Learn how to translate your English degree into a profitable skill-set. An interview with Michael Edmondson.

“Yes, it was one of my childhood dreams to be a professor. But then reality set in, and my family came along. And so I’m like well, guess what? I’m creating some more dreams because this isn’t what I wanted.”

Learn how to translate your English degree into a profitable skill-set. An interview with Michael Edmondson.

“Yes, it was one of my childhood dreams to be a professor. But then reality set in, and my family came along. And so I’m like well, guess what? I’m creating some more dreams because this isn’t what I wanted.”

 

jobs for English majors

Michael is the co-author of How Liberal Arts Majors Can Succeed in Today’s Economy: A Workbook, a book to designed to help liberal arts majors immediately take action and find successful careers in the business and corporate world. After getting his PhD in History, Michael left academia and began working in the for-profit world as a market researcher. He now is the Director of Marketing and Recruitment at the Philadelphia Centre.

This is a transcript of our phone conversation.

1. Why Liberal Arts Majors Don’t Get Jobs

What’s the biggest career mistake liberal arts majors make?

The biggest mistake students make is to think that their career options are restricted by the subject they studied in school. “I studied English literature and so I have to find jobs related to art and teaching.”

The problem is that academia organizes the world by subjects. But the world isn’t organized by subjects. It’s organized by skills.

My advice is to stop obsessing about the content of your degree. What skills do you have?

Don’t just tell an employer what you studied. Tell them what skills you acquired in your degree that can help their company.

For example, a history degree requires you to learn how to analyze historical data to find patterns. This means you have the skill of synthesizing complex information into a coherent story. Marketing research does the same thingˆ’except that the content shifts from historical treatises to consumer insights.

It’s not about the content. The content can change. It’s about the skills you have.

You have a PhD in history. But now you work in the business world. How did you make the transition from the academic to the for-profit world?

My wife had always told me that I should try business as I had the personality for it, but I had been too busy doing the PhD.

I was 32 when I finally got the PhD, but hadn’t really known any other world than academia. My friend Peter, who also had just received his PhD, had left teaching and had gotten a job doing market research. So one day he called me up and told me to stop fooling around with academia and to come make some real money in the corporate world.

I landed a job with the company where Peter worked. The company actually only hired PhD’s in social sciences. So here I was a PhD in History, working with a PhD in economics, a PhD in psychology. And we went around the country interviewing physicians about how they treated conditions, what products they used and so on.

What did that first nonacademic job teach you?

That I had a valuable skill-set. From there I learned that if you want to make more money you just leave one company and go to another.  And I figured out how to do that pretty fast.

It surprised me. Who knew a PhD in History could do this type of job?

I remember thinking that there should have been a course in college about this. Everybody should learn how to translate their liberal arts education into the business world.

Where do you work now?

Two years ago, I was hired by one of my clients, the Philadelphia Center, to do a bunch of work for them. Did it. And then I was hired full-time by them. Now, I’m  the Director of Marketing and Recruiting for the Philadelphia Center.

I also teach marketing and entrepreneurship at the university-level.

Should people get liberal arts degrees? Is it a good career investment?

Students should major in a subject they enjoy instead of one they think will get them a job.  English, Philosophy, and History and other liberal arts are valuable degrees that can be used in business, marketing, and all types of fields.

The problem is that liberal arts degrees are not marketed for their value enough.  Universities, professors, and liberal arts departments often believe that marketing is a dirty word and therefore lack the savvy needed to present a compelling case for the liberal arts.

That’s because most of the people teaching these students are professors who have only worked in academia.  Peter and I wanted to write a book to help liberal arts majors. I mean it’s terrible what is going on out there.  Some liberal arts majors spend $35,000 or more per year and their schools are not doing enough to prepare them for careers outside of the academic world.

Some students are over $100,000 in debt for a Bachelor’s Degree? That’s not right. And then the student is launched into the world unprepared to understand the career opportunities available to them.   I mean what the hell is going on up there in the schools? If you are sending students out into life with that type of debt, you better make sure they know what the hell it is what you’re doing. It isn’t right. If universities want to charge that type of money, you really need to prepare students for the work world.

As Daniel Pink recently said “we have to prepare students for their future not our past.”  Schools can be, and should be, doing more all the time to help liberal arts majors.  You can also watch MEAPA’s video on the liberal arts by clicking here.

It took me a while to figure that out, a lot of time wasted. What about professors. Do you think students should ask professors for career advice?

I would absolutely not ask a professor for any career advice.

If a professor has spent years working outside of the academy, then maybe you can ask them. But most professors have done a PhD, got a job, got tenure, and then they don’t move. They only know education.

Professors are good at publishing. But publishing does not help students. It helps the reputation of the school. It helps the department.

Higher education needs to ask itself: what is its primary purpose? Is it to help professors? Or to help students?

Most universities are there to help the professor. They might say something different on paper. They want to pretend they are there for the student. But their actions say something different.

Professors are the worst people to ask for career advice. Unless, of course, they have years of experience in the for-profit world.

2. Thinking Beyond Academic Pedigree

Would you advise anyone to go grad school?

I agree with Bill Pannapacker. You should only do a PhD if you can absolutely afford it and can pay for it in cash. Other than that, get a job first. Start working.

If someone wants to pursue graduate school they should study a subject that they want to and not one they think they have to.  Many people think that an MBA is a pre-requisite for success in the business world and it’s simply untrue. An excellent article on this is from Matthew Stewart, how has a PhD in German philosophy and worked for seven years as a business consultant.

Remember, the content of your degree is not as important as the skills you are acquiring.  Focus on your professional and personal skills.

But I really wish someone had just told me. Just go work. Get a job first and then maybe see if your employer will pay for your advanced degree later.

What about academic prestige? Do employers care about prestigious degrees from say Harvard and other Ivy League schools? Can prestigious degrees get you jobs, in other words?

The place you get your degree doesn’t really matter.

So you have a degree from Harvard. What else have you done?

Let’s face it. People don’t care where you went to school. What your GPA is. People hate when I say that. But it’s true.

In all the interviews I’ve done, and all the people I’ve hired, it’s never important where you went to school. It’s all about your attitude in the meeting.

And sometimes, the Ivy Leaguers are often the worst because of their egos. I have a Harvard Degree. You should hire me. No, I’m not going to hire you because of your degree. What can you offer me?

You need to know how to talk about yourself. A degree isn’t going to get you a job.

3. How to Actually Find a Job With Your Liberal Arts Degree

Okay. Let’s say that you have a liberal arts degree, maybe even a PhD (like people reading this site). You have a crappy job. Big student loan payments No work experience. How do you get your career started?

Step one is to figure out your core skills and traits. What do you have to offer? That’s why our book makes every liberal arts student begin with the ABC’s of marketing themselves.

Most people bounce around. They try out a bit of this and that, taking any job that comes their way. They don’t really have any direction.

My advice is to try to live with intention. Living with intention means asking: what do I offer people?

Once you figure that out, you can restructure your resume to reflect what you offer employers.

You need to structure your resume according to skills. And no one is teaching liberal arts majors this. It’s really sad.

I agree, but can’t “critical thinking” skills become a career buzzword? I mean it’s easy for anyone to say “I have critical thinking skills.” In other words, how do you write a cover letter if you don’t have any work experience? How do you demonstrate it?

It’s a good question. In the workbook, we stress “success factors.” Success factors are things you have done, something that you can demonstrate you are good at.

So, let’s say you are good at critical thinking. Don’t just put that on your resume, but give an example of you using that skill.

If you don’t have any work experience, use the research and projects you did at the university. It’s fine to talk about a complex research project you did during your degree–synthesizing hundreds of articles into a coherent story is an employable skill. But you just need to frame that skill in a way that shows employers you can help them. You don’t want to sell yourself as an academic looking for work.

The idea, again, is to shift your thinking from content to skills. Don’t sell yourself as a history expert. Just because your problem-solving skills are in analyzing historical data doesn’t mean that you can’t use those same skills in a market research position. The content of your degree and research projects doesn’t matter. It’s the skills that are valuable.

What are the big mistakes liberal arts majors make on their resumes and cover letters?

Most people will write “Ohh I graduated from this college with this degree.” That’s the absolute worst way to start a conversation with someone.

It should be. “Hi, I’m an excellent communicator. I’m very good speaking in front of people. My weakness is that I’m a bit impatient, but I’m aware of that and I’m willing to work with that. But I can offer you my skills as a very good presenter, excellent researcher, and good writer.”

Just think of your cover letter as you starting a conversation. “Hi–this is where I went to school” isn’t a good way to start a conversation.

So what should liberal arts majors put on their resume? What if you have studied poetry for 7 years and have no work experience?

Step one is to not even mention where you went to school and what you studied. Stick that at the end. Nobody cares.

Can you analyze data?

Can you write in a compelling fashion? And do you have examples of that?

Can you do complex research and tell a story?

These are all the skills many employers are looking for.

Can you show up on time for a year? I’ve heard horror stories of people who can’t find good reliable employees. A PhD proves you have a work ethic and dedication to become an expert. That’s valuable. If you’ve become an expert in one field, you can do that in a new field.

Make yourself and the skills you bring so relevant that people don’t care where you went to school and what your major was.

Just talk about what you offer.

This site is about the failure of academia to launch its grads. What do you think is wrong with higher education, especially liberal arts grad programs?

The problem with academia is that there is a lot of bias towards action. It’s a very static industry.

The analogy I always use is that higher education is like an oil tanker in the ocean, trying to turn around. And they are leaking oil as they are turning.

They aren’t flexible. They’re afraid of new ideas. Higher education is not innovative in any sense of the word. And I’m sorry but going online as a class doesn’t mean that you are innovative.

And they are doing a great disservice to PhD’s because they aren’t helping them make that transition into the work world.

And because PhD’s are older, and often have families it really is a serious issue. . .I mean these are real professionals that higher education should be helping.

The 22 year old liberal arts graduate, if you want to ignore them, that’s fine because there are millions of them.

But PhD’s are a select group. They spend on average 8 years, serving the institution. These are professionals. And I think higher education truly owes them because they have spent so much time at the institution.

It doesn’t seem right. It just doesn’t.

And they say–well, we have all these career services that nobody uses.

No, they don’t. Those services do not understand how to properly translate liberal arts skills into the work world.

Having a web page of career resources isn’t helping someone find a career.

That’s true. There should courses in marketing and business built right into the programs. It’s where the majority of humanities grads end up anyways.

I ask everyone this one. Do you regret not becoming a professor? I mean that was one of your dreams, right?

It was one of my dreams and I guess I sold out my soul [we laugh] and now I’m here on this site talking about how to help others leave academia.

But really what happens when you leave academia is that you don’t really sell out your soul: you just sell out the content of your humanities degree.

Sure, I have forgotten the socio-economic implications of the Treaty of Guadelupe Diaggo. But I have all these skills from the degree.

And that’s what no one is teaching. And that’s a shame. That really is a disservice to every humanities student out there.

I had to turn down a full-time teaching position in the liberal arts because it just didn’t pay enough. I mean most tenure-track jobs start at $40,000 per year. That’s just not enough.

Yes, it was one of my childhood dreams to be a professor. But then reality set in, and my family came along. And so, I’m like well, guess what? I’m creating some more dreams because this isn’t what I wanted.

There is no dream keeper watching me saying “Oh, no. . .you ran out of dreams.”

You can always create a new dream.

Thanks Michael.

For those of you ready to create some more dreams, here are some practical action steps for you.

4. A Practical Career Guide For the Next Month

Michael offered so much great advice I couldn’t include it all in interview form. So I’ve assembled these practical career tips from our interview, as well as used his workbook How Liberal Arts Majors Can Succeed In Today’s Economy.

If you have ZERO work experience, a liberal arts degree, tons of student loan debt, and a desire to reclaim the ambition you had before academia spat you out of the archive with no clue of how to find a job, here are some practical career-building steps.

  • Your Resume is the Key. Not Your Degree. Your resume and skills are your money-maker–not your degree. Don’t go to law school, don’t do a MBA, or try to solve your career problem with more education. Focus on building your resume. You have enough education. Three degrees doesn’t make you more employable. A degree from Stanford AND Harvard doesn’t increase your earning power. One degree is enough. Your skills make you employable. From now on, your resume is your goal: get some work experience!
  • Have Confidence. Have the confidence to believe that the business world can use your liberal arts skills. They can. So develop confidence and look for the business section for jobs. Liberal arts degrees are much harder degrees to obtain than business degrees and marketing degrees. That’s because you learn how to uncover deep principles (in art, the history of thought, culture). Business majors mostly learn terminology and business systems. It’s easier to pick up some business terminology than it is to pick up 4 years of intense writing and critical thinking training.
  • Define the skills you have. In cover letters and interviews, tell employers about the skills you have. Not the degree you have. These skills can vary from person to person. For example, you might be an excellent writer and public presenter. Or you might be an excellent researcher that is able to take complex data and turn it into a story. Think about what you have to offer. And then communicate this to employers.
  • Education goes last. Put your education and degree at the bottom of your resume. It should be the last thing–not the first–that you talk about. The real world doesn’t care about your degree or what your major is.  Employers only ever want to know one thing: how can you help me?
  • Get an internship or volunteer at a non-profit. You need to prove that you have some type of idea of how the professional world works. Don’t skip this step. If you have ZERO work experience, work for free.  This is seriously the most important step.
  • If you have a crappy job to pay the bills, spend at least 5 hours per week trying to build a career. For example, if you have a PhD and have no work experience, volunteer your time as an intern somewhere. Tell them that you don’t even care about getting paid, you just want to learn about the industry. Or just volunteer your skills. Tell them you can help them on a project. Tell them that you don’t even want a job, you just need some experience. You want to learn about the industry.If you offered me that,” says Michael, “I say get your butt in here. I can put you to work right away.”
  • Write down goals. Michael says he drives his family nuts with his habit of writing down goals. But it really works. I recently have been doing this and have really been able to take more control over my time and accomplish more. Write down every goal and keep it in a place that you can easily see. I personally bought a really nice little leather book and I keep it on my kitchen table.
  • You should have two sets of goals. First, write down your yearly goals. For example, by 2012 I want to have an entry-level job in a large marketing research firm. Then set your monthly goals. The idea is that your monthly goals are smaller steps leading into your big yearly goal. For example, if you want to get that big job in a large marketing research firm at the end of the year, you need to take some smaller steps. So this month you decide to: (1) write 3 non-profits asking if they want some volunteer help with any research projects (2) read 2 books on marketing research methodologies (3) get my resume and cover letter really polished so that I’m ready to send it out to any job openings.
  • Dream big. And execute in small steps. Make a plan. Set goals. Take small steps that are moving towards a larger goal.

Other Career Resources for English and Other Liberal Arts Majors:

Check out Michael’s videos, worksheets, podcasts, and other career and personal development resources for liberal arts at MEAPA.com.

The book is really cheap. You spent thousands and thousands of dollars on your degree–invest a little in learning how to market yourself.

Does the business world scare you?

Read The Personal MBA. It’s a book by Josh Kaufman. It covers every essential business concept that you would have learned in an Ivy League Business school. http://personalmba.com/

Trouble translating talk into action?

Read The Pledge. It’s written by a multi-millionaire and just describes his daily strategies for setting and reaching personal, career, and financial goals.

 

The 18-Week Practical Roadmap for Finding a Career with Your Humanities BA, MA, or PhD. 

best career book for english majors

This e-book  begins right where you are–broke, no idea of what you want to do, working a crappy job, and nothing more than a degree on your resume. It is written specifically for humanities majors (BAs, MAs, and PhDs).

This is the guidebook for lost humanities majors. This is everything I wished I knew at the start.

Learn more 

More articles:

“How Reading Books Can Paralyze You After Grad School.

“PhD in English? What the F*%$K Have You Been Doing for the Past Ten Years?”

“PhD in English Useless Destroyed My Life.”

“Do You Make This Mistake When Selling Your English Degree To Employers?”