When I went to college, I knew exactly what I wanted to be: aerospace engineer. I had three scholarships with the engineering school and was looking forward to designing jet fighters and space shuttles, and possibly also flying my creations and becoming a Jedi. Unfortunately, I quickly found I didn’t enjoy the company of the students or professors in the engineering school and bounced over to *drum roll* criminology. However, I didn’t really think that through, so I soon after found myself moving to English literature, the only subject I really enjoyed and was very good at.
And then I had to figure out what to do with an English degree.
Of course I had a plan. Sort of.
Plan A: Stay in school
I could have gotten my master’s degree, and my PhD, and become a professor of English literature and spent the rest of my life in college, around college-aged people, playing college politics, and trying not to go crazy. But as much as I truly enjoy teaching, the thought of being in college forever made me deathly ill. So I proceeded to…
Plan B: Get rich quick
My back-up plan was simple – write the Great American Novel and make a bajillion dollars, thus retiring at age 23 with more money than God. This was a solid plan, however roughly no one ever succeeds at it. And I had bills to pay. So that left…
Plan C: Get a real job
No problem, there must be jobs for English majors, right? I’ll just become an editorial assistant at one of the many large, prosperous publishing firms… oh. Right, well, uhm, executive assistant is a good job too.
Luckily, I translated my success as an assistant into an editorial role and spent many years publishing books, articles, and journals for some very interesting people.
Unfortunately, that job trained me for a fairly specific role, and not many companies publish their own books, so I then had to reinvent myself as a technical writer with expertise in computer science and health care. More or less. (Note: computer science and health care are super easy to master after a few hours on wikipedia.)
Plan D: Get more jobs
I learned from my first job transition that any position for a person with my background is going to be pretty narrow, and probably won’t help me smoothly transition to other positions in the future. So instead of waiting for my next job to get a little more experience, I started taking other jobs now.
There are tons of freelance opportunities for writers and editors, and if you can’t figure out how to Google “freelance writer jobs” then you have bigger problems than general career planning. Here’s what I landed, mostly by accident and without really trying:
- Editing clinical research proposal responses. Sound like a mouthful? It is, but the work was straightforward and I learned a lot about cancer studies. I think my cousin arranged that one for me.
- Editing books for local authors. I have no memory of how this one came about, but the publisher started sending authors to me to review their memoirs and local histories. I met some great people and helped to produce several books that I’m very proud of.
- Editing books for a university institute. A friend from high school put me in touch with these folks, and I’ve gotten to read about finance, politics, war, and social issues for some very clever experts.
- Writing articles for, well, this site. My wife mentioned this site to me and I decided to submit an article on a whim, and the editor liked it, and this is now my 18th article.
- Writing business books. My article editor connected me to my new book editor, and my articles led to my book, and you get the picture. (The book comes out later this spring!)
Anyway, the point is that a degree in English does not necessarily offer the same sort of clear-cut career paths that accountants and doctors can look forward to. (Reminder: your career could range from 30 to 189 years in length, depending upon the state of the economy and frequency of zombie attacks. Plan accordingly.) But that doesn’t mean you are doomed to the life of a barista.
For some of you, the idea of freelancing as a way of life seems very obvious, but for some of us, it’s an alien landscape. When I was young, all the adults I knew worked for companies, in offices or shops, so I had no concept of what a freelancing career might look like, or even that it was an option for me. And that ignorance was a significant barrier at first.
But now I know exactly what you can do with an English degree, and I think I have a much brighter future than most Jedi. (Have you seen Episode III? It does not end well!)
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