Do More Things: Navigating Post-grad Opportunities for English Majors

by Valerie Walker
contributor to the Underground

“Do more things. Do different things,” Gabrielle Zenoni, the Canine Manager at the Animal Care League and one of the speakers at Tuesday’s career workshop “From Major to Minor,” reflected on what she’d tell her undergraduate self if she could go back in time.

Sitting in a lecture room with a couple dozen people, all fellow English majors, makes a person immediately introspective. Everyone in the room had heard the canned, “So you want to be a teacher?” question from puzzled friends and family, those trying to understand why we’d pick such an “unspecialized” field for our Future. The reigning feeling in the room was that even though English appeals to different personalities, it draws similar spirits.

Tuesday’s panel of professionals all had done something decidedly non-English with their degrees. It’s usually intimidating and weighty, other people’s success. However, throughout the first half hour, the panel detailed their unconventional career paths: Dean of Culture, Legislative Director, Public Relations Specialist, Research Associate, Canine Manager—not exactly typical English-major jobs. Finally, they started unraveling those “endless possibilities” we hear about but rarely see.

Each panel member revealed the key skills they gained from their English undergraduate that they regularly use in their current jobs, skills they think many English majors don’t even recognize they have. There were two major themes that cohesively ran through each person’s identified skills: communication and empathy. These skills were chiefly responsible for setting them apart from other job applicants in non-traditional career fields. For example, a market analyst from here at DePaul, Coleen Dickman, described her experience interviewing for her current position by explaining that the other candidates were techy, scientific, market-savvy, etc. What set her apart was her ability to construct coherent marketing materials, something she was prepared for through her English education.

Other candidates had similar stories, some even saying that employers are going to train their new employees regardless of their degree specialty, but they can’t train them in critical, empathetic, and basic grammatical skills. Gabrielle Zenoni said that her reading countless novels, writing from different perspectives, and critically working to understand other characters’ emotions through English study fostered her ability to empathize with people—and with animals. Even though she doesn’t do a lot of writing or “reading Dickens” in her current job as Canine Manager, she feels her background in English has given her skills pertinent to her job.

In a different reflection on the past, Annie Davis, a former teacher and current Director at the Education Pioneers in Chicago, expressed her regret over choosing to teach after college. She chose it because she loved literature, not because she loved teaching children. This example is pertinent even beyond those considering a career in education, and speaks to our desire to pursue something because it’s easy, expected, or conventional. The vein of this panel was to dispel the fear of pursuing niche jobs, the ones we don’t hear about at career fairs or on a Google search of “Top 10 Careers for English Majors.”

The last consensus among the panelists was on the subject of internships. They all agreed that they should have pursued internships that diverged from writing, publishing, education, etc. They encouraged the attendees to apply for internships (and jobs) that explicitly express interest in students with different majors: economics, marketing, biology. These positions will push English majors to sell themselves and the skills they’ve developed that wouldn’t be listed in a job posting. On the subject of internships, Professor Chris Green, who emails internship opportunities to English majors, shared that only around half of the posts get filled because students are afraid to apply, thinking they’re unqualified. He encouraged students, saying, “You shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t know what you want to do.”

That thought brought us full circle back to Gabrielle Zenoni’s “Do more things. Do different things.” Try an internship in an unconventional field, market your invaluable communication skills, and never forget the skills learned in an English major are preparation for niche careers with thousands of job titles never heard of that may be the perfect fit!

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