What to do With an English Degree or Two
A few weeks ago, my undergraduate professor asked me to speak at a departmental event on what I had done with my English degrees. I had to laugh – for the past year and a half, I had done nothing remotely related. I had taken the classic detour from researcher to barista. Rather than paying off my student loan, I bought some camping gear and drove to the Grand Canyon with my boyfriend.
In academia, there’s never a bad time to quote Horace, so I will: “They change their climate, not their soul, who rush across the sea.” The point that I’m trying to make with Horace is that you can’t escape the problem of what to do with an English degree. I researched career paths extensively after my MPhil. I watched self-help videos and downloaded resume templates; drank espresso with journalists; emailed librarians and sub-librarians; and practiced the LSAT. I took the Myers-Briggs test and the enneagram to discover my true self, told all my friends, and compared our results. I had a love-affair with Buddhism which ended, rather abruptly, in a completely baffling, two-hour chanting ritual. I stopped reading altogether and returned to my old job as a lifeguard and swim instructor (not necessarily in that order).
There were a number of factors that influenced my decision to go into publishing. For instance, the only jobs for which I was motivated to apply were in the publishing sector – jobs with titles like, Editorial Assistant or Acquisitions Editor. Somewhat unwisely, I only applied for positions in the UK, hoping my academic credentials would speak louder than my lack of related work experience.
Eight months later, I realized that my Cambridge degree wouldn’t cut it. And so, I began my foray into the world of online courses. I applied to Ryerson University (in Toronto) and enrolled in a distance Certificate in Publishing.
I still wasn’t entirely convinced, however. I registered for one course only – CDPB 100, otherwise known as “Intro to Publishing” – to mitigate the risk.
After discussing chapter one of Publishing for Profit, I was hooked. Here was a trade the combined everything I loved: the smell of old books, the niceties of editing, and the creative potential of digital technology. Try as I might, I had trouble acclimatizing to research life in grad school. The crushing reality of twelve-hour library days hit me like a Shakespeare folio at Cambridge: alone, in the dark, waiting for a book from the stacks written by another white, dead guy. Typically, the books were of no relevance to my dissertation; if they were, I still had to wade through a swamp of Latin footnotes and literary-critical neologisms to glean anything useful.
Let me backpedal and say that I have the utmost respect for academic researchers. What is often glorified as ‘the life of the mind’ is, in fact, a roller coaster of hard work, repeated rejection, and intellectual discovery. There is nothing more satisfying than saying something no one has ever said before – or as the Irish poet James Stephens says, “in saying exactly what you think yourself.” Few of us enjoy that privilege; those who do are dubbed luminaries, prophets, geniuses, eccentrics.
Perhaps this is why I am attracted to academic publishing. As part of my course, I have to write a research paper on how digital technology is affecting the publishing industry. Further, I have to interview an industry professional on this topic. I decided to email Brian Scrivener, the new director of the University of Calgary Press. As the former editorial director of Raincoast Books, I figured he’d have some insight. He agreed to meet me for coffee.
Now we come to the point of my post: if you’re making the difficult transition from academia to anything else, email, email, email. I’ve received more positive responses from email inquiries than I have from formal job applications. Do your research and take the initiative. When I went to interview Brian for my research paper, he interviewed me for a job. I am now working part-time at the University of Calgary Press as their marketing administrator.
Life is peripatetic. You cannot plan who you’ll marry any more than where you’ll end up living or what you’ll end up doing for a living. If there’s anything that I’ve learnt as an on-call lifeguard, it’s that you need to go with the flow – at least, so long as grammar and people’s lives aren’t concerned. I ended up working as the Engagement Editor for History To The Public because my friend, Tiia, asked me. Little did I know that it would shape and inspire my career in academic publishing.