What Can You Do with an English Degree? Plenty!
By: Nick Santangelo
So, you like words? No, you love words. When other students groaned about being assigned another paper in high school, you leaped at the opportunity to flex your creative muscles and construct words into stories or arguments that engage readers and make them think. As an English major at the College of Liberal Arts (CLA), you’ll round out your natural ability by overcoming new challenges and become a more rounded writer.
But then what? What are you going to do with your English degree? Every writer wants to build a good audience for his or her work. To do that, you have to be published, and your options for doing so are myriad. Maybe you’ll author the next great American novel. Or maybe you’ll report on breaking news or pen captivating features. Or maybe you’ll become a marketing copywriter. Or maybe a freelance editor.
English graduates have more career options than many realize. To help them understand what those options are and how to attain them, the English and Professional Development departments hosted a panel last Tuesday featuring four English alumni who’ve taken diverse but equally successful career paths.
Finding Your Calling
All four panelists agreed on one thing that should bring a lot of peace of mind to many of students—and their parents—it’s perfectly OK if you don’t know what you want to do right now. It’s also just fine if your first job after college isn’t your dream job and doesn’t turn out to be your lifelong career. The important thing is you’ll have a skill that’s transferable to and marketable in any career.
“You’ll have the absolute best foundation for any job, which is knowing how to write,” Theatre Philadelphia Executive Director Leigh Goldenberg told the several dozen students who had come to the Howard Gittis Student Center to hear the panel’s advice.
Brian Baughan, an independent editor and senior communication consultant, agreed, going so far as to argue it was unfair for anyone to assume students could know exactly what they want to do when they’ve been so focused on school for so long. He allowed that certainly some students have it all figured out—and that’s great—but that’s not the norm. Students who need help finding a direction, he recommended, should seek out a mentor to help them find it.
Figure out what activities you want to do at a job
Matrix Medical Communications Assistant Editor Julia Eckert, CLA ’16, had another suggestion for students who don’t know what profession is right for them. “If you don’t know what job you want to do, figure out what activities you want to do at a job,” she said. Some ideas she suggested include writing, editing and graphic design. Those are all skills that English students can learn more about and improve at during their time at CLA.
To that end, Temple University Project Assistant Community Researcher Verishia Coaxum, CLA ’15, impressed on students how they could and should take advantage of the incredibly broad elective options they have. English students can use their electives to delve into topics like Psychology or Criminal Justice to find out what their passions are beyond writing. That can steer them toward their first jobs out of college, but even if those first jobs end up not being what they imagined, Coaxum reminded the audience that that was OK. They’ll build work experience and still have those written and oral communication skills from their English education that are vital in any career.
Coaxum was originally a double-major in English and Criminal Justice, but she knew she wanted to study abroad and still finish in four years. Majoring in English and minoring in Criminal Justice was the perfect solution for her. Just as she wanted to when she was a CLA undergrad, Coaxum would still like to attend law school. If she does, she knows she’ll have that writing foundation that’s so crucial in legal careers but also a strong legal base from her minor.
Catching Your Big Break
Speaking of continued education, Baughan ended up going to graduate school and studying publishing after getting his English degree. That led him to an internship at a small publisher. Next thing he knew, Baughan was a published author of a book about, much to the audience’s amusement, LL Cool J.
“Believe it or not, they just needed writers,” explained Baughan, himself laughing at the situation. “I wish I could say it was more romantic than that.”
“Falling into” careers is a common theme for many professionals. So it was with Eckert, whose profession is too niche for there to be a degree or formal training specifically for it. After working in a bank for her first year immediately after college and learning about what it was like to have a 9-5 type of job, Eckert found a secretarial job and worked up from that into medical writing. Just like her, Eckert’s boss has an English degree.
“Medical publishing isn’t something you can go to school specifically for, so everybody who gets into the industry sort of falls into it and then is mentored by someone who has done it longer.”
But other than accidentally, how do English grads find that first big break? For starters, they shouldn’t stress too much about that classic conundrum of not having enough experience to get a job and not being able to build experience without a job. Employers understand that recent grads haven’t had the time to build a career’s worth of experience yet.
Believe it or not, they just needed writers
Plus, there’s one great way to build some experience before graduating: internships. Just remember that if you make a mistake or don’t know something when you’re starting out, employers will understand—as long as you’re forthright and show a desire to correct things and improve yourself.
“If it’s a first internship or a first job, we’re going to know you don’t have that experience,” said Goldenberg. “We would rather you do it right than try to go down a path and not have a lot of information for it.”
Getting Some Help
Goldenberg also recommended picking up some skills in an area that’s a gap for many English students used to studying words and spending their time in Microsoft Word: math and Excel. Like writing and communicating, those skills are valuable in most professional careers since you’re likely to end up with a budget and goals to be responsible for. And even if you feel like your writing is already sharp as a razor’s edge, Coaxum recommends taking advantage of the Career Center.
“Yes, we’re all English majors, and we all think that we can write well,” she said, “but it’s always good to have a second set of eyes on things.”
Baughan added that it’s not just writing for job applications the Career Center can help students with either. Another major component of landing “the big job” is nailing the interview. The Career Center is a great place to practice public speaking, allowing students to get good at it now and feel less shocked and nervous when they walk into an office for the real thing.
Goldenberg reminded students that their access to resources like the Career Center and the Writing Center doesn’t end after they graduate either. She continued using both centers after her own graduation. “You’re not perfect just because you have your degree,” said Goldenberg. “Everyone has nerves about networking and the anxiety, and sometimes you just feel like you’re going to start sweating or get nervous, but the more you do it, the better you get at it.”