Ways to Conceptualize Your English Major

SEPTEMBER 16TH, 2019 | SUBJECT: College & Career

People tend to look at humanities degrees in a simplified or stereotyped lens. Common perceptions about people with humanities backgrounds are that they’re studying topics that are becoming increasingly irrelevant in our digital age or are going to struggle making money in the job market. This may or may not be true and is contextual to people’s pathways. The requirements of English degrees, in particular, can often have a very western focus and don’t often place an importance on career-building skills. Mills College only recently got rid of “Bible as Literature or Shakespeare” as a component of their English major requirements. While this post is more specific to English majors, I do think a lot of the concepts are relevant to many fields, so whoever you are, please keep reading!

MY SHIFTING THOUGHTS – When I was studying English, I found myself having to be more invested in the content rather than conceptualizing what the next step would be for me: Was that grad school? Getting a teaching credential? Or pursuing a writing-related career? I felt lost during my sophomore year especially, because my idea of going into Mills’ accelerated master’s degree in Education wasn’t giving me energy. I next thought about an MA/PhD in Literature, but that didn’t seem quite right either. I, indeed, didn’t want to memorize the British literature canon as part of my grad school curriculum.

Truthfully, it wasn’t until the fall semester of my third/last year of college where I expanded my idea of what a post-college career could look like. I took a Saturday seminar that met 5 or 6 times called Professional Survival for Writers. My main reason for taking the course was for the 2 credits offered, but it ended up being the most transformative English course I took at Mills. Professor Elmaz Abinader encouraged us to engage with what writing will look like in our lives beyond college—something that is daunting but also opens up possibilities. We made websites (I created the website I’m using right now!), polished our CV’s & resumes, and listened & asked questions to panels of writers with themes such as “writing while being an educator.” I encourage you to look out for classes like Professional Survival for Writers, because they can be what you need in that moment along your journey.

Currently, I’m exploring the publishing industry as a career path, as well as figuring out grad programs that are a good fit for me. I applied to a few positions over the summer in the non-profit sector and higher education. Things started to click better for me when I pursued writing-related internship opportunities. I’m curious to see how my career path looks like in the upcoming year. It’s okay to keep exploring after college! Our pathways are never linear; even if we think we figured it out, we’re still growing and gaining new interests that can take us in new directions.

AN ENGLISH PATHWAY – I wanted to throw some ideas out there for people who are currently English majors or thinking about being an English major. Some of it might be intuitive or might not apply to you, but some of it might help you be able to conceptualize a pathway that fits your aspirations:

Note: the ideas build upon each other, but it’s not too late to do any of the things mentioned below in whatever year of college

YEAR 1:
– Explore different concepts and careers related to your interests
– Take your time figuring out whether a literature or creative writing track is most relevant to your aspirations (or whatever emphases your college offers)
– Make sure to take classes in different areas of study for your GE’s/CC’s
– Join your college’s newspaper or literary magazines and attend writing workshops or speaker events
– Talk to different upperclassmen and professors about their academic or career pathways

YEAR 2:
– Figure out whether grad school is something you want to pursue
– If so, consider whether you want to go right after college or take some time off to work (I’m the latter!)If not, consider what careers fit your interests
– Figure out a base-line plan (i.e. “I want to work toward an MA in Literature”); it can help you craft which classes might be essential to take, double-major/minor to pursue, professors who could write you a great letter of recommendation, kinds of internship or volunteer opportunities to look into
– Cultivate a strong bond with career center advisors and your academic advisor(s)

YEAR 3:
– Continue fleshing out your plan
– You may be interested in different ideas, so keep exploring and following where your energy goes
– Make sure to keep building your resume
– Create a plan for how you want to apply to grad school if that’s relevant to you and figure out when to take the GRE
– Keep consuming good books and reflecting on why you’re doing what you’re doing. I say this because I was often sucked into academics without placing an equally important focus on figuring out what life will look like college or working toward my own passion for writing & reading

YEAR 4:
– If you’re look into working right after college, start applying to jobs around November and especially during winter break
– If you need to apply to internships before pursuing full-time opportunities, go for it!
– Continue to polish your resume throughout the year and visit the career center often
– Consider the ways in which your on- and off-campus jobs have helped to grow your skills and characteristics
– Make sure to ask your supervisors if they can be part of your job references
– It’s difficult and sometimes uncomfortable to market yourself, so consider journaling and integrating some of that reflection into your job applications
– Enjoy your last year because why not?!

SUMMER/INTERNSHIP OPPORTUNITIES – for your second and third years especially, work on landing a summer internship.  If you’re planning to apply to grad school during your last year of college, make sure you make a strong plan to write personal statements/essays, get letters of rec, study for the GRE, etc.
– Check out West Wing Writers internships if you want an opportunity to work in SF, NY, or Washington DC
– Great Books Summer Program, a month-long program at Stanford, Amherst, & abroad, is also a fun opportunity to live on a college campus, talk about books with middle and high school students, and network with awesome people who are in the humanities
– The 1947 Partition Archive has opportunities to have a 2 month or 6 month internship in editing, archiving, oral history, and more

OTHER THINGS TO DO DURING COLLEGE:
– Attend conferences! Mills, for example, sometimes has free tickets or reduced costs to attend major English conferences like AWP, so ask your professors/advisors about opportunities
– Enter contests, submit to literary journals, and apply to fellowships
– Work on publishing a scholarly article or help a professor with their research
– Start building a website or portfolio. You never know when this can come in handy for grad school or job applications
– Mills students: cross-register at UC Berkeley or take a community college course on things not offered at Mills

DOUBLE MAJOR OR MINOR – Consider tacking on a double major or minor in fields such as: ethnic studies, women’s studies, sociology, public policy, journalism, computer science, business, communications, languages, etc. I did a minor in ethnic studies, and that was super important to counterbalance the western perspective of most of my English classes, helped me grow as a person & scholar, and allowed me to figure out potential topics to study in grad school.

POSSIBLE FIELDS & JOBS THAT COME TO MIND – user experience writing, technical writing, journalism, content-writing, social media, public relations, marketing, communication, script-writing, librarian, speechwriting, editorial, grant writing, copywriting, administrating, publishing, recruiting, K-12 education, higher education, nonprofit, translation…and the list goes on! English majors go on to do so many different things, not just in the realm of writing & literature. Keep the door to different opportunities open.

DIVERSITY (HINT: IT’S LACKING) – The lack of diversity in English curriculum and classes truly impacts students of color. Sometimes in my English classes at Mills, a student of color would bring up an important point about race in a text we were reading that was acknowledged but quickly swept under the rug compared to small details that were talked about at length. English departments must deconstruct the notion of literature as innately western and advocate for students and professors of color in the humanities. If you’re a white student: consider how you take up space in a classroom and advocate for your peers of color in classes. A lack of diversity extends beyond college and into writing-related fields that are disproportionately made up of white people. This can be daunting for an English student of color looking for a writing-related career; they experience many moments of imposter syndrome and nonbelonging. We must do better. Additionally, if you are a student of color in the humanities, please reach out to me if you need someone to strategize with or talk about your experiences with!

THERE’S MORE TO THE STORY – While my English major break-down isn’t expansive, these were some of things I wish I actively worked on or things that I’m still reflecting on. Graduating early was definitely something that made it hard to follow a more cohesive career-building or grad school plan. And part of it is acknowledging that we all have different pathways and one isn’t more valid than another. There’s such a pressure placed on people with humanities degrees to prove themselves to society. We’re all a work in progress. We continue to learn and craft our pathways after college. We must continue to reshape the narrative surrounding humanities degrees, explore fields such as digital humanities, and make sure students know all the cards that are at play for them. Also, you might be majoring in English because it’s simply the best option for you or you’re considering careers not related to English. That’s so valid; your English degree shouldn’t limit the scope of your potential career. Regardless, you’ll take those skills you gained to the next chapter of your life. You’re an articulate communicator; keep following your instincts. –S.A.

“I spent my first two years out of college working a nondemanding part-time job in a library, doing nothing but reading and writing and drawing. I’d say I’ve spent the years since executing a lot of the ideas I had during that period.”

– AUSTIN KLEON

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