from nursing to tourism to urban planning to philosophy in preparation for law. Professionals in all those fields still find time to read, write, and, yes, publish.

    Even as an 18 year-old freshman, I felt that a BFA in Creative Writing was little more than a vanity degree. Looking at Ball State’s own website, the degree requires the bare bones university core curriculum (which is simply a re-hashing of information already learned in high school, but in an auditorium with hundreds of other students suffering through pre-recs and a grad assistant who is likely complaining about their teaching load on Facebook in between classes), then about two years’ worth of fluff workshops, none of which prepare a student for earning an income that will allow them to pay off loans, take out more loans for cars and houses, afford the children they will likely one day conceive, and save for retirement. Even the most romantic bohemian 99-percenter has to figure out a way to pay rent on their studio apartment someday. And, someday, they’ll figure out that medical insurance is pretty important, too. The Exchange might make insurance accessible, but it sure as heck doesn’t make it cheap, and the last I checked, steep discounts weren’t offered to students of postmodern poetry.

    As a side note, I find it totally appalling that a four-year undertaking in the art of communication requires only two years of a foreign language. Dedication to languages would at least give the appearance of an academic underpinning to a BFA in Creative Writing. If a person wants to make a study of words, they should learn linguistics, the ability to translate, a first-hand awareness of creative writing across the globe… Why sell Creative Writers short? Why not do them a favor and at least let them add semi-fluency in another language to their Real World resumes? A certificate of translation studies or TEFL studies? A double major, even?

    All that said, Universities are obviously profiting from students’ willful ignorance- we have the evidence in the explosion of programs being offered, from Princeton to the no-name low-res- don’t think for a minute that these institutions are offering Creative Writing programs simply to bestow employment upon talented writers. Maybe one day the fad will fade. Students like the one having this conglomerated conversation with the author of this creative nonfiction piece will start having these conversations with the 25 year-olds teaching them Freshman Comp, instead, and they’ll realize that if you love to read, you’ll read. If you yearn to write, you’ll write. Your writing will only improve by doing it regularly and reading as much as you can, as closely as you can. If, after that, you are resourceful, motivated, and, hopefully, talented, you will publish. And you’ll be no further behind those kids who got suckered into spending tens of thousands of dollars to get feedback on their writing, from other kids, before they’d even had a chance to become adults with anything to say.

  12. The student and her advisor have made the fatal assumption that one goes out and “gets” a job. No. College and university should teach skills which enable a person to “make” a job for themselves, based on those skills, and remake it from time to time. That is the heritage of the educated person.

  13. A few months ago, Tracy came to my office. She was majoring in something practical, “but I love square dancing,” she said.

    She wanted me to talk her into becoming a square dancing major. But she needed assurances.

    Her eyes got a little dreamy. “I know that somewhere out there, there’s a building where I can work and get paid to do what I love. Tell me. What is that building?” she asked. “How do I find it?”

    “It’s a barn.”

  14. I wanted to be a poet, and I earned a BA in 1988 focused on literature and history, then got jobs as word processor, desktop publisher, hitchhiking busker, web designer, and web developer from 1989 to 2004. I steered my way through the world, and all that time I wrote poetry. I did not know about any MFA programs in those days. I earned a MS in Geographic Information Science, which is essentially cartography, and now I earn a good salary making maps.

    For three years now, I have been writing an epic poem which I call Hermead about the lives of philosophers and scientists, and have so far written 100,000 lines of blank verse about 26 Greek philosophers. While I am not a creative writing professor, or even considered a poet by anyone other than myself, I am having a great time writing my epic after working all day as a cartographer.

    I prepared for a life time of jobs and I am still sailing by the stars as I write my epic about ancient astronomers.

  15. Ha. . . this advice is gold. I’m in the skilled trades right now and I’m going to school part time with English Major. The real world is a real messed up place. I only wish I found that out sooner.

  16. Such a funny and sad article!

    Devil’s Advocate: I do agree with your final point — that readers and writers always find a way to read and write, regardless of their jobs or degrees (just ask Eliot or Stevens). And though practice does makes perfect, you likely won’t fame you so richly (maybe) deserve, regardless of advanced degrees or internships or shiny hair or your mother’s effusive praise. Like so much in life, it isn’t fair, dammit.

    But, the dismissal of English majors as flabby thinking wastrels and dreamers with no job prospects is a cliche that bears re-examination. Cathy Day is correct — over and over we hear that employers (yes, welding companies and studios and transit authorities and hospitals and non-profits and software creators and banks and so on) are reporting the need for people who actually read and write English well. Apparently, it’s a rare commodity.

    While I can’t speak to the MFA conundrum, I can assert that there IS life after a BA in English.

    My own daughter was a dreaded “Literature” major at a university famous for turning out scientists and computer engineers. Ignoring all the snide comments from the future technocrats and doctors, she happily studied poetry with a Nobel prize-winning poet and graduated with an honors degree in — Jane Austen ( I hear you groaning! ) 3 years later, after paying her dues as go-fer for a large, nationally-known conglomerate, she was promoted to a “creative” position with salary and benefits, where every day she is challenged to create and write and edit to deadline. Sometimes it’s hard and awful and less than perfect — but she gets to write and be creative every day.

    And she didn’t even have to learn a foreign language — her “Vanity Degree” plus a lot of sweat and tears sufficed. Something to think about. . .

  17. I majored in creative writing (English education major/creative writing emphasis). I attended university 1959-1964, working my way through as a typist/file clerk. Received also a master of arts degree in English/creative writing emphasis) years later in 1979 after being a housewife from 1965-1971. But never could find jobs other then temporary typing or selling classified ads on the phone for $1.65 an hour in the early 1970s. As the years passed and competition with Baby Boomers arose, which weren’t in the 1959 college student generation (the silent generation born 1929-1942), jobs became scarcer.

    My goal of teaching creative writing in community college using my M.A. degree was never realized except for one day of substitute teaching for someone on leave for that day. So I wrote many paperback books and published them myself (print on demand). If there was the possibility of majoring in another subject when I attended college 1959-1964 and 1976-1979, I would have chosen a major that can’t really be outsourced where there are more jobs than people to fill those jobs, not the opposite. Now, in my retirement years where I am not earning any work-related income, freelancing has dried up for seniors such as myself who are writing at home online. So I write a daily blog (no pay) for writing practice and intellectual curiosity. I’m a low-income senior citizen using public transportation living in a working-class neighborhood and have decided the jobs often go to people with connections and contacts, assuming abilities are equal in the writing field. Has the market changed for freelancers?

    Most of the print magazines I used to write for that paid me a dime a word have dried up. And the last time I was offered pay for an article a day, it was a fraction of a penny per click, if anyone clicked on my article or the ad placed under it. There comes a time when writing creatively for less than half a penny per click isn’t worth it, since few people click on unknown writers or read unknown writer’s books, especially those who are very low income, low mobility seniors who are over age 75 and better.

    If I had it to do over, I’d be a high-school or college calculus teacher. At least there would be less competition for jobs and not more people trained for teaching or career counseling jobs than there are jobs available to those without connections or paid experience. I thought about majoring in computer science, but computer languages change as technology advances. Where’s the demand for Fortran teachers nowadays? I did like editing technical manuals, though in the mid 1970s. Too bad nobody offered me a permanent job as a technical editor back then.

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  19. I was a creative writing undergrad, and I wouldn’t change that for anything. I’m also grateful that when senior year rolled around, one of my professors encouraged me to wait to pursue an MFA. I started a career in marketing, discovered a passion for technology (for those who love to learn and be creative, digital marketing is a great discipline), paid off my student loans, and continued to write all the while. Now, I am in a well-regarded low residency MFA program that I can afford without financial hardship. Of course, teaching has never been my personal dream, but there is another advantage to keeping your art and livelihood mostly separate. A day job counteracts the inevitable rejections that come with writing. I have had good luck with publishing, but also many rejections, and I don’t think I would have weathered them well had I not been succeeding in another area of my life. I was deeply insecure and unsure on my feet when I first graduated college. Now I actually enjoy the process of publishing (including receiving rejections) because my identity isn’t 100% tied to how my writing “performs.” Its enough that I love to do it.

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