Alternative Career Choices for English PhDs

This is an update of an essay I wrote while studying at UCSB. I was becoming disillusioned with the prospect of becoming a professor. Since then, several people have found it helpful, so I thought I’d share it here. Feel free to add your own ideas…

The PhD program in English is, in many ways, an apprenticeship: you are being taught by English professors to use their tools and processes with the ultimate goal of becoming an English professor. But there are other options, other paths that are open to you, that you might take for any of a number of reasons.

Traditionally, the alternative career paths for an English major have been the relatively obvious ones. The book Great Jobs for English Majors lists exactly five paths (DeGalan and Lambert iii-iv):

1. Writing, Editing, and Publishing

2. Teaching

3. Advertising and Public Relations

4. Business Administration and Management

5. Technical Writing

While this may not seem to be an extraordinarily rich set of choices, it is worth looking at what the book has to say.

Perhaps most importantly, the “Career Paths” section of Great Jobs starts with this claim: “[English] has always been not only a mainstay of the college curriculum, but also the foundation of our work in many other academic areas. Of all the liberal arts degrees, it opens the most doors and makes the graduate versatile and highly employable…” (114). The authors point out that one of the core skill sets for almost any job is communication. The ability to write and/or speak clearly is a tremendously valuable asset. Regardless of the field or industry, documents need to be produced, reports given, and presentations made. An advanced degree in English means a greater facility with vocabulary and language, higher quality of expression and style, and stronger ability with rhetoric and argument than most other disciplines. In addition to excellent communication skills, your English degree also means strong research skills, an aptitude for analysis and critical thinking, and the capacity to parse dense content through close reading. All of these can be seen as “transferable skills” that have value over a wide range of career paths.

The paths laid out in Great Jobs are rather conventional, but we can lose sight of these possibilities when surrounded by pure academia. Path 1, writing, editing, and publishing, is perhaps the most obvious. However, it’s worth reminding ourselves just how wide these fields are. Writers are needed everywhere. They are of course a mainstay in media, as writers generate content for entertainment and information (for fiction and non-fiction books, magazines, web sites, television, film, radio, games, and more). Larger organizations (corporate, non-profit, educational, religious, government, etc.) often use individuals or entire units for internal communications (writing and communicating policies, standards, or other information) that “rival the commercial publishing industry in quality” (DeGalan and Lambert 119). The grant writer or proposal writer in academic and non-profit institutions is a position that can command both power and prestige and is instrumental to the success of many organizations; similarly, institutions need someone to produce their white papers or position papers when a research project is complete. While a bachelor’s degree is perhaps sufficient for general publishing jobs, specialized niches are also out there. The academic presses, both large and small, are a viable option if your interests lie in that direction; the role of acquisitions editor is particularly suited to an English PhD—though be warned that you must work your way up to that position. Reference books, such as encyclopedias, don’t research, write, or edit themselves. Take a look at your library, and think about where some of those eccentric items have come from, what it takes to produce them. Writing, editing, and publishing can offer an interesting career if you think about it from that perspective.

Path 2 is the second-most obvious career path: teaching. Again, though, there is more to this than meets the eye. We are being trained to teach writing and literature at the university level, but “teaching” encompasses an awful lot more than that. If you’re still considering the professoriate, do not forget the junior and community colleges, which will focus more on teaching than on research or service. There may also be openings in professional and vocational schools; for example, a local graduate school for health professionals has a series of “professional writing” courses, and they have in the past come to our department looking for instructors. High schools can attract PhDs, too, especially to teach AP or other advanced English classes. Private schools in particular can offer lucrative teaching careers for the holder of an advanced English degree. In addition to traditional teaching, there is the professional tutoring industry (Huntington, Kaplan, Sylvan, etc.), as well as units like UCSB’s own Writing Center. Larger organizations may also have in-house training departments where teaching skills will be valued. For someone who enjoys teaching but perhaps is seeking another context for that work, there are many options available.

The third path, advertising and public relations, is not often an attractive one to those in our field. There are, of course, all the journalism, marketing, communication, and PR undergrads with whom to compete on a general level. However, interesting opportunities still exist in this field, and we are—don’t even try to deny it—masters of persuasion and spin to rival any of those other degree programs. While it’s likely that you originally became an English major because you didn’t want to do that kind of work, it’s also possible that your goals or interests have changed. If you find it an attractive option, there’s no reason not to try for a job in this area. It’s a strong industry, and with your PhD you may be able to command a higher starting salary than most. Remember also that all kinds of organizations (colleges and universities, government agencies, medical institutions, professional organizations, etc.) have PR departments—this portion of the job market can sometimes be overlooked by strong candidates who want to go for the big PR firms and the biggest bucks. Also related to public relations is the area of media campaigns. If you have a political or activist bent along with organizational ability, it may be possible to turn your skills and talents to campaign management in politics or to aiding in the design and production of media campaigns for non-profit, governmental, or other organizations.

Path 4, business administration and management, is one that is almost universally overlooked by people in our field. It is, however, much more than it seems, and holds a lot of promise for the English PhD. At a basic level, this is where the communication skills and other transferable skills mentioned earlier come into play. I got my master’s degree in English from a small Midwestern university. At their annual career fair, corporate America comes looking specifically for the English grad students because we know how to communicate. They told us that these skills are more valuable to them than business-school knowledge, which can be learned on the fly; on the other hand, they consistently see MBAs who can’t write quality memos or reports and who can’t communicate well within the company or with clients and partners outside of it. But administration is more than just corporate middle-management. For PhDs in particular, academic administration is another great option. There are positions with academic units, such as departmental, division, or college staff, or administrative units, like the registrar, Graduate Division (or its equivalent), or the offices of the chancellor or president. Not only do you bring to such careers the skills you have been building, but you have experience with the bureaucracy (for good or ill) and an understanding of the organization, its methods, and its goals. Non-profit and governmental administration can also make for fulfilling careers in this area; an administrator or manager position with the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Library of Congress, for example, can combine administrative work with the humanities training we value. Private foundations and think tanks, while difficult to get into, can also provide challenging and rewarding work. Management is a very viable option for an English grad seeking an alternative to the academic career path.

Finally, there is the technical writing path. Great Jobs distinguishes this from the general writing path by its focus on interpreting and making comprehensible technical or complex information. This path is centered on the production of manuals, reports, and other technical documents. Like the PR path, this is a field that may seem generally made for the BAs or for those in other fields like communication or even engineering. However, it is still the case that no one writes better than we do. A PhD in English who also has a technical background can use that to put a technological spin on any of the previous paths. If, for instance, 3M or Target will hire an English grad for her or his communication skills, IBM or HP may be even more excited about an English grad who also understands hardware or software. An administrative or communication position at the National Science Foundation or the U.S. Patent Office can be added to the list of careers to consider.

Great Jobs therefore has a lot to offer if we put a little emphasis on the extra training we have received as graduate students. However, there are more paths that may be open as well, depending on your interests and specific areas of specialization. For instance, your affinity for and knowledge of historical texts might qualify you for work as a special collections curator or archivist. If your training includes strong language work, then translation—whether of historical or contemporary works, or perhaps of institutional or technical documents—is an area in which you may thrive. Various organizations employ researchers, people who can locate information in all its various forms and hiding places; this is a skill at which we excel, and some may enjoy that work even more than writing. If your strength is in interpersonal skills and you have an interest in the entertainment industry, think about trying on the role of literary agent or talent manager.

If you are doing more than just English—which is true to some degree for most of us—then you may be able to turn your avocation, side emphasis, or hobby into a strength that is bolstered by your academic skills. This has been my own experience: with a side emphasis in technology (including UCSB’s doctoral emphasis in Technology and Society), it was almost natural for me to get involved with classroom technology as part of my study and my teaching. This, combined with a small network of people in the field, helped to land me a career in instructional technology, in which I use my skills in technology, research, teaching, communication, and writing—all of which I acquired or honed as an English student. Similarly, Sarah Smith-Robbins went almost overnight from being an English graduate student with a focus on teaching writing to one of the world’s foremost experts on interactive teaching because of her interest in and enthusiasm for Second Life; she is now Director of Emerging Technologies at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business (“Our Staff”). Taylor Whitmer, a 2007 double BA in English and Communication from UCSB, became a research analyst for NB Real Estate (now Capita Symonds Real Estate), one of the top commercial property agencies in the United Kingdom.

Remember, finally, that any of the jobs mentioned herein can be pursued on a part-time basis. The terms consultant, free-lance, or—for the bravest of souls—entrepreneur conjure up specters of instability and insecurity. Keep in mind, though, that security (at least until you have tenure) is a slippery and relative thing. Self-employment, while definitely not secure enough for some, can provide flexibility, freedom, and excitement for others. Like anything else that has been mentioned here, this is not for everyone; still, it should not be overlooked as an available option.

When considering the “job market,” it may help to know that the market can be much broader than is generally imagined. With some creativity, it may be possible to find rewarding and even lucrative work in any of a number of areas. Think about your dissertation: aside from its academic value, does it speak to a particular industry or area of human endeavor? Perhaps there’s a ready-made job for you as an expert in that domain. Or perhaps you can talk your way into the creation of a dream job in some institution or agency. Hopefully, the options brought up here can at least provide places to look when thinking about the next step. The massive achievement that is the English PhD can truly take you almost anywhere.

References

DeGalan, Julie, and Stephen Lambert. Great Jobs for English Majors. Lincolnwood: VGM Career Horizons, 2000. Print.

Our Staff.” Indiana University Kelley School of Business. 2011. Web.

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*** EDIT

As with any reasonably good idea, there are lots of other resources out there. Here are some that I find the most relevant:

35 Awesome Jobs for English Majors by James Mulvey at TheSellOut. This article has a lot of overlap with what I have written here, but there are some additional job areas as well as links for such things as “breaking into publishing.” Not all of these jobs really apply to PhDs, but overall it’s a lot of useful information. He also wrote PhD in English? What the F%$@#K! have you been doing for the last ten years? on the same blog. It’s well-written, motivational, somewhat cynical, and ultimately trying to sell his book, but it gives some good advice on how to market yourself (not your degree!) to nonacademic employers.

The Versatile PhD is a network for both PhDs and doctoral-granting institutions. It’s geared toward locating nonacademic positions for social science and humanities PhDs (and ABDs and MAs), and is free for individuals. 

Mark Johnson’s Career FAQs: Frequent Questions about Working beyond Academe has lots of practical information about the experience and getting into a job. The site’s Other Resources page also offers links to useful websites.

PhDs.org has a list of current jobs, some of which are academic. Many other fields are covered on the site as well.

Developing a Nonacademic Career at the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages offers brief advice for people in our position. I feel like it all comes from academic folks, however, which is at least ironic.

I’ll add more resources as they come up. Feel free to post your own in the comments, too.

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