When graduating seniors come to the English Advising Office to pick up their tickets for Convocation, we ask them, “What piece of advice would you give to incoming students in our majors?”
Common themes emerge. The photo above depicts one of many responses urging incoming students to check in regularly with the academic advisers, Anna Ivy and Kristine McCoskey.
It’s important advice, but there’s more to being a successful English department major:
“Really read all of the books assigned, participate in class, and befriend your professors. You will get so much more out of your education here if you really put your whole self into learning.”
What does it mean to “put your whole self into learning”?
It means challenging yourself:
- “Listen to other students about the best professors, not the easiest ones.”
- “Take classes you aren’t comfortable taking. Get to know professors. Go to talks and free lunches and rallies. Get involved!”
- “Take risks! Write that complicated thesis. Choose the most difficult prompt. Bring up that weird discussion question.”
- “Don’t be afraid to challenge assumptions made by your professors.”
- “First drafts always suck. Keep at it. Refresh yourself if need be. But never give up.”
- “Take the most interesting, weirdly specific classes that exist. They are always the most worthwhile.”
- “Get to know as many people as you can in your classes. By senior year you recognize almost everyone in the English department.”
- “Take advantage of everything the department has to offer! There are many great resources, organizations, and events that are so, so beneficial!”
Finally, be true to yourself:
- “Embrace being an English major. We don’t study complex math or taxes or anything strictly applicable for any one job. No, we study what it means to be human, which are the most important lessons we should seek to grasp.”
- “Do not be afraid to love and cherish what you study.”
- “Don’t underestimate the importance of self-care and mutual care—including giving yourself permission to pursue your passions, advocate for your interests, and start a riot.”
By popular demand, here are some of the sites that U of I English/CW majors have found helpful for landing jobs:
- I-Link (this University of Illinois resource should be your first step, as these employers are looking to hire Illini. The interface can be frustrating, but the “Advanced Search” bar will help you zero in on the openings of interest to you.)
- Chicago Artists Resource (shows job openings at arts and cultural organizations in the Chicago area)
- Idealist.org (specializes in openings at nonprofit organizations of all kinds)
- Nontech.io (jobs in the start-up tech world that don’t involve tech skills)
- Indeed.com (enormous job database)
- USAjobs.gov (database of all federal government jobs, including internships in DC, at national parks, in the Smithsonian museum system, etc.)
- Support Driven Jobs (jobs in tech customer support–a growth field for good communicators)
- Bookjobs.com (particularly strong on internships in editing and publishing)
- Looksharp (requires a login–and as with all such sites you should be careful about how much information you provide–but it specializes in internship and entry-level positions)
The following websites also have some job listings, but they are even more useful for other aspects of your job search. LinkedIn is a helpful resource for networking (and you should definitely create a profile if you are job hunting–employers will look you up). Want to know more about a company? Glassdoor has a lot of crowd-sourced insider information–which means it can be useful, but should not be treated as a necessarily reliable source. The Muse stands out among career advice websites for up-to-date and non-obvious insights.
English/CW majors get jobs: we know that. The challenge is, WHAT job? Unlike accounting or engineering or mortuary science majors, you probably aren’t going to work in an office that has “English” or “Creative Writing” on the door. Yet contrary to popular belief, majoring in a field like English gives you more–rather than fewer–options.
Turning that wealth of possibility into a job that you want requires some important steps on your part. If you haven’t yet started planning for your post-college career, summer is a great time to start.
Here are some things you can do this summer that will help you after you graduate.
Get experience. A job of any kind will put you ahead. If you were able to land an internship in a professional field that interests you, great–but if you didn’t, any job you take on during the summer can advance you towards your goals.
- Pay attention. The better you understand your own strengths and weaknesses, the better you’ll be able to identify opportunities, and any job gives you opportunities to see how you shine. Do you prefer to greet customers or work behind the scenes? Are you better at dealing with a crisis as it unfolds, or at preparing in advance so that a crisis doesn’t happen? What kinds of problems do you most enjoy solving at work? Any job gives you opportunities to understand better what you can bring to any organization.
- Look for stories. Most full-time interviews will involve questions that begin, “tell me about a time when you…” Interviewers want to hear specifics about how you’ve dealt with conflict, difficult people, uncomfortable work situations, unforeseen problems. Stay alert for moments that will provide the stories you’ll be telling in future interviews. Even better? Create a story you can tell by improving a process, offering a new service, or solving a problem.
Explore. Paid employment isn’t the only way to find out more about a line of work that interests you.
- Volunteer. Find a not-for-profit organization that you care about and look into ways that you can contribute to their goals. Just like a paid job or involvement in a campus RSO, a volunteer position can be a way to learn more about your strengths (and weaknesses) and acquire the stories that you’ll use to demonstrate your worth to future employers.
- Job-shadow. The Career Center here on campus offers a job-shadowing program over the winter and summer breaks, but you can create your own job-shadowing opportunities if there’s a particular career you want to explore.
- Make something. Check out our recent blog post on this topic.
- Write for an audience. If you anticipate applying for jobs that require excellent writing skills, know that many employers will be asking for writing samples. It’s helpful to have material to draw on other than your writing for class. Though you should be strategic about writing for free, getting involved with an online or print publication or creating your own blog can demonstrate your ability to write for a nonacademic audience.
Connect. We all know people, and we all know people who know people. Think of it as building relationships, particularly if that term “networking”–with its overtones of opportunism and fakery–scares you. Not all relationships will be relevant to your career search, and that’s okay. The relationships you build may be relevant to someone else’s job search, or they may contribute to making the world a better place, or they may mean you have a few more friends that you would have had otherwise. It’s all good.
Prepare. The school year is going to bring you many opportunities to move towards your eventual career. Summer gives you time to get ready.
- Think internships. Internships available through the English department will be advertised shortly before classes start, and other campus opportunities will be available then, too. Give some thought to what kinds of work experiences would help you advance your goals and start preparing your application materials.
- Work on your resume. Create a masterfile for your resume (with absolutely everything you’ve ever done) and then experiment with a few different one-page versions of it, tailored to different jobs you might consider. Note that a resume is a marketing document, NOT a really big business card. It should change to reflect the purposes you’re putting it to.
- Think career fair. Even if you’re not convinced that you want to intern or work for the kind of large-scale employer that can afford to send recruiters to campus, attending the fall Business Career Fair can give you low-stakes practice in talking to employers and introduce you to a broader range of potential jobs. It’s also excellent preparation for the Illini Career Fair in the spring.
- Shop. Having a selection of office-appropriate clothes and shoes on hand will allow you to take advantage of on-campus networking or interviewing opportunities that arise. If your wardrobe is mostly t-shirts, shorts, jeans, flip-flops, and sneakers, summer is a good time to browse sales and clearance racks and inexpensively upgrade your look.
Video games and the related entertainment industry is a growth field for English/CW majors and anyone else interested in making creative content, but it’s also highly competitive, drawing people from a wide range of fields who love video games. To learn more about how English/CW and other humanities majors can position themselves to enter this industry, we brought Anne Odom to campus on April 12. Anne works as a project manager for DS Volition, the video game company here in Champaign. It’s not the career one might expect from someone who majored in philosophy and minored in Russian literature in college, but Anne argues that her experience in making arguments. wrestling with complex material, and using her intellectual curiosity has helped her be good at what she does.
In the course of her talk, Anne told us that “I have a lot of ideas!” is a terrible opening gambit for getting the attention of a potential employer in video games. Everyone has ideas, she pointed out. It doesn’t make you interesting.
Later I pressed her on that response a little. After all, every industry needs people with good ideas. How do you identify the people whose ideas are worth paying attention to?
Anne explained that it’s really easy to have good ideas, but it’s a lot harder to make them work. If you want someone to be impressed with your ideas, then turn them into something. “Make something!” she said. An app, a game, a graphic novel, a video, a screenplay. “Even better?” She went on, “Make something with someone else — that shows that you know how to work with people on your ideas.” She specifically suggested that “word people” like English/CW majors can benefit from pairing up with someone with artistic skills to create something that is both narratively and visually compelling.
The summer months stretch ahead of you. If your summer location doesn’t give you much scope for a career-focused job, if you need to make money waiting tables instead of taking an unpaid internship, if you left it too late to find a resume-building opportunity…you can always make something.