Celeste Graham

Mitt Romney. Hank Paulson. Judy McGrath. Michael Eisner. From Bain Capital to Disney to the U.S. Treasury Department, the echoes of the literary classics ring subtle but true. Yet even with the clout of those names attached to it, the English major isn’t the obvious choice for budding professionals looking to cut their teeth in fields like finance and corporate development.

At the national level, the popularity of the English major has been in steady decline since its peak in 2007, with an eye-popping 23 percent drop-off between 2013 and 2018 figures. In 2023, The New Yorker officially dubbed it “the end of the English major,” pointing to a particularly sharp decline in English degrees earned at Arizona State University.

English majors also tend to garner some less-than-positive stereotypes – think “grammar police” or “BPB” (short for “bound for parents’ basement”). As an undergrad at Dartmouth College, even my English professors themselves would joke that my additional Economics coursework was a “very wise choice” given the major it was paired with.

Yet what surprised me more than my professors’ quips was the fact that, for the most part, I was the only one in the classroom looking to trade writing papers on Oscar Wilde’s relationship to the decadent movement for a career in business.

But in an economic landscape bogged down by complex conversations about interest rate cuts and overused headlines on “the rise of AI,” the language analysis skills gained from studying literature are key for breaking through the noisy jargon – whether that’s in service of building a financial model or coming up with a new entrepreneurial venture. Knowing how to write well isn’t a bad skill either, as investors, marketers, fundraisers, and Fortune 500 CEOs alike rely on fast and clear dissemination of information.

As for upper-level management skills like persuasion and narrative crafting, the English major couldn’t be a better preparer. Throughout his time building Apple and Pixar, Steve Jobs often harkened back to one simple message: “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. They set the vision, value, and agenda of an entire generation to come.” Coca-Cola CEO Roberto Críspulo Goizueta didn’t stray far, calling effective communication “the only task you cannot delegate.”

Too Big of a Risk? Not So

But despite their importance, there’s still a serious lack of conversation around the need for these kinds of skills in a business context, both from within academia and the corporate world.

Anxious undergrads – many of whom come into college with a love for reading and writing – are left feeling as though accounting, business administration and other more “technical” fields of study are their only way into business-oriented professions. With the rising cost of college coinciding with an increasingly competitive labor market, breaking away from traditional business majors can also feel like too much of a financial risk for students to take.

While not an outright supporter of the English major specifically, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon got just about as close as we’ve seen from a high-ranking corporate exec, saying it “almost doesn’t matter” what your college major is if you want to get a job at a bank like his. But even he walked that statement back slightly, noting the added benefit of some basic business technical knowledge – which, from a man as impactful as Dimon, is enough to send a college student back to the registrar’s office with regret.

Would it be naive to say a few added economics and accounting courses didn’t help an English major like me land an internship in finance? The way it stands today, absolutely. And is the English major the right choice for every aspiring entrepreneur or CEO? Absolutely not. But signing up for Modern American Drama instead of Finance 101 is anything but a step in the wrong direction.

I’d take it a step further than the “anything goes” Dimon argument and say that studying English has the potential to accelerate a business career in a unique and nuanced way – whether that’s at an ad agency, investment bank or seed-stage startup. There’s plenty of time to learn the rest on the job.

Celeste Graham is a Bain Capital alumna, a financial content marketing consultant and freelance writer based in Boston. She can be reached at cgraham@grahamedge.com.