3 Essential Career Tips They Don’t Teach English Majors In School

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I loved being a student. Every time Mary tells us a story about an annoying lecture, or a heated debate happening in her Political Communications class, I become very wistful. When I was in college, as long as I was in a class that I was really interested in, like a writing workshop and not some Geology requirement that had me nodding off for two hours (sorry, rock-lovers), I was a pretty ideal presence. I would show up early, do the reading, pay attention, give thought-out feedback on my peers’ work, and eat my damn snacks ahead of time to save the whole lecture hall or round table the burden of having to hear my damn crunching noises.

I’ll admit, most of my fond memories of being in class come from my last two semesters of college, which were each filled with exactly two English seminars that I was taking to fulfill the last of my credits, and I was excited about each of them. (There was one dark semester of 18 credits, and getting all the reading done was a slightly bigger challenge, to say the least. Beowulf was involved. *Shivers*.) But while I paid attention in my seminars and workshops, dissected every rhetorical device I could find, and forged a way to relate Parks and Recreation to Willa Cather novels in a thesis, I wasn’t putting much thought into what my English degree would mean for my future career.

People sometimes say that liberal arts degrees don’t lead to any viable career paths, and I firmly disagree. Sure, if you decide with all of your heart that you need to write fiction for a living, you’re going to have to accept that it’s going to be harder for you to get to a “successful” place than someone who is also hardworking and talented, yet their talents happen to be in the field of finance. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t pursue your dream of becoming the next way-less-sexist Norman Mailer while also having steady income that you still find creatively fulfilling in some way.

Because frankly, as much as I loved my University, they did very little actual career preparation for those of us who weren’t in programs with clear-cut pathways. If I wanted to go into academia, there were plenty of resources at my disposal, and professors I could turn to for advice. Most majors in my program seemed to want careers in publishing, but even for that direction, there wasn’t a lot of guidance. And, as much as I loved English seminars, and deliberated potentially getting a graduate degree at one point or another, I just knew academics as a career wasn’t a path for me, and publishing is an ever-elusive field to get your foot in the door, and not something I was ever that interested in, anyway. But what I figured out after graduating, and working an unpaid internship at a magazine, was that there was so much I could have been doing while still in college that would have helped me afterwards.

1. Build a portfolio early.

I’ve managed to create a career that, until this point, mostly consisted of freelancing, but that took a lot of experiential learning. One thing I learned is that freelance work is only really possible to come by if you have a portfolio to show for yourself. Don’t worry — even if the only place you’ve published is your own Tumblr, you have somewhere to start. Of course, you can’t expect to be paid for a lot of work as a previously-unpublished writer. I personally had to write many, many free articles, mostly for the blog of the magazine I interned at, before I was ever paid to write. But you can use those Tumblr posts to help you get work at small publications or websites, then use those published pieces to get work for bigger hitters that may actually pay you, and so on. Building out your portfolio as a writer is something you will never stop doing; in fact, now that most writing is online, some would argue that it’s taking the place of your resume.

Writing for free for publications is something that I truly wish I did in college, because then I would have had a lot more to show potential employers afterwards, other than the Girls recaps I did for my school paper. (And academic writing is great, but in my experience, it doesn’t serve much of a purpose in a freelance portfolio.) When it comes time to actually get your portfolio together, there are several free hosting platforms that are pretty simple to use. Journo Portfolio is one, and they even have several customizable templates, so you can make your portfolio feel most like “you.” Contently is another, and they even help some qualified users find freelance work. (Chelsea even mentions it in a recent video!)

2. Don’t just think of writing as either academic or self-expression.

Plenty of companies need to hire good writers and communicators. The first thing I had to do to get freelance writing jobs was to get over the notion that writing is always supposed to be fun or fulfilling, no matter what. Copywriting can actually be a lucrative path, and even though it’s not exactly life-affirming, and the subject matter isn’t always exciting, it can actually be kind of fun. There are plenty of jobs in the growing field of social media, too. If that’s something you’re good at, try building a following for yourself online; you can use it as evidence for future potential employers and clients that, yes, you are worth their time and money.

As previously mentioned, Contently can be a good resource for people looking for copywriting jobs. There are also platforms that allow you to make a portfolio (or incorporate an already-existing one) and apply to and receive invites for various project. Upwork is one I’ve used and found success with. It’s not perfect — the platform takes a percentage of your earnings, depending on how much you’ve made through the platform up to this point — but you can negotiate rates, and try to build yourself up to a “top rated” freelancer, which really helps score you more projects. I’ve found tons of English-related projects through this platform, including writing social media copy for a home-preschool startup and copyediting a catalog for hams.

3. Small opportunities in school can help lead to more lucrative ones later.

One of my biggest regrets from college is not becoming a tutor at my school’s writing center. You could start as a sophomore, and after a year of taking the tutoring class and training, they would pay you a fairly decent hourly rate for tutoring. My friend Laura did this, and I thought you only could participate if you’d been invited to the program by a professor. But I learned from Laura that anyone could apply — just not a lot of people did.

I kick myself every time I think about that missed opportunity. I had a job all throughout college as a receptionist in my school’s executive offices. I’d get a fair number of hours, only worked during the day, and didn’t think I needed another income. But not only would being a writing tutor have paid me, it would have been excellent experience. There are plenty of tutoring companies willing to hire people with English backgrounds (Varsity is one I’ve worked with), and having more prior experience always helps when you’re negotiating a rate.

Of course, plenty of extracurricular activities in school are helpful resume-builders in finding a job later. If you want to work in media, of course, working for your school’s paper, alternative webzine, or even the radio station (if they still have one) are all great ways to spend your time.

***

I wouldn’t trade my degree for anything, and I loved so many of my English professors. But more than one of them advised me not to pursue academics as a career, and that they only really did so because they weren’t aware of the other paths out there. (One in particular told me she only went on to a graduate program because she “got in.”) If academia (or publishing) is truly your calling, and the reason you’ve stuck out your entire program and you maybe even enjoy deciphering Middle English, you should do it. But that wasn’t the case for me, and yet, I’ve seemed to find a career path that incorporates everything I loved about school.

Holly is the Managing Editor of The Financial Diet. Follow her on Twitter here, or send her your ideas at holly@thefinancialdiet.com!

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  • Kalee Cowan

    I, too, kick myself for not taking advantage of becoming a tutor during college. I always thought it was more important to be at my off-campus job instead of becoming a tutor, but I now realize that tutoring would have been an opportunity that would have helped me after college (mostly having tutoring experience that would help secure online tutoring jobs) more than anything I learned at my off-campus job.

  • Lauren

    I was a writing tutor in college and I really loved it. I learned so much by reading papers from classes I didn’t have time to take, and it helped me become a better writer. It also helped me feel significantly connected to my department. If this is an option for any of you college kids, I would highly recommend it.

  • Crystal

    Can I ask where you went to school?

  • Judith

    If your college has an official program or any documented opportunity for tutoring, it’s a great boost. I took advantage of it and taught some computer lab classes in my final year. Not only did it get me a foreign scholarship, it looks great on my resume. I could show a proper job in my field before even finishing college and that’s an advantage anyone can get pretty good use out of.

  • Lauren

    Such a brilliant article. I can relate to every one of these things.
    Signed, a creative writing major working as a technical writer while writing her novels in every spare minute she gets.