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What to Do with an English Major

by Sara Kowalski, Class of 2017, Humanities Fellow

The Undergraduate English Council holds two annual events: a graduate student meet-and-greet to discuss graduate program in English and a panel event titled “What to Do with an English Major” in which faculty and alumni speak about their experiences and answer students’ questions.

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This year, the four participants were Abby Deacon (’12), Melissa Smith (’09), Cody McConnel (’14), and Ashley Campbell (’09).

What do you do?

Abby: I did one year of AmeriCorps Vista after graduating, pursued a master’s degree here at the Warner School of Education, and am currently working in the Center for Community Leadership here at Rochester.

Melissa: I got my PhD in the Victorian novel after my undergraduate years and I am currently working remotely for a company based in North Carolina editing academic publications.

Cody: I got my MBA after my undergraduate degree and I’m currently the chief marketing officer for a cosmetics company.

Ashley: I’m currently working on my PhD while serving as the director of diversity programming in the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity here at Rochester. I am also the co-founder and artistic director of the Ballet Afrikana Dance Prep Academy.

What was your first step after graduation?

Abby and Ashley: Freak out.

Abby: But seriously, joining AmeriCorps Vista. It allowed me to explore the nonprofit sector as a possible career path, and it was an established program with support built-in.

Ashley: Pursuing Teach for America helped me explore education, and although TfA was not my cup of tea, I did realize I loved teaching. It helped me decide to go to Warner instead of pursuing law school.

Melissa: I did not freak out. I had the certainty of grad school.

Cody: I freaked out junior year. I decided that I no longer wanted my long-held dream of becoming an English professor. I discovered I wanted to go into business and it was relatively smooth sailing from there.

What is it like to go into academia?

Melissa: I thought for sure that I was going to be an English professor but then the economy changed. More adjunct positions than tenure positions. A lot less stability, more exploitation. This is a crisis for the English field. But some people might like adjunct positions, because you can teach without doing research, if that’s your thing.

Ashley: I lived that adjunct lifestyle for a while, and it was fun because I had fewer obligations, more flexibility than K-12 teaching, and a strong report with the students. But it was not a luxurious job by any stretch of the imagination.

How important is it to get a graduate degree?

First of all, master’s vs PhD: master’s you pay yourself. PhD is funded for you and you teach while you pursue it. Master’s prepares you for industry. Getting a PhD prepares you for academia. Note: there are also other doctorate types.

Abby: I wish I’d taken a break before entering graduate school. You don’t necessarily need the skills you get in a master’s program, but in name, it gets you hired, makes you competitive, and gets you paid more. It’s political. It is okay to be 27 and still be figuring out what you want to do. It is okay to take your time. In fact, some jobs will pay for your master’s, so sometimes it is worthwhile to wait.

Cody: I did use the skills I got during my MBA program. My experiences crunching numbers and performing analytics were not something I had gotten as an English major.

Ashley: Post-grad learning is often field-specific training. Business degrees are the most flexible and transferrable to different fields.

What resources did you use at Rochester?

Abby: I tried to do a lot of internships, such as working for Rochester’s city government, the USDA, Writers & Books, and so on.

Melissa: I tried to get a lot of volunteer experience. Working for the government during my summers.

Cody: The Career Center here. I worked with them a lot. I also did a lot of research on my own to be proactive.

Ashley: I also tried to do a lot of internships to sample different fields.

What English skills do you use in your careers and lives?

Abby: I use my ability to write complex and precise documents. This is another thing that any/every job requires. You should showcase these communication skills during interviews and any communication with your potential employer. I definitely recommend practicing and prepping for interviews!

Mellissa: I use my ability to understand and analyze complex documents. This is a very transferable skill that all employers want.

Cody: I use my ability to interview other people, to write resumes, emails, and personal statements, and to communicate in a concise, to-the-point, inoffensive manner.

Ashley: I use my ability to plan, integrate ideas, and communicate effectively for different audiences.

Are employers looking for English majors?

Abby: Employers want to see, “Can you do the job? Will you do the job? And how do you fit?”

Cody: Employers want problem solvers.

Ashley: It depends. It ebbs and flows.

What are your future goals?

Abby: I like my position now, likes working with the Rochester community. It is a very supportive environment, and I am attaining a lot of valuable skills. But I would like to go into the nonprofit sector and/or national service someday.

Melissa: I want to get back into higher education. I miss teaching now that I am away from it.

Cody: I am currently further ahead in my career than I thought I would be. (Which is great!) I hope to one day own the company I am currently working for.

Ashley: I want to finish my PhD and eventually get back into the classroom as a professor. This goes along with my research and the continued development of my dance school.

How had your geographic location worked into your life and career decisions?

Abby: I felt lucky that both Warner and my AmeriCorps position were both in Rochester.

Melissa: Nowadays, many businesses will allow you to work remotely from home. Ask about this option, even if it is not advertised initially. That being said, you will probably find yourself going where the jobs are, especially if you are looking for professorships. There are many visiting professor positions around the country, and many positions abroad to teach English. Getting an ESOL Certification can open many doors internationally.

Cody: Staying in Rochester can be tough and competitive.

Ashely: Personally, I would love to be in NYC or DC, but I met and fell in love with my husband who is a Rochester native, and Rochester is where my life is now.

Do you have any regrets?

Abby: I wish I had studied more graphic design and marketing.

Melissa: I wish I had gotten more job experience, even just small part-time jobs in the summer.

Cody: I wish I had taken a couple more marketing courses instead of so many philosophy courses.

Ashley: And I wish I had done the communications track instead of the theater track, because communications has become such an integral part of my work and research.

How have you used networking in your career?

Abby: As an introvert, the idea of networking made me queasy at first, but now I realize it isn’t so bad. I just try to put myself out there and try not to feel guilty about it. Different cities have different cultures concerning networking, and so you should be aware of where you are.

Melissa: I recommend reaching out to people you know who have established careers, especially if they are doing something that is interesting to you or working for companies you’re interested in. People are how you get jobs. Relationships get jobs.

Cody: Nowadays I travel across the country just to network. To me, networking just means being a friendly person and relationship building. Don’t worry; the more you do it, the better you get at it.

What final advice do you have?

Abby: I keep in mind the quote from Amy Poehler: “Good for her, not for me.” To me, this means “respect other people’s journeys and respect your own.”

Melissa: You’re not jumping off a plank.… It’s okay to change your mind. After all, staying in a job for forty years and retiring is just not the way it’s down anymore.

Cody: Chill out. You’ll figure it out. You’ll be fine. Everything doesn’t have to be a crisis.

Ashley: Got with your gut…. Sometimes, we know what we want before we know what we want. Don’t be fearful of that.

Learn more about our English program!


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