M.A. in English, 2007
B.A. in English, 2005, University of Montevallo
Most enjoyable experiences as an English major:
My favorite works to study were usually 20th- and 21st-century pieces. Books I read as an undergrad that made a big impression on me were Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which I wrote about for my senior capstone project, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. In graduate school, I especially enjoyed reading Fay Weldon’s Down Among the Women, which I wrote about for my master’s thesis, and Toni Morrison’s Sula.
Proposal Writer/Production Specialist
When you graduated with a degree in English from MSU, what were your plans for your future? Has your career path mostly realized those early plans, or have you discovered new plans and goals along the way?
When I finished the master’s degree, my plans were to teach for a year and then to start a doctoral program in English. Unfortunately, I was applying to programs in 2008, and the financial crisis made everything uncertain, including funding for graduate students, so my plans to pursue a PhD in English did not work out. Thankfully, I was able to stay employed and working in the university setting throughout and well beyond the financial crisis, teaching at first and later in communications positions. Pretty quickly, I began to realize career opportunities I hadn’t previously considered and over time developed interests in other fields to complement my degrees in literature. I learned that I especially had a knack and appreciation for technical writing and have since worked in several positions where I have been able to apply the knowledge and skills I learned while studying English to other fields, including engineering, agriculture, education, international development, public policy, politics, and healthcare. Though my career aspirations have changed since I finished the MA, my overarching goal of continuing to learn and be curious about the world has not. I approach each job with a mindset that I have something to contribute and something to gain. By remaining open-minded about what that “gain” can be, I have developed a more diverse skillset and inventory of interests than I could have ever imagined back then when I saw myself and my degrees a bit more narrowly.
What is your current occupation, and what does your work mostly consist of?
Currently, I work for a healthcare nonprofit consultancy, which means the types of projects I work on vary from day to day based on our clients’ needs and the types of contracts we have. In general, though, I do two types of work: 1) technical writing and editing and 2) communications project management. In the technical writing and editing, I work on proposals for new business, templates for standardizing branding and formatting, and report briefs to be shared with potential new clients and funders. I spend a lot of time reading and writing reports, digging up facts in source material, and consulting dictionaries and style guides in this work. In the project management aspect of my job, I facilitate through our internal process the projects undertaken by the marketing and communications team. This includes confirming a clear scope at the project start, proper project/product design and review protocols followed during the development phase, and timely administration and documentation of client satisfaction surveys at the project’s end. I spend a lot of time in our project management system and spreadsheets in this work.
Which skills that you learned as an English major do you use most in your job?
The skill I gained as an English major that I have used most consistently is critical thinking. As an English major, I was trained to read carefully and to formulate my own ideas and responses both in writing and orally in class. Through class discussion and writing papers, I learned not just how to remember what I had read but to build upon it in a meaningful way, and it is this ability that I credit most when I have had opportunities for promotion and career advancement. English courses also taught me how to be a good listener and to connect my ideas to the information I was hearing from my professors and peers. Certainly, I also have used knowledge of grammar and mechanics when editing, and over the years, I have come to truly value the time I spent learning how to efficiently use dictionaries and style guides. I once thought those technical lessons were pointless, but now, I have three style guides and two dictionaries bookmarked in my web browser because I reference them so frequently for work.
What additional skills did you need to learn in order to do your job, and how did you learn them?
An important skill I have learned is how to write in ways that are different from academic writing. In technical writing, simple, clear, concise sentences are favored. In news and public relations, very short paragraphs are the norm. Learning to value different styles of writing and how they meet audiences’ needs was an important lesson I learned early on. I’ve also developed some basic skills in layout, graphic design, photography, and website development. To perform research studies, I learned how to “code” qualitative data and to conduct basic statistical analyses. Learning new skills for me has been a mix of learning on the job through trial and error, feedback from my peers and superiors, taking coursework, attending workshops, and consulting books and resources. I’ve learned a lot of basic skills in software programs by watching YouTube videos, but the more in-depth learning has come from reading books and attending classes and workshops. The more diverse my skills, the more valuable I am to my employer, so I am always aiming to improve skills I already have and learn new ones when I can.
Are there common misconceptions about your career field, which current English majors might share, that you have learned the truth about?
A common misconception about English majors is that you won’t be employable or make much money, and this could not be further from the truth. Study and after study show that people with English and other humanities degrees prove more valuable to employers over their careers than those from many other fields because humanities graduates have empathy and a broad skillset that is transferable to a variety of tasks and career fields. That said, the humanities sometimes are not the best at teaching us how to message those skills in ways that are convincing to employers, so sometimes we struggle to find gainful employment right after graduation. Taking an internship, reaching out to someone in fields of interest, and talking with a career counselor can help humanities students learn how to connect their academic coursework and skills to the types of work they would be doing in nonacademic environments.
In what ways does your career enrich your life and help you to achieve your personal as well as your professional goals?
Over the years, my work has enriched my life especially by helping me to expand my views and interests. Through different jobs, I have developed interests in many aspects of society, politics, and community that have been rewarding experiences in the jobs themselves and have contributed to volunteer and consulting work I have done in my personal time. Working also has enriched my life by giving me the sense that I am giving back to the society and institutions that have shaped me so that I am contributing to the greater good and the type of world in which I want to live. On a very practical level, my career helps me afford aspects of life that are important to me—a comfortable living situation, relaxing vacations, international travel, and lots of books.
What advice do you have for undergraduate English majors right now who might want to follow the career path you did?
Take an internship—two if you can! My biggest college regret is that I didn’t intern anywhere. It would have been immensely helpful in my early career, which was more floundering than focused. Also, many other disciplines require internships, so it would have helped me compete for jobs early on when I had less experience. Plus, internships can be fun—they can take you to new places, expose you to lines of work you haven’t thought of, and help you meet people. If possible, find a paid internship because you should be compensated for the work you do.
Develop interests outside of English and take a few courses in them. If you like to think analytically, take some courses in quantitative and qualitative research. If you think you might want to work in communications or marketing, take some layout, photography, and media courses. Identify several skills that are not directly connected to writing to help you diversify your skillset, which will help you broaden your perspective and show potential employers you are well rounded and competent in several areas.