While I’ve had several roles working in higher education over the last 13 years, one of the things that has stayed constant is the fact I use my English degree every single day. I wanted to share my experiences using my major in the job market and help fellow English majors better brand their skills.
I’ve developed my professional brand as an institutional “data storyteller” working with postsecondary data. While my job is heavily technical (and I learned to code on the job), my true value is being able to take all of the data and information and turn it into a story—courtesy of my English background. I know how to structure presentations and reports, I can collect supporting research with ease, and my training in learning how to sift through lots of information (i.e. text) made it easy for me to get into data analytics. I think English Majors often don't know how to translate their hard skills into really marketable soft skills that are in high demand from employers.
It seems every week some “expert” publishes an article lamenting on the fact that if college students want to ensure they can get a good job after graduation, they should steer clear of “worthless” majors. Go into business or technology, say the authors. Stay away from things like English literature or creative writing.
This argument comes from the erroneous assumption that a college education is best spent developing a repertoire of “hard skills” for immediate transferability to your first employer. What this argument misses is two crucial things: one, hard skills are easy to teach a new hire; and two, earning a degree in the liberal arts is about investing time into learning skills that set you up for winning the marathon, not the sprint.
The struggle for most English majors (and, unfortunately, some faculty) is figuring out how to translate the rich cornucopia of skills learned within the program into something employers view as assets. Part of this problem is that catch-phrases like “critical thinking” and “effective communication” are so abstract employers don’t know how to articulate what they mean. As English majors, we are quite good at articulating abstract ideas and that’s what this article is all about: how to brand your in-demand skill set into something tangible that employers (in any industry) will realize they desperately want and need.
Branding your learned skill set is essential. LinkedIn is a great place to start looking at skillset branding. Most profiles now have a tagline that distills one’s expertise, skills, and experience into a succinct soundbyte. However, your tagline probably shouldn’t read “Critical Thinker, Excellent Writer, Independent Worker”; this doesn’t tell employers anything useful. Let’s examine how to re-brand these for use in a branding statement (like LinkedIn) or somewhere else on your resume.
What you want to say: I’ve spent my college career drawing conclusions from dense primary and secondary texts to make informed arguments.
What you’re trying to say: I can make an informed judgment based on analysis.
How to brand this as a skill: I personally prefer to translate this attribute as the ability to weigh risk/reward to make an independent conclusion. Focus on branding this as your ability to make an informed decision or helping others make a decision. This might be something like ‘the ability to help stakeholders understand the risks/rewards of strategic business decisions’. But in order to use this in your brand, you need to be able to demonstrate it.
Demonstration: Don’t use your capstone paper as proof of critical thinking. Employers are looking for how you can apply that skill to something practical or relevant. Any example you can give (internship, volunteering, job during college) where you can cite a specific way you dissected a bevy of information to arrive at a conclusion, and the positive impact of that decision, will be powerful.
What you want to say: I can write a 20-page paper in six hours with proper MLA citation.
What you’re trying to say: I know how to craft language to elucidate compelling ideas.
How to brand this as a skill: Most employers aren’t impressed with verboseness; in fact, any practice with writing short, concise pieces will be your ally. If you have any experience with industry-specific writing from courses you took or internships/jobs (e.g. scientific writing, public policy writing, research writing, etc.) be sure to highlight this.
Demonstration: Your cover letter and resume are evidence of your writing ability to an employer so it is imperative these showcase your writing skills. Choose your words carefully, make your point, and move on.
What you want to say: I’m an introvert. Please leave me alone.
What you’re trying to say: I can be trusted to self-manage and meet deadlines without micromanagement.
How to brand this as a skill: Teamwork and collaboration skills are important, so don’t ignore them, but the concept of an independent worker is really the skill of autonomy and individual agency. During your undergrad, professors likely had you ‘stack’ large assignments, meaning you turned in pieces of a larger whole along the way. This was intentional; you learned how to self-manage and communicate back to your professor your project status. If you thrive working alone, brand this as something like the ‘ability to self-manage short and long term projects while keeping supervisor informed of progress.’
Demonstration: Pick a specific instance, either academic or extra-curricular or job-related, where you worked autonomously on a project and successfully completed it on time. Again, focus on your ability to self-manage and communicate your progress up to a supervisor.
(I know this one wasn’t listed in our original branding statement, but this is my bonus suggestion.)
What you want to say: I just want to be J. K. Rowling when I grow up.
What you’re trying to say: I can weave in detail, plot, and thematic elements into a short or longer piece of writing.
How to brand this as a skill: We are living in a very noisy world--more data, more news stories, more articles, more everything than we know what to do with. Haley Crowell Curry has a great blog post on this website about the concept of storytelling, which is essentially helping clients tell their story. As an English major, your research and writing skills make you a natural storyteller with the ability to capture thematic connections and hidden nuances that reveal a story’s ‘truth.’ Business desperately need this skill when it comes to uncovering the hidden narratives in their consumer behavior, their donor giving rates, patient satisfaction results, etc.
Demonstration: If you have the opportunity, take a statistics or data analysis and use this course as a way to work on your storytelling skills. If not, research the word ‘storyteller’ and ‘branding’ to see hundreds of examples of how people are using this attribute in their professional toolkit.
I also encourage you to look at all of the profiles on this website and realize English majors have vastly different paths and outcomes. English majors really can do anything; how you brand yourself and your skillset will be the key to unlocking doors outside of the “obvious” jobs for English majors. In your electives, take advantage of courses outside your major that focus on a certain area of interest like the sciences or public policy that can help you speak the “lingo” of that industry when it comes time to applying for jobs.
Last but not least, remember that an English degree is like a fine wine: it gets better with age. Your success shouldn't be measured by your first job or even your first five years. Be a little patient, continue developing your skills as well as your brand, and earning that English degree will turn out to be the best investment you ever made.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brooke Kile is the Director of Institutional Research at a medium sized, private university in the Midwest. During college, Brooke worked in the admissions office and after graduation she decided to stay in higher education. Brooke began her formal career working in financial aid where she held various compliance and reporting roles over the course of 10 years. In 2015, Brooke’s reporting and data analytics skills landed her in a new role within the Institutional Research area.
Brooke holds a B.A. in English Literature from Butler University in Indianapolis and a M.S. in Management from the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois. She spends most of her free time reading and writing fiction.