B.A. in English, 2012
M.A. in English, 2015, Penn State University
Ph.D. in English, 2020, Penn State University
Favorite memories of being an undergraduate English major:
Encountering a difficult text for the first time with 8-20 other people who’ve come together to read and discuss that same text. Outside of the college context, it’s much more difficult to create the conditions in which that magic can happen. Revel in it!
Co-owner and Writer at a data-consulting firm / Lifestyle Journalist
Elucidata /Real Simple Magazine, The Spruce, MyDomaine, Brides
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?
My original goal was to live like Belle in a provincial town in 18th century France among shelves of books braced by a rolling ladder. Given delays in time machine technology, this goal was thwarted. I did the next best thing, which was to go to grad school to secure seven more years in which I could get paid to read and think about books among others who were reading and thinking about books. Do I regret it? No. Did the academic life appeal to me by the end? Not exactly.
There’s a joke in “QuitLit” circles—these are the people who have hit eject somewhere along their academic trajectory—that people leave so they can read books again. The joke is premised on the idea that the publish-or-perish impetus that defines academia doesn’t leave much room for reading for pleasure, or even for close reading of the many texts one cites in one’s own work. It’s a cynical outlook, and of course it’s not true for every academic or institution, but I would argue it’s pretty pervasive.
I now do grant writing (and other writing to advance the work of non-profits and state agencies) in addition to some lifestyle journalism, neither of which I’d ever considered as an undergrad. It’s fulfilling to assist the people who uplift under-privileged populations in our state, and I don’t mind getting paid to review coffee table books or introduce new gardening trends on the side. Do I miss that dizzying dance of intertextual revelations and connections that can only come from reading widely in a temporal pressure-cooker alongside others doing the same? Yes! But as a Type-A person with debilitating anxiety and almost no ability to draw psychic boundaries around work, I have found that the combination of a job where I can “clock out” and the ability to spend my free time with books is a preferable balance that helps me to sustain my other relationships and hobbies.
What is your current occupation, and what does your work mostly consist of?
I recently became partner at Elucidata, a data consulting business co-founded by two friends in the Mississippi State Sociology department. We provide wraparound research evaluation and design for non-profits and state agencies in Mississippi. That’s shorthand for “We assist organizations at any stage of info-gathering and/or dissemination.”
Sometimes organizations make a straightforward request: “We’re applying for a Title X federal grant to expand women’s access to reproductive care in Mississippi. Can you help us impart the scope of the issue and our plans for intervention?”
Sometimes agencies contact us at a very nascent stage of an issue: “We recognize we could improve our services, but we’re not sure of our biggest gaps or what to prioritize. Can you help us gather that data?”
These agencies may not have the needs or budget to leverage an entire university research unit, but they need researchers and statisticians to field complex research questions, design ethical interview instruments, conduct surveys, and collect data. (That’s the work of the sociologists at Elucidata.) These agencies also rely upon writers to condense findings into a digestible format and to tailor messaging to different audiences and stakeholders. (That’s where I come in.)
We’ve helped other orgs to expand: women’s access to reproductive healthcare, community college students' access to financial aid, CPS-involved youths’ access to Medicaid, and Pre-K children’s access to early childhood education
We also helped spearhead efforts to get an updated picture of sex-ed curricula being implemented across the state.
Which skills that you learned as an English major do you use most in your job?
Audience-oriented writing (“rhetoric”) is a big one. Every student of English composition is familiar with the dictum “know your audience,” and yet plenty of intelligent people struggle to absorb this lesson or execute it in their daily lives: job applicants write cover letters that chronicle their job history rather than shape a narrative that speaks to a company’s listed priorities; office managers share unorganized or ambiguous instructional memos that bury or exclude actionable detail and require tedious follow-up; organizations produce public-facing pamphlets littered with insider-jargon or stuffed with unnecessary detail. You get the idea.
Before I ever commit a word to the page on an Elucidata document, I have an audience in mind. I need to know: What’s their familiarity with this topic? How will this document be used? Is this an internal-memo meant to inform, or a public-facing infographic that must incite unfamiliar readers to care about a topic? In my experience, English majors are much more nimble with this exercise, to the point where it becomes a largely intuitive practice. Because it comes so naturally, it’s easy to underestimate how rare and useful this skillset is in many industries.
What skills have I neglected to mention? Writing with concision and concreteness when necessary. Honing a voice. Sustaining the reader’s attention through careful attention to syntactical cadence, or maybe arresting the reader with a surprising verb. Providing useful context and narrative framing or crafting illuminating analogies and metaphors. These skills may not be the first that come to mind when we think of “rhetoric”—the first usually being argument or persuasion—but they’re indispensable skills when you’re competing for a reader’s attention, whether you’re up against someone’s cluttered inbox or their infographic-saturated Instagram.
What additional skills did you need to learn in order to do your job, and how did you learn them?
Forgive me in advance. I’ve been talking to you about concision, and now I’m about to evangelize about Business Writing.
I’ve spent untold hours in literature and theory courses, absorbed in Woolf’s novels or Foucault’s pontifications about discipline, hours I would never trade. But my most applicable skills? I gleaned them in grad school from a 1-hour pedagogy course on Business Writing (sometimes called “Writing in the Workplace”). Technically, this course is housed in English departments, but it’s common for English majors to consider it irrelevant to their own aspirations. I can’t overstate the value of this course to my own career trajectory.
Most iterations of Business Writing teach a combination of verbal and visual rhetoric that primarily think of ‘persuasion’ in terms of ‘attention,’ ‘actionability,’ and ‘accessibility.’ There’s actually a good bit of behavioral psychology to it. For example, a business may want to keep customer eyeballs roaming around their landing page, or a manager may want to ensure that their email successfully prompts an employee to complete some task by a certain date, according to a particular set of expectations. On the flip side, a job applicant wants to write a cover letter that grabs the hiring manager’s attention and compels them to read on. Quite often, when people compose an email, write a cover letter, or build a website, they think “There—I’ve disseminated all the relevant information—my job is done!”
But let’s unpack the above scenarios:
A non-profit organization creates a website, infographic, or pamphlet that fails to answer the reader’s implicit question “What’s in it for me?” and they bury the key takeaways. The reader exits the page or tosses the pamphlet.
An employee receives a lengthy, unorganized email with a vague subject line, no hyperlinks to relevant contracts or guidelines, no clearly delegated tasks, and no concrete deadlines. They succumb to cognitive overload and think I’ll get back to that later…the deadline must not be approaching any time soon, anyway. Reader, they did not get back to that email. That email lies beneath 747 new emails. (And because the subject line wasn’t memorable or relevant, the worker can’t retrieve it).
A job candidate writes a cover letter that chronicles their accomplishments, starting with making Dean’s list Freshman year. Their most relevant internship and poignant motivations are buried in paragraph three. In the hiring manager’s inbox sit 50 other cover letters that immediately begin by tailoring the applicant’s skills to the company’s priorities or mission statement. Choose your own adventure:
a) The hiring manager indolently selects ‘next’ and abandons our hypothetical applicant’s letter
b) The hiring manager—annoyed their time has been wasted—hits ‘delete’ before moving on to the next applicant’s letter.
c) That’s it. There are no other options!
In each of these cases, the writer has diligently disseminated their information, but their goal wasn’t really accomplished. In each case, the writer may as well have not taken the time to compose the document at all.
Is Business Writing the most interesting class you’ll ever take? I hope not. But you will glean countless transferable skills. So much writing today—whether public advocacy, press releases, advertising, or even changes in workplace policy—happens online, where everyone and everything is vying for your eyeballs.
What advice do you have for undergraduate English majors right now who might want to follow the career path you did?
Elucidata: When I was an English undergrad at MSU, a professor named Tennyson O’Donnell told us that we’d excel no matter the field we went into because we’d be the best communicators. Dr. O’Donnell was a trustworthy guy, but I doubted him on this point. But my own trajectory with Elucidata does validate his theory. My friends hired me as a contractor to do some light copyediting, but when I received the document, I saw that it could be better tailored to its audience and that it could use some narrative framing to ground the reader who would be navigating this large trove of data. I retooled the entire thing. When they saw the value I could bring to the team, they began to run everything by me, first putting me on retainer and then making me a third owner. I guess Dr. O’Donnell was onto something.
Lifestyle Magazines: It’s sort of like building credit. The only way you can build it is to start somewhere, but the only way to start is for someone to trust you with a credit card. So just start somewhere. Build up clips. Use those clips to promote yourself when your ideal brand or vertical has an opening. I started at Brides. If you knew me—the last time I wore a dress the year was 2008—you’d know this makes no sense. But I was able to use those clips later to show other sites and magazines that I knew how to tailor my voice to a brand. I was able to pivot to MyDomaine, and then The Spruce and Real Simple, where I get to focus on entertaining and gardening.
The Ph.D.: There are two seemingly antithetical ways to think about pursuing a Ph.D. The first was told to me by Dr. Kelly Marsh during my own time in ENGL 1111: “You don’t go to graduate school because you love reading, you go to graduate school because you want to join an academic profession.” The other was told to me by an older grad school peer: “You don’t go to grad school to get a tenure-track job—they’re too few and far between to bank on; you go, and you appreciate this rare period in which you’re paid to read, think, and teach. Hopefully you glean some transferable skills along the way, and you can pivot later when it turns out there are only 7 jobs in your subject area.” Both are true: Grad school is too stressful and too ill-paid to do purely because you love to read, and yet, jobs—tenure track jobs—are scarce.
The scarcity of jobs has meant that graduate schools increasingly “pre-professionalize” their Ph.D. students (e.g., encouraging them to pick a period/subject area/critical lens year one; prodding them to spend more time on the conference circuit; imploring them to publish while they may still be getting their bearings in the field.) At the same time, some institutions are beginning to reckon with job market scarcity and are introducing “alt-ac” coursework, internships, and roundtables. I would recommend that young people considering grad school today scrutinize the gameplan of their potential/intended institution(s) and ensure it aligns with their own goals or priorities. Also, never pay to go to grad school—be paid!
P.S. You will learn transferable skills throughout graduate school: audience-oriented writing, critical thinking, presenting for different audiences, researching, translating, and on and on. Whether you want to spend seven stressful years getting paid very little to learn those skills while reading all the greats? That’s a different question that only you can answer!
Other general advice: Take business writing and creative writing. You don’t need to work in Finance or be the next Jesmyn Ward. Both classes explicitly help you to see language as a tool rather than a mere transcription of reality, and they help you to see how writing motors the world outside of the classroom. (They’ll make you a better writer in the classroom too.)