Thursday, July 11, 2013

Why Steve Strauss should stop hiring English majors and hire some scientists instead

Recently, a few people I know shared this column on Facebook. Written by Steve Strauss, a lawyer/author and self-described "small business expert", the short piece from the Huffington Post makes the case that English majors are pretty much the bee's knees. Strauss prefers to hire English majors for a variety of roles, as he explains:
I love English majors. I love how smart they are. I love their intellectual curiosity. And I love their bold choice for a major. Most of all, I love to hire them. 
A recent article by the great David Brooks in the New York Times about the changing nature of the Humanities in higher education just reinforced why, when given my druthers, English majors are my employee of choice. 
And the reason is not that I am a writer; I more consider myself an entrepreneur than anything else. I run a small business and the people I hire do a variety of tasks -- SEO, project management, social media, and so forth. 
For my money (literally and figuratively), for my needs, and I suggest the needs of most small businesses, English majors are easily the top choice when it comes to getting the type of teammate who can make us all better, as they say in basketball.
Strauss goes on specify some key traits apparently endemic to the English major population. These are: (1) English majors are smart and creative independent thinkers, more so than business majors; (2) English majors are bolder risk-takers than others; (3) English majors are always better writers; and (4) English majors are easy to work with.

I suspect many scientists will disagree. I take issue with the broadness of Strauss's assertions--though he never claims to have broadly surveyed skillsets of humanities scholars, his descriptors read like mere feel-good fluff. Yes, there are English majors who have those characteristics, and many English majors are successful. But "rigor" and "difficult assignments" are not essential traits of the undergraduate English experience.  While English may allow deep thinking, it doesn't absolutely require it, and it's certainly easier to skate through an English degree than, say, one in chemical physics or organic chemistry.

You see more chemists who also know literature than you see literary analysts who know molecular orbital theory. But isn't that just because science is more specialized? Well, yes and no. Individual fields of science certainly have their own jargon, methodology, and bodies of knowledge. But the scientific process is fairly universal, and you see people switch fields in their BS/PhD and PhD/postdoc transitions.

That all sounds harsh, of course, and borders on the increasingly-prevalent-but-misguided attitude of "cut the humanities, boost only employable fields". So to clarify: I like the humanities. I really do. I've always enjoyed literature and music (both production and consumption), and I think their study is vital for making a person more culturally aware and well-rounded. I have opinions on writers and composers. I was one of those people who didn't whine about general-education requirements interfering with "real" coursework. But assigning top general employability status to English majors overlooks a key group of students who, when successful, possess all the abovementioned skills and more: science majors.

The case for hiring science majors

As previously mentioned, Strauss touted the creativity of English majors and their ability to think analytically. Creativity is essential to good science as well; skilled researchers tend to be creative people who see alternate ways to solve problems. Moreover, scientists find solutions that work, based on reality and reproducibility. This clarification is important, because "analysis" means very different things in scientific and non-scientific circles. However, scientists are quite good at two things: (1) finding information; and (2) evaluating information.

Strauss also claims English majors are superior risk-takers. But scientists are too. They have to be. Good research is always at the edge of knowledge--which means it might not work. Bench time might be wasted. A six-year PhD might produce no results and lead to no job. Ideas might get defunded and banished to obscurity. Going to grad school is a tremendous risk. So is working for an untenured professor, or starting a brand-new project. So the advantage here again goes to scientists. Additionally, scientific risk-taking is grounded in reality--helpful for businesses.

What other employable traits do scientists tend to have? Work ethic: long hours are the norm and determination over long periods of time (ca. 5 years) is required. Versatility: the scientific method is employable between variant research areas but also to management and business decisions. Technical skills: this probably goes without saying, but intimate knowledge of scientific theory and technique isn't easily gleaned from Google. Even in non-bench roles, this can be quite important. Teamwork: whereas writing English papers is a solitary venture, lab research is done in groups, and collaboration between students and labs on the experiment or project scale is commonplace. Objectivity: whereas the humanities stress the voice and identity of the individual (subjectivity), science emphasizes minimization of bias. This is useful in risk assessment, evaluation, project design, etc.

All in all, I think science majors sound pretty employable.

What we can learn from our English-wrangling colleagues

The claim about English majors being superior writers is also worth examining. Do English majors write? Yes. Do they write a lot? Most of them. Do they write well? The good ones write academic papers well, but an increased vocabulary and flowery verbiage doesn't mean good communication. Of course, many English majors are good communicators, but the degree doesn't guarantee that. And not having an English degree doesn't mean you can't write just as well as someone who has one.

It's worth noting that significant differences exist between scientific/technical and academic (non-scientific) writing. In another life, I worked closely with undergraduate writing tutors. Most were English majors, and as a lot they were very intelligent. But all of them were horrid at actually helping science students improve their communication skills. The result was a continuous stream of frustrated chemistry students with half-mangled lab reports. The writing process is fundamentally different across the humanities/science divide, which makes me skeptical that the garden-variety English major would be good at writing in a technical or scientific context (where content is highly specific, highly technical, and verbal economy is vital). Some are good at it, but it's not because of Chaucer.

That being said, scientists themselves are very commonly awful writers. Those who deny this or think it's not important are simply either ignorant or delusional. Then again, scientists are perhaps more likely to be blunt and direct, which has its appeal. Regardless, it's probably good for budding scientists to take all the writing experience they can get and to pay attention not only to the facts of what they write but the organization and presentation. Clear communication makes ideas easier to sell, cuts down on wasted time, and improves work efficiency. The ability to write well (more than just JACS communications) can be a huge selling-point when building an employment skillset, as it extends to grants, business proposals, technical reports, and intellectual property claims.

A final anecdote.

A friend of mine switched from pre-med to business during undergrad and found himself in a business database systems class. The class entailed a team-based project wherein each group of students needed to create a database system for a local business. Several of the born-and-bred business majors insisted that the class was probably the most difficult in the university. Having taken two years of pre-med coursework, my friend pointed out the difficulty and rigor in the hard sciences, especially in independent research. Oh, no way, the business majors insisted, scientific research is just following recipes.

The piece is short, so it's worth reading.  Do also peruse the comment section, which is rife with people praising Strauss's words and/or correcting each others' grammar/diction. 


  1. For your consideration...

    When I was in college *cough* many years back now, science majors were still expected to complete 3 humanities courses. I recall one literature course where I read 7 novels in the space of 9 weeks, then wrote long essays on themes like "What is Honor?" or "Define Dystopias in Modern Society."

    Contrast with one of my family members, who re-enrolled in (not science) as a non-traditional student earlier this year. They are expected to take two science courses, and may choose from options like Earth Sciences, Psychology 101, and... "Meteorology."

    Two ways to view this: Should we balk at English majors for dodging tough science courses? Or should we question if our departments are shortchanging them by offering them sinecures in place of real science?

    1. Departments are influenced by a desire to reach as many students as possible (mostly, the wallets of those students), and thus the sciences now compete for the most "appetizing" science course. That's unfortunate, really, because as you mentioned, literature courses offered to scientists are quite often comparable to what majors would take (which is good, I think).

      For now, Physics for Poets reigns.

      Part of it, too is probably scope. Broad-but-shallow review courses attract the attention of those interested in "the human condition". There's probably more perceived value in a broad approach than specific, deeper courses (e.g. Introductory Biochemistry, etc). Problem is that science at its core isn't just topical--it is about the process/depth. That's more easily shown in a narrower course, and it is a worry that survey courses don't give humanities students the same level of value that a literature course gives scientists.

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    3. There are plenty of intro humanities courses, many focused on art history more so than English. My university had writing requirements as part of gen ed coursework, which meant the introductory creative writing courses were always full. There's easier options for every subject.

  2. I sense that Mr. Strauss does not hire full-time employees, but has a lot of temps. I sense that an unspoken one is "English majors are used to crummy wages, and doing freelance work."

  3. I think the English majors call this an "apologia".

    I work in a chemistry department as an editor. I've got a fancy writing degree and less fancy soc-sci degrees, and a decade's wandering around in chem and biochem, coursework, benchwork, writing. I've spent a lot of time with both English and chemistry majors.

    I don't have time to argue with all the many defenses you're mounting here (and very defensive they are), but I will say that I think you're missing the point, which is that these are two different kinds of work which attract distinct temperaments; the cultures in the two disciplines are also distinct.

    If you're running a business, and you need a peopleish person who's inventive and charming and flexible and doesn't mind looking stupid so long as some of the many schemes work, and can put a sentence together, I'd say go find yourself a nice English major, someone who's dreamed away untold hours reading stories about how people do. Preferably hours paid for by someone else. And if you need someone who'll show up on the dot and follow directions and streamline processes and come up with clever new systems and be thorough and respect a chain of command and suck it up well without flouncing away, go get you a chem major. Which is to stereotype wildly, but do I think there's truth in it, yeah.

    Chemists' bad writing isn't bad because it's blunt. I just finished reading The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz -- bluntness a-plenty in there, and it's a terrific book. No. Chemists' bad writing is bad because it's unaware audience exists, is inarticulate, hopeless with a narrative, jargon-ridden, lede-burying, resentful of the task, and mutely stolid. (Chemists' good writing is, of course, a beauty to behold.) English majors tend to have these things in their writing roundly abused, if not beaten into submission, by junior year.

    As for the hardworking grad slave in chem thing: Yeah, and plenty of them decide afterwards that they never, ever want to work that hard again. I can't argue.

    See Arr Oh -- re your question: the short answer is "the customer is always right". If you want a captive market you'll have to go invade K12.

    1. I agree with you 100% on the reason chemists write poorly. The "writing across the curriculum" movement is partially responsible--basically, it tells scientists that because they take a lab course with an instructor untrained in writing pedagogy who has them write an extra-special lab report, they're getting a writing education.

    2. Actually the problem starts long before that, back in K12. Back in kindergarten, back in the fact that so few households have books. Chemists are no worse at writing than most people are; English majors, however, are better than most, because they read and write so much, and because they're more likely to have an ear for written language in the first place.

      My sense is that the writing-across-curriculum thing doesn't fool anyone; the chemists and chem students I talk to know perfectly well that they can't write. "Writing pedagogy" isn't the issue, either, though practice in teaching helps. (I'd no more look for a writing teacher who flies by pedagogical training than I would a science teacher. I want a teacher who knows his/her shit, can pay attention to others' minds, and can communicate clearly.) The problem, at university level, is the structure of chemical education, which has nothing but contempt for anything that eats minutes and dollars and does not produce a more useful bench scientist/grad slave. And that, frankly, is part of why I'd be less inclined to hire a chem major for a general-biz job than I would an English major. You guys produce hothouse flowers simply by not giving the kids opportunity to wander -- oh, sure, they can take a few electives, but they know where their time's supposed to be spent -- and the naivete outside these narrow bounds can be astonishing. The gender imbalance doesn't help, either; it's -- still, often -- as though there's no awareness of the macho/nationalist assumptions, which play *really poorly* in many parts of the world. I kid you not, I just sat through a meeting in which a chemist spent a good bit of time mocking a Chinese name in a bizarrely Archie-Bunkerish way. can't do this. And he seemed utterly unaware. It's not rare.

      Let me make the contrast this way: A highly successful fiction writer of my MFA year decided, while in the writing program, that he wanted to be a doctor, and more or less went AWOL from the program so he could get his prereqs for med school taken care of. The faculty were annoyed -- he was, after all, a very promising writer, no less an eminence than Saul Bellow admired his work and called it out for special attention -- but didn't throw him out. He did become a doctor; he's also regarded as one of the best youngish literary writers in America.

      I cannot begin to imagine a grad student in chemistry being allowed the same freedom. And in the end it makes a difference.

      You guys loosen up on the path to chemist -- kill that German military model -- and we'll see what happens.

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