B.A. in English, 2003
Any other degrees:
M.A. in Humanities, 2004, University of Chicago
Ph.D. in English (Life-Writing), 2017, King’s College London
Favorite memories of being an undergraduate English major:
The classes of Dr. Marsh and Dr. Hargrove
Lecturer, First Year Writing Program
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?
I began college as a biology major, but—due to the ordeal of freshman chemistry—quickly found my way home to the English Department. At the time, I wanted to be an editor and work in the publishing industry, and I did actually edit a local magazine in Memphis for a couple of years after graduate school. But mostly my career went in a zip-zagging path through a marketing firm on to a somewhat impulsive PhD. And if you’d told me when I was a shy undergrad that I would be teaching undergraduates later myself, I would have thought you were bananas.
What is your current occupation, and what does your work mostly consist of?
I am a college professor and write biography, both of which involve a ton of reading, a lot of improvising, and a hardy willingness to make mistakes.
Which skills that you learned as an English major do you use most in your job?
It sounds very basic but learning to take notes, how to research in the library, how to find credible, scholarly resources, how to do peer review and give feedback, those things wound up being extremely helpful in my earlier careers in editing and marketing, in researching and writing biography, and even just scrolling social media. And, obviously, they’re the skills I teach my students now.
What additional skills did you need to learn in order to do your job, and how did you learn them?
Time management is a big one that I appreciate more and more as I take on my projects across teaching and media. Taking multiple classes in the department and managing different deadlines for essays wound up teaching me how to prioritize my work—not just with writing projects but with life. Keeping a to-do list, a calendar, and a journal were all habits I picked up in college.
Are there common misconceptions about your career field, which current English majors might share, that you have learned the truth about?
I didn’t know that my career field—the biographer part of it—existed as an option when I was in undergrad. I loved reading biographies, but it never even occurred to me that writing one could be a thing I could do. Breaking into publishing seemed hard enough. So I think it’s useful to keep in mind the things you enjoy, and seeing if they might be a part of your career path. Even if those things might not be the things that make you a livable income (I certainly cannot survive on a book advance alone!), they still might be a part of a more capaciously imagined career. Especially working in the humanities, our careers don’t always fit any one template. Sometimes they have to be built from scratch. My first gateway into writing biography as a career was through a class at the University of Chicago and an introduction to a biographical researcher, who a friend of mine nanny-ed for. The idea of biographical research being a job was something I’d never considered until I met this person who did it. Once I started doing freelance research and editing for biographers and getting involved with organizations for biographers, I felt I could start calling myself a “writer” and a “biographer”—that the writing I was doing on my lunchbreaks and the research trips I took on weekends weren’t a hobby but a profession. The feelings when Finding Jackie: A Life Reinvented—which is my first book and came out of my doctoral work at King’s—was published in early 2023 aren’t possible to explain, but I can say truthfully that being in the English department at Mississippi State was a significant part of the long journey towards that moment.
In what ways does your career enrich your life and help you to achieve your personal as well as your professional goals?
While I never wanted to be a teacher, I discovered a love of it while doing my doctoral research, and teaching has wound up being a tremendous help in my own development as a writer. My own first year of college was kind of horrendous—my grandmother died and I couldn’t find my people on campus, so I was extremely isolated. While my college experience got much better from there, I was in a violent relationship for the remainder of it—something my relationship with writing and literature helped me survive. Those realities of my own college life have underpinned the support I provide my students now and how I am as a teacher. The teaching has, in turn, helped me in processing that trauma and using it in my writing and research. I think this dynamic of teaching and writing and living can be tricky, but it’s been so valuable to me as a human being, that synergy between the crafts.
What advice do you have for undergraduate English majors right now who might want to follow the career path you did?
Ha! I can’t really imagine anyone would want to, because it took a while for it to get to the point. That said, each stage of my career was essential to where I am now. Even the things that felt like dead ends at the time, they were all valuable in getting me to where I am and wherever I’m going. For example, the marketing job I was stuck in from 2007-2012 and all the interviews I went on to try to escape it— that wasn’t a waste of time because I was free to write and travel, and when I heard the doctoral program at King’s was taking candidates, I was able to move on it, because I had absolutely no attachment to the job I was in.
When I moved to London to do my PhD, it wasn’t to become a professor. It was because I wanted to live abroad and I wanted to finish the book I’d been working on for ten years at that point. And, I thought, if I moved to London, I’d come out on the other end with different possibilities, though I didn’t know what they would be. If anything my advice would be that you don’t have to know how it will look. Aim for something you can’t even imagine yet. Whatever path that builds before you, it’s going to be far more interesting than what everyone else is telling you that you should do.
[Updated September 2023]