Oh, The Things We Are Doing!
English Majors Talk Careers
CHRIS ST. CLAIR, VANDERBILT '18
ACCOUNT COORDINATOR, BAYARD ADVERTISING
“So you majored in English and Political Science - that doesn’t exactly scream ‘advertising’ to me.”
That was the first thing the recruiter said to me during my most recent job interview. And, God, was I glad she said it.
It’s the perennial “why are you here” question that I imagine every English major looking for corporate work gets asked. I think recruiters ask this not because they’re seeking to catch us in the wrong place with the wrong degree, but because they’re genuinely curious about why we’d put so much effort into an education that doesn’t align perfectly with our professional interests.
I would probably have been in college until the day I died if I decided to chase down degrees in all of my interests. Curiosity is at once my strength and my weakness: I can pick up something and fall in love with it, but the more things I pick up, the more they burden me and slip from my well-meaning but limited grasp. During college, I meandered from subject to subject so frequently (and sometimes senselessly) that trying to connect the dots would be nearly impossible. First, it was politics, then music, then photography, fiction, marketing, computer science, journalism – I could go on.
But fortunately, the common thread revealed itself to me sooner rather than later: stories. I realized that I loved to tell stories — about myself, about other people, about people that didn’t exist, about whatever felt good and right. I craved great stories, and I wanted to get better at telling them. That’s why I decided to pursue an English degree on the Creative Writing track after my second year at Vanderbilt.
I have little doubt in my mind that spending the last two years of my Vanderbilt career plunging headlong into creative writing was the right choice for me. Fully immersed in the English department, I was able to surround myself with other storytelling students, whose ambitions and abilities often far eclipsed my own and pushed me to the furthest limits of my own faculties. I found new, unparalleled access to some of the most engaging, insightful professors I ever had the pleasure of studying with at Vanderbilt; to even begin to name them all would be a disservice to all those who I would forget to mention.
Most of all, I sated my appetite for new knowledge by investing in as diverse a courseload as I could manage, while still fortifying my foundation in storytelling. In four semesters, I managed to cut my teeth in advocacy writing, memoir, poetry, and short fiction, study the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer, and discover new and provocative languages of literature in courses on stories by the Southern poor and contributors to the New Negro movement. I am forever grateful for the opportunities I had in the English department to learn as much as I could, challenge myself to think bigger and bolder, and love every second of it.
When I stepped off the stage at graduation, I had a better idea of what I was good at than what I wanted to do with myself, and it took a few months' worth of applications, interviews, and pots of coffee to sort everything out. I eventually accepted a position at Bayard Advertising, an ad agency specializing in employer branding and recruitment marketing. As an account coordinator, I spend every day working with businesses, universities, and hospitals to build their brands and tell their stories to job seekers.
Even though I'm only a few months in, I'm realizing more and more the difference that my education in creative writing has made in my success and growth at Bayard. Storytelling in my world rarely takes the form of a poem or essay; more often than not, stories manifest as pitches, suggestions, data, and reporting. Being able to locate the words, points, or pictures that move people to make a specific decision is an art that marketing science has made easier but not perfected. It takes a separate intuition and skillset to connect the dots in a way that resonates with the reader, viewer, or listener. I'll spend my life trying to be a better storyteller, and I think my background in creative writing has already helped me connect those dots for my clients a little bit better, whether I'm creating a report, making copy recommendations, or selling ads.
Of course, before I even had the chance to create reports, make copy recommendations, or sell ads, I had to answer that recruiter’s question: “Why English?” I loved Shakespeare and short stories, but did I love advertising? I told her the same thing I say to everyone who asks:
"Pursuing that passion has enabled me to see the deep connections between my interests and my abilities. More than that, it’s given me a unique foundation I can take with me wherever I choose to go."
ANDREA BLATT, VANDERBILT '16
LITERARY ASSISTANT AT WME ENTERTAINMENT
I was fifteen years old when I realized one could read books for a living, so when I was eighteen and heading to college, there was no questioning that I would be an English Lit major.
My time at Vanderbilt was spent reading and studying only the things that interested me – books borne of war, novels about women, novels with disturbingly few women, literature about food (an entire class – thanks, Fannie Flagg), narrative non-fiction about our particular American moment. I wrote my honors thesis on graphic novels and trauma, examining how applied comic theory might help us understand the ways in which the likes of Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, and Alison Bechdel so effectively tackle war, death, torture, and fear in comics. I spent a month drawing my introduction.
I won’t pretend this academic path came highly reviewed by my STEM family. While my parents knew I was learning, they had a hard time seeing why it mattered that the landscape of A Passage to India mirrored the classist social structure, or why I was awake at four in the morning trying to make my Superman drawing perfect. My schedule wasn’t determined by a list of prerequisites, and I wasn’t prepping for grad school. But I was doing my very favorite thing - learning to think, and think well.
The quality of an English literature education is, as far as I can tell, entirely decided by the quality of brains you get to think alongside. At Vanderbilt, I was surrounded by the very best: Professors I found so brilliant and engaging that I followed them semester to semester, no matter what subject they were teaching; Classmates whose words I found every bit as insightful as the material we were studying; People who empowered me to think in new ways, to problem solve, to clearly articulate complicated opinions. So when I graduated from Vanderbilt and moved to New York, I felt entirely prepared for the three-month publishing course I had enrolled in at Columbia.
While Vanderbilt made me a good reader and communicator, Columbia gave me the vocabulary I needed for publishing interviews (and crucially, the names, emails, and handshakes I needed to get those interviews). I landed my first job, working in foreign rights in the literary department of an entertainment agency, WME. After eight months of helping to sell translation rights for incredible books around the world, I knew I wanted to be a part of finding talented writers and supporting authors during the creation and publishing process. So I did precisely what my Vanderbilt education had taught me to do, and I started reading and analyzing incoming manuscripts for domestic book agents over my weekends, helping them decide which new books to take on and which edits would bring their authors’ books from good to great. Within a few months, I had taken a new position at WME as a literary assistant to Suzanne Gluck, who represents many of the bestselling authors I was obsessed with long before I knew Suzanne (Judy Blume, Simon Winchester, Min Jin Lee, and Meg Wolitzer, to name a few). I get to edit, craft pitch letters, help manage book submissions and auctions, and read aspiring authors’ work. I get to focus on a new topic every week, from the dangers of small-town politics to the history of precision engineering to the thrill of a prep school murder mystery. My life after Vanderbilt, in other words, looks not altogether unlike my undergraduate life - I get to keep reading.