Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Beating the Stereotype: Out-of-the-Box Careers for English Majors

"So you want to teach?" Rachel Sarachman answers that age-old question with a look at ten rewarding career paths for English majors you might not've considered before. ♦ 

Wait, rewind. I want to clarify something: when I say “out-of-the-box careers for English majors,” I’m not referring to the cardboard box my mother so nicely suggested I would be living in when I changed my major from Marketing to Creative Writing. If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you’re a fellow respect-seeking English majoror at least a humanities majorand can probably relate.
       I can recall the phone conversation I had with my parents about declaring my English major as if it were yesterday: I texted both parents letting them know I had something important to tell them, but I made sure to be vague. When I called them, my mom picked up on speaker phone, oblivious to the fact that I could hear her and my dad talking. “She can’t be engaged, Michael, she doesn’t even have a serious boyfriend. Do you think she’s dropping out? Oh my God, she’s been arrested!” (The reason my parents would jump to worst-case scenarios is beyond me; I’ve never even gotten a speeding ticket, let alone faced a full-on arrest.)
       Anyway, once I broke the news, I immediately realized that my parents might have reacted better if I had been arrested. But the criticism didn’t stop with my parents; I received skepticism from all over. There came a point when I dreaded telling people that I was an English major, as I would get one of two responses:
Response 1: “Oh so you’re going to teach, then?"  
Last time I checked, “English” does not mean “Education degree.” I’m always tempted to suggest that they should consider taking a few English classes, but I usually just start speaking in old English and then they go away.  
Response 2: “Well, business isn't for everyone.”  
They’re right. It’s not. But would everyone please stop thinking that English is an easy major? I mean, have you read Victorian Literature before? That’s no cakewalk, folks. Besides, you know who else wasn’t a business major? Steven Spielberg, Mitt Romney, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, and even former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, all of them English majors. 
       Having now entered the home stretch of my college career, I’ve finally gained enough confidence in my choice of major to realize the vast number of opportunities available to someone with an English degree. English majors have many more career options than just teaching and freelance writing. Check out these creative ways to use your English degree.

1. Lobbyist Think all those persuasive papers have gone to waste? Guess again! You’ve actually received prime training to be a lobbyist. This position requires strong communication, computer and researching skills, and versatility. Lobbyists can work for public or private agencies that promote specific issues by soliciting members of a legislature. While the job has negative connotations, many lobbyists work for nonprofit organizations by supporting the issues of public protection, civil rights, and social justice. As an English major, you can go from a Shakespeare class discussing Hamlet’s antic disposition to a creative writing workshop where you have to write a story starting with the line “A cross-dressing Elvis impersonator just walked into the bar.” If you can handle this change of pace, not to mention supporting your viewpoint in the Shakespeare class, I’m betting any English major could effectively argue for a public policy reform.

2. Marketing Yep, you don’t have to have a business degree to work in business. As an English major, feel free to set your sights on work in advertising. Commercials on television, ads in newspapers, billboard campaigns, and radio sponsorships are all forms of advertising, and all are designed somewhere along the line by an advertising agent. The agent must be able to conceptualize an ad or scheme that will both appeal to the client and captivate the consumer. An English degree can perfectly prepare you for this; you’re constantly writing papers, short stories, or poems to advertise your own talent as well as being challenged to recognize your audience. I think almost every English major can agree that they tailor their writing differently for each of their professors in order to best captivate their “consumer.” A paper should be written very differently for a trendy, travel blog-writing professor versus a traditional professor who’s dedicated their entire life to study the work of Emily Dickinson.

3. Event Planning Think this is too much of a stretch? Just hang on—Buffy Stoll, who’s the Director of New Student Programming at Miami University, received an undergraduate degree in English. Stoll is charged with planning 16 orientation sessions for 3,500 incoming students every year. “If I didn’t have a strong written communication foundation, I would never be able to do my job,” she says. “I constantly have to write formal requests for funding and grants to run our program which would take me four times as long without the skills I gained from my English degree.” Say it with me: if you can write it, you can do it!

4. Digital Copywriter Think back to all your undergrad papers: Were you the Houdini who managed to find a way to incorporate wit into even the driest of essay topics? If you have, then you’ve just found the perfect career path! Digital copywriters are responsible for creating banner ads, creative social media campaigns, blog posts, whitepapers, e-books, online strategies, landing pages, website copy, and viral promotion ideas. Your ingenuity and creativity can take you far in this field and provide you with ample networking opportunities to showcase your best work. Interested? Write a funny, charming, intelligent letter to an agency and try to get an internship while developing a strong social media presence to prove yourself.

5. Public Relations One skill many English majors might not know they have is the ability to think on their feet: after being called out to participate in complex literature discussions at the drop of a hat, English majors quickly learn to be ready with a well-crafted answer at any minute. If you’re able to transfer that skill to the workplace, you’ll excel in public relations. What will you do in a PR firm? Junior staff will be given tasks such as writing news releases and pitch letters, crafting newsletters, finding content to send out on social media accounts, and writing web copy or brochures. PR strategies are generally aimed at helping companies get PR coverage and using the media to shape the public’s perception of a company. All those times you were randomly called on to comment and provide examples of Mark Twain’s use of satire in Huckleberry Finn will give you great preparation to succeed and excel in this fast-paced field.

6. Sales You definitely won’t be living out of that cardboard box in this career field; one of the first skills English majors are taught is how to sell a topic, i.e. the art of crafting the perfect thesis statement. If you know how to talk your way through a topic and disarm opposing opinions then you have the potential to be a rock star salesperson. Sales requires excellent communication skills, analysis, sensitivity, and empathy–all skills that a degree in English fosters. By having these basic skills you’ll be able to sell any product; as long as you have a little background info on the items you’re pitching, you’re good to go. Go from thesis crafting to sales pitches to big bucks in no time.

7. Non-Profit Communications Don’t panic, this is a paid job. Working for a communications department is a great way to start paving a career path. Non-profits allow you to gain that essential first few months of work experience because most of them are under-funded and under-staffed, making them an easy place to get your first resume item. In this field, your responsibilities could include communication help with press strategies, fundraising, donor retention, and enlisting the help of volunteers. Use this as a starting point to show that you’re just as prepared as any communications major for this career. So why not double dip? Build your resume and gain some karma points for contributing to a non-profit’s cause.

8. Boutique Agent Boutique agencies are small companies that typically do world-class work for big brands. Working for a boutique agency would be similar to being the best friend of someone who’s famous: all the perks without the pressure of constantly being in the spotlight. These can be branding agencies, graphic design agencies, viral marketing agencies, or PR firms. Thunderdog, for example, is an L.A. agency that creates street-art inspired designs and products for brands like Pepsi and Puma. They also sell their own limited edition books and toys. Boutique agencies are cool. They hire for skill–not for the degree you have. So while your English degree can help you get the job, these places are looking for creative minds, technical skill in the area they work in, and the right attitude to fit their unique culture. To get a job at a boutique agency, simply write an email and sell yourself to the boss. Take the time to research their company and highlight the skills you possess that would make you an attractive candidate to hire.

9. eCommerce Analyst Do you defy the English stereotype and excel in mathematics as well as reading and writing? Then you might find your calling as an eCommerce analyst. Over the past decade, tracking technology has really evolved, and most complex marketing campaigns will test, track, and measure just about every dollar they spend online. Therefore, in this job, you will be tasked with figuring out why certain campaigns are working, why people aren’t buying from a client’s website, and how to help online marketing budgets bring back more profit. This is a fast-paced industry, and many analysts come from various educational backgrounds. Hardcore analysts will need mathematical ability and knowledge of statistics. But if you were lucky enough to be both right and left brain-minded, then study up on some analytic and tracking software and online conversion to truly defy English major stereotypes.

10. Television, Radio, or Screenwriter: Now for the coup de grâce. I know you've been waiting for this since I said that Steven Spielberg was an English major earlier on in the article, so yes, it’s true: you don’t have to major in media communications or something of that sort to work in this industry. Spielberg majored in English at California State University and earned an internship with Universal Studios because of his strong writing and communications skills. The rest is history.      
       Let’s face it: if you are an English major, then you probably deep down want to be a writer. Many English majors end up writing Hollywood scripts, working in broadcast, or working at radio stations. How do you break in? First and foremost, be a good writer . . . and have great writing samples that show off your stuff. As Stephen King says, “If you lift weights 15 minutes a day, you are going to get muscles. If you write 15 minutes a day, you are going to become a good writer.” So do what you love, write, and always have some samples ready to show off. Your big break might just be around the bend.

These options simply scratch the surface of all the career possibilities that an English degree can hold. If you find yourself facing criticisms, channel some determination from J. K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter series was turned down by 12 publishing houses. Find a career that's perfectly suited to your skills in creativity, communication, and persuasion, and then flaunt your English degree loud and proud. After all, shouldn’t we all have something to keep us busy while crafting the next great American novel?

  • About the Author
    Rachel Sarachman is a current junior at Miami University majoring in Creative Writing. When she isn't reading every book by Janet Evanovich that she can get her hands on, you can find her editing articles for UP Magazine, going on long hikes, taking an art class, or fueling her coffee addiction.

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    1. Great and informative article: people don't realize how valuable a good writer can be!