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Four Survival Tips for English Majors in the Real World

I arrived at the University of Virginia in 2006, wide-eyed and ready to read the classics, my heart set on an English degree. When my parents asked what career path I saw ahead, my standard response was a non-committal, idealistic, “maybe something in publishing.” While I managed to mostly evade the real world during my time at U.Va, when graduation rolled around, I found myself suddenly panic-stricken by my career prospects — or seeming lack thereof.

Luckily, I’ve gotten my act together since then, and have even managed to convince several companies to give me paychecks. Below are a few of the things that, though they seem obvious now, really helped me jumpstart my career and use my English degree to my professional advantage.

Think outside the literary box. Old_book_bindings

As a naïve undergrad who took poetry writing class and could quote all my favorite passages from Crime and Punishment, I felt certain that I wanted (and needed) to find a job directly related to the same kind of literary pursuits I enjoyed so much in college. I soon realized, though, that jobs like that were not so easy to come by.

What to do? Take a step back and think about a task that you actually like to do. For me, that task was editing. I like the challenge and the deadline-driven energy that comes with polishing something to perfection just before it hits the presses. So, I began searching for copy editing roles in companies across all industries, rather than limiting my search to publishing houses and magazines. As soon as I broadened my career horizons beyond what I considered to be “ places where English majors should work,” a world of possibilities opened up.

Develop a tangible skill.

One problem I – and I suspect many of my fellow English majors – faced during my initial post-college job search was a lack of hard skills on my resume. After years of waxing poetic in my research papers, I knew I had a knack for grammar, but I didn’t know how to translate that into a meaningful bullet point on my resume.

My solution? I bought a copy of the latest Associated Press Style Guide and taught myself how to copy edit like a pro. Suddenly, I was a qualified for a lot more of the editorial jobs I was finding, and I had a skill that I could easily demonstrate. Whether it’s pushing your Photoshop skills to the next level or really learning that coding language you’ve been dabbling in for your personal blog, get yourself a technical skill and use that to guide your job search.

Stop expecting your day job to be creatively satisfying.

Call it the curse of the millennials, but we are more likely than previous generations to expect advancement, learning opportunities and deep existential satisfaction immediately upon entering the workforce. I was guilty of this at first, too, as I searched in vain for a job that would allow me to change the world and/or write the next great American novel.

Hopefully, you will find a job that allows you to continue to learn and grow. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and it can be hard to quit the intellectual stimulation of academia cold turkey. Don’t neglect your brain. Sign up for a continuing education class or extra curricular activity, and pour your creative energy into that. For me, creative satisfaction (and sanity) came in the form of sketch comedy writing classes. Not only was it a fun, interesting way to keep my brain from feeling like mush while working a 9-5 job in communications at a financial services firm, but it also allowed me to meet some of my best friends in my adopted home city of Chicago.

Stop comparing yourself to your friends in business school. Or law school. Or medical school.

At some point, I had to come to terms with the fact that I purposefully chose to study something without a direct line into the professional world.  Embrace this mindset as soon as possible. Enjoy the fact that you have a degree that is actually quite versatile, and that gives you the freedom to build a career that might take you a little off the beaten path.

And if all else fails, at least you can impress people at dinner parties by quoting Dostoevsky.

Post by Jess Proulx (CLAS ’10)

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