By Vincent Barr (Guest Contributor and Gainfully Employed English Major)
“Well, what do you plan to do with that?”
The question that I heard time and time again from peers after disclosing that I was one of “them,” an English major and recent graduate (2008, College of William and Mary). Telling prospective employers you’re a recently graduated English major is like mentioning you’re a Yankees’ fan at Fenway Park, or — worse — that you don’t even watch baseball. You’re dismissed.
Add to that that seemingly every job listing required a business or technical background, and I was intimidated. This was a barrier to entry that, no matter how creative, attention-getting or artful the cover letter I drafted, I did not think I would be able to hurdle. The fact that I had not one internship on my resume did not help my cause, and I learned the non-profit summer jobs I’d had did not replace the meat and potatoes of business-relevant experience.
Marketing and public relations were two fields said to value writing ability and creativity, so that is where my search began. After nine long months of tirelessly submitting resume and cover letters, I finally landed an interview at a small firm.
There, a young senior account executive was concerned about my background or lack thereof. She explained, “I would try you out on the farm team first. Then we can teach you how to play in the Majors.” I imagine this transition was to happen under her tutelage. No autographs were signed, and the interview concluded.
I never heard back.
Maybe I just got lost in the line-up. Months passed and I caught word that Joe DiMaggio—the hiring manager I had interviewed with—had hung up her mitt. So I followed-up, the company remembered me, and I landed a second interview. This time, I met with a person who saw me as an eager college graduate who had researched the company, could write coherently and was willing to learn; not as someone asking for round-trip tickets to the moon. The playing field felt like it was leveling; this was my “chance.”
That was refreshing, reassuring.
Fast forward to my first day, and I was nervous! I was waiting for my boss to ask me to take on the impossible, to reverse engineer Pi or interpret Stephen Hawking algorithms. I was waiting for that omnipresent, invisible barrier to entry to materialize and say, “Aha! Not so fast!”
That day never came.
Instead, positive feedback, encouragement, and eventually a full-time offer came in its place. I knew I had to prove myself, so that I set out to do. When I left work, I went to the library and researched public relations techniques and marketing plans. I kept a running list of the vocabulary I overheard but didn’t quite understand. I still have that list, and I still add to it. This comes partly from my background as an English major, trained that understanding is an ongoing process requiring time, effort, and research, and partly from my desire to show my employers what English majors are made of.
Now, I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t learned something from the experience. Skills, particularly at the entry-level, are learned on the job. I know now there is no education that can teach you a firm’s process or structure; no one is “job-ready” on day 1, not English majors, not business majors—no one. There are, however, two ways we English majors can set ourselves apart from the competition: demonstrate a fresh perspective and be ambitious.
So, what if I’d had round two with DiMaggio and was asked what an English major brings to the Majors? I’d have said we bring in new perspective, one different from that taught across undergraduate business courses. I like to think of Nike in this case. They became a giant in the sneaker industry when they changed consumer perception of its shoes from one of function to one of luxury. It became a status and fashion symbol, rather than just-another-running-shoe. That’s differentiation, new perspective.
Successful businesses rely on differentiation. Differentiation depends on the people who can drive it—with creativity, resourcefulness, initiative. And that’s what we English majors bring to the plate.