One of many reasons why studying English is great is that it provides an adaptable skill set that can be applicable to nearly any field. While some English majors may know they want to go into careers traditionally associated with the discipline, like editing or teaching, others may be drawn to the major for different reasons and may choose careers in business, technology, or the sciences. To learn about alternative career paths, I recently talked with Austin Millet, who graduated with a degree in English in 2010 and currently works as a Project Operations Coordinator at VelocityEHS in Chicago. Here’s what he had to say about his experiences after college:
VO: What did you do after graduating from U of I?
Austin: I worked a few jobs part-time: temporary manual labor, at a bar, and as a content/marketing writer at a small business in Chicago. After about a year, I went to teach English in the Republic of Georgia for a year.
VO: Interesting! Was that through a school or organization? What was that experience like?
Austin: I volunteered through the program Teach and Learn with Georgia, which was under the Ministry of Education and Science for the Georgian government. It was a really great experience, and completely different from what I thought it would be. I had never taught before, and got completely thrown in: my first day after training, I was running a beginners’ English class for Georgian police. The whole year was a major growing experience, and I definitely got a lot out of it. I absolutely recommend teaching or volunteering abroad if a student has the disposition.
VO: What did you do after getting back from Georgia?
Austin: I moved back downtown and was a professional job seeker for a while. One of the first things I did was an internship at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, an urban sustainability research and policy non-profit. I’m actually co-chair of their junior board, the CNT Young Innovators, now. I also worked at a Barnes and Noble and bounced around to various things for a while.
VO: It’s great that you stayed connected to CNT after your internship! It seems like internships can often lead to lasting connections.
Austin: I feel lucky that was the case this time. CNT is a really great organization.
VO: What do you do now?
Austin: I am a Project Operations Coordinator at VelocityEHS, an environmental, health, safety, and sustainability software company.
VO: Can you tell me more about VelocityEHS and your work there?
Austin: VelocityEHS provides its customers with access to an online database of Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) documents required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). These documents list information about any substance an employee can come into contact with that is covered by the employee’s Right to Know: things like hazards, exposure dangers and what to do if exposed, and storage guidelines or requirements. Manufacturers need to fill out MSDSs and either send them to their customers or make them available. VelocityEHS’s customers (which include schools, park districts, city governments, large manufacturers, and big companies with recognizable names) can either build their own eBinder of documents for OSHA compliance, or they can have VelocityEHS do it by buying a Compliance Service project. I run some of those projects.
VO: Could you give me an example of a particular substance for which your customers might need to complete MSDS documentation?
Austin: WD-40 3-in-One Lubricant. Henkel Loctite Threadlocker. Pretty much everything requires an MSDS or MSDS exempt letter. I’ve seen MSDSs for pepper, and exempt letters for hand lotion.
VO: Wow, I had no idea. What are your responsibilities?
Austin: When I am assigned a project, I get either a list of MSDSs the customer needs or the MSDS files themselves. If it’s a list, I process it and the manufacturers listed are contacted and the documents requested. I then process the documents received, check the documents for quality assurance, and make sure we get the customer as many of the requested documents as possible.
VO: So what does a typical day at work look like?
Austin: My day is usually broken into doing lots of fairly small tasks moving a project from one phase to another, which can vary widely depending on a customer’s needs: formatting a list, checking that the document received from the first round of obtainment matches what is on the list, uploading the batch to the customer’s eBinder, submitting the list of documents in the eBinder for extra indexing of hazard or chemical information on the MSDS so that the customer can search for products with specific chemicals, completing accounting tasks related to how much work we were sent versus how much they purchased, and about six or seven other examples that vary by project.
VO: What do you like best about your job?
Austin: I like that every project is (pretty) unique, so there are always a new set of challenges. I also like having a sense of ownership of what I do, and take pride in delivering the best work I can. And of course, I like that my company provides a tool to help companies keep their employees informed in an environmentally-responsible manner.
VO: It seems like some people might be surprised that you studied English, rather than something like Business or Engineering, but in my work with career planning for English students, I’ve found that humanities skills can be very widely applicable, and are valuable even in surprising contexts. What skills from your English major do you find yourself drawing on in your work?
Austin: First of all, reading and writing are invaluable skills for email correspondence, which is essential. English majors will be surprised at how much of a leg up they get. As you can tell, my job is managing a lot of shifting priorities and project scopes, which I think I’m good at largely from having so many reading, essay, and research assignments in school. A heavy workload prepares you more for managing details than some might think. Class discussion lends itself to presentations and meetings. Having ownership of a paper is good practice for having ownership of a project. I’m not customer-facing, but I work with those who are, and they need to draft responses and help customers on their feet, which could only be helped by experience with writing and rhetoric.
VO: Finally, what advice would you offer to current English students?
Austin: Get as diverse an exposure to authors, genres, mediums, styles, etc. as possible while in school. Mine was pretty limited, so when I graduated I felt like I had some catching up to do. Don’t feel limited by what you think English majors all do after graduating. I definitely did, and it took a while for me to be able to explore other possibilities. Look for places to volunteer while you’re in school; you’ll meet some interesting people along the way. And don’t worry about the real world. It’ll be scary, it always is, but you’ll find your way if you look for it.
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