How to Plan Ahead for a Future You Can’t Predict

As you likely know if you attended this semester’s English Alumni Career Panel, a humanities career path can be meandering. Speaking earlier this week for the Engl 199: Career Planning for Humanities Majors lecture series, Maeve Reilly highlighted this point as she narrated her own career path, which included the Peace Corps, a masters degree, and positions in ESL instruction, proofreading, project managing, and marketing, leading up to her current position as Director of Communications for the Beckman Institute here on campus. As Reilly’s career path exemplifies, the great thing about English and other humanities majors is that they can do so many things with their degree. But how can you plan ahead for a future you can’t predict? Reilly offered some advice to humanities students on preparing for a career while still in undergrad:


“Try to get experiences in as many areas as you can,” Reilly advised in her talk. Having a range of experiences will add diversity to your résumé and can make you stand out as an applicant. Reilly advocated that you try to gain specific experience in areas like writing and social media through involvement in student organizations, part-time jobs, and internships. Such concrete experiences can also give you opportunities to network with fellow students, campus employees, and alumni, which can help you to develop more connections and even to obtain future jobs.

Soft skills

Humanities students acquire a wealth of soft skills (e.g., communication, leadership, critical thinking) that are applicable to most professional fields and are increasingly sought by employers. These skills are most valuable to you when you learn how to recognize them and narrate their applicability to potential careers. Reilly particularly emphasized flexibility (especially the ability to teach yourself new things), research skills, and evaluative skills as critical tools that humanities students develop. Because you routinely put these skills into practice in your humanities coursework, you may not realize how special they are. Learning to think about your everyday academic activities in the context of their applications outside of the classroom can help you to highlight your preparedness for a range of careers.

The application

Reilly noted that one of the best ways to strengthen a job application is to read the job posting carefully and strategically tailor your application materials to emphasize your suitability for that particular job. She stressed, for instance, that you should not use the same résumé for all job applications because you want your résumé to highlight your experiences and skills that are most relevant to the position you’re applying for. To help you determine how you could contribute to an organization you’re applying to, research the organization and their employees to learn about what they do. (Stay posted for a workshop we’ll offer in the Spring semester on demystifying job ads!)

What is a Career in Communications?

Maeve Reilly, Director of Communications for the Beckman Institute on campus, spoke this week for the Engl 199: Careers in the Humanities lecture series about what it means to have a career in communications. As a Director of Communications, Reilly characterizes herself as a writer, editor, proofreader.

Synergy28spring2015-coverand event coordinator. We learned that working in Communications for the Beckman Institute can involve creating annual reports, putting together Synergy newsletters, composing news releases on published research, writing stories and producing videos on recent research, generating content for the Beckman website, posting updates to social media, planning the biennial Beckman open house, and organizing events. In other words, working in communications involves producing digital and print written and multi-media material for different audiences. In particular, Reilly’s work enables her to share the innovative and fascinating research of renowned faculty with the campus and the world.

Don’t assume that you have to have a degree in Communication to work in the field of communications! Reilly herself has a BA in English and an MA in Irish Drama and Literature. English and other humanities majors can excel in careers in communications, marketing, advertising, and many other fields because of the range of widely sought skills they possess.beckmanopenhouse

Demystifying Networking: The Informational Interview

system-927147_1280by Valerie O’Brien

In his presentation for the Engl 199: Career Planning in the Humanities lecture series, Andrew Allen, Director of Illinois Business Consulting, offered UIUC humanities majors a valuable piece of advice: networking is essential for getting a job.

On the surface, this advice may seem obvious. After all, “networking” has become a cultural buzzword that we hear all the time. Most college students probably recognize “networking” as an important part of professional development. Yet, despite the term’s prevalence, precisely what “networking” means and how one does it may remain a mystery to many students. What does “networking” actually look like?

Allen recommended that students begin networking through informational interviews, which are brief, low-stakes conversations with individuals about their careers. This networking practice can help you to develop a circle of professional contacts, to determine what career options are available to students with humanities backgrounds, and to narrow down that list of possible careers according to your personal interests.

To conduct an informational interview, follow these steps:

  1. Determine what professional field you’d like to know more about and who you already know within that field. It works best to start the networking process with a contact you already have – a relative, for instance, or a friend’s parent, or an alumnus you’ve been in contact with (perhaps through the English Department’s Alumni Mentoring Network).
  1. Get in touch with your contact to ask if he or she would be willing to talk with you for fifteen minutes about their career.
  1. Prepare a couple questions to ask your contact, but don’t simply read them – you want the exchange to feel conversational and natural. Let your contact talk about their job, what they do every day, what they enjoy about their field, and similar topics. Be respectful of your contact’s time, but also be aware that if the conversation is going well, it may last longer than the fifteen minutes you requested.
  1. At the end of the conversation, ask if your contact could put you in touch with one or two of their colleagues who might be willing to talk with you further about their careers. It’s best if your contact emails their colleagues to make the introduction. However, if instead you’re going to be sending the email, be sure to ask your contact if you can mention them as a means of introducing yourself.
  1. After the informational interview, follow up with your contact to thank them for their time. If you want to stay in touch with the contact, you might connect with them on LinkedIn, but you should always either send a courteous personal message when adding them as a connection or ask them about connecting on LinkedIn near the end of the informational interview.

Eventually, the connections you make through conducting informational interviews could lead to a job offer, since, as Allen observed, “companies would rather hire someone they know than a sheet of paper.” It will likely take a lot of phone calls for this to occur, but in the process you can learn a lot about what you’re looking for in your future career.

Networking will require intentionality and time. And it’s important to start early and network regularly! Make this practice a part of your regular routine: Allen recommended trying to conduct an informational interview once or twice a week. It’s also important to start networking long before you’re getting ready to graduate: it’s never too early to begin thinking about possible career paths, especially because as an English or Creative Writing major you have so many options available to you!