Spring is here, and with it comes anxiety, exhaustion and confusion – or at least, that’s what happens if you’re in the exact same position I was four years ago. A senior English major at a small liberal arts college, I was putting the finishing touches on my honor’s thesis, spending hours cloistered away in the dark, chilly library when all my friends were outside enjoying the sunshine.
The worst part was that no one wanted to hear about feminist religious imagery in midcentury Victorian poetry. All anyone cared about was what I was going to do after graduation. And while I had a lot to say about Rossetti, Tennyson, et. al., I had absolutely no response to the practical queries of my parents, professors and peers.
If any of this resonates, fear not! Contrary to every headline and study you’ve ever read, English degrees are, in fact, quite useful – and yes, you can find a job that isn’t shelving books, teaching poetry or pouring coffee. If you’re an English major – or if you studied any kind of liberal arts or humanities field – I’d urge to you take a look at PR. The skills I learned for my English major prepared me incredibly well for the work I do day in and day out advocating for my clients in the press.
I often say that the single stupidest decision of my undergraduate career was procrastinating my argument sketch on Hegel until the night before it was due. (I was a wild one in college). The decision meant that, at 4 a.m., I could be found gently sobbing into a cup of coffee as I tried to parse through and summarize a twenty-page argument comprised of sentences like these:
“The spiritual alone is the actual; it is essence, or that which has being in itself; it is that which relates itself to itself and is determinate, it is other-being and being-for-self, and in this determinateness, or in its self-externality, abides within itself; in other words, it is in and for itself. But this being-in-and-for-itself is at first only for us, or in itself, it is spiritual Substance. It must also be this for itself, it must be the knowledge of the spiritual, and the knowledge of itself as Spirit, i.e. it must be an object to itself, but just as immediately a sublated object, reflected into itself. It is for itself only for us, in so far as its spiritual content is generated by itself.”
Is your head spinning? So was mine – but, even as the tears streamed down my face and into my mug of French roast, I was unknowingly preparing myself for my current job. Oftentimes, a client will send me a study or white-paper jam-packed with industry jargon, insider legalese and incomprehensible verbiage – and I have to turn it into a pristine, reader-friendly 800-word opinion article in a matter of hours.
For many recent grads, this would be a daunting task, but for a liberal arts major, it’s a cake-walk. After condensing Kant, Hegel and Heidegger into a 500-word sketch, no legal or legislative document is too much for me. I can read and, what’s more, I can read carefully. In this fake-news, hot-take world, the value of simple clarity cannot be overstated.
Learning broadly, writing narrowly.
A professor of mine in undergrad once quipped that the liberal arts education is a cocktail party education: You learn a little bit about everything, so you have a little bit to say to everyone. And while I like to think that my degree has made my cocktail parties more fun, I know for a fact that it’s made my PR career more successful.
Take, for example, my freshman political theory class. We studied the broad sweep of Western political thought, from Plato to Machiavelli to Keynes – and then we had to take all that knowledge and use it to formulate an argument in response to one article on religion and public life in The New York Times for our final essay. Quickly learning a field and making a compelling argument within it was the name of the game.
Speed that game up from four months to a matter of weeks, even days, and you’ve got PR. I know more about retirement, 5G and AI, identity theft protection and best family business practice than I ever thought I would. I’m able to chat with Silicon Valley tech heads, Capitol Hill policy experts and corporate finance leaders knowledgeably and confidently. And I write articles on their behalf that get placed in local, national and international outlets across different fields, sectors and industries. Thanks to my degree, I have more than just cocktail party chatter – I have a critical professional skill.
The biggest stereotype about English majors – apart from their unemployability, that is – is their egomania. Suspicious and self-important, they’ll deconstruct the latest Marvel movie and critique your summer beach read faster than you can delete their LinkedIn request.
My experience has proven exactly the opposite. Throughout my college career, I was asked not just to read but to celebrate the achievements of authors whose views I found repugnant and whose lifestyles were reprehensible. Jane Eyre is a deeply racist book, but Charlotte Brontë revolutionized the first-person narrative. You don’t have to be a feminist to see sexism in Aristotle, but you can’t ignore him and call yourself a philosopher. And don’t get me started about Poe, Rousseau or Lewis Carroll – geniuses whose sex lives would now be considered not just reprehensible, but criminal.
I take this attitude with me to work every day. I love the work that some of my clients are doing, but I’ll sometimes find myself working with a client whose mission or strategy is not my cup of tea. But my liberal arts education taught me how to put aside my personal biases and be willing to learn and to work. It taught me to take my clients on their own terms, putting myself in their shoes and attempting to see the world from their perspective. Above all, it helped me recognize the ways in which my clients’ work – and my own convictions – are historically conditioned and contingent. It’s an approach that will serve you well at any job, but it’s particularly useful when your business is communicating the interests and ideas of others with the world.
So, dear reader, the next time someone approaches you with a snide, “Oh, an English degree? What are you going to do with that?”, stick your bookmark in your Baudelaire, put him down next to your Baldwin, and say “I’m actually looking at a few jobs in PR. You can make six figures if you’re really good. You want to go get coffee? My treat.”
Ready to put your liberal arts degree to use in PR? Pinkston is currently looking for a staff writer to join our team.
-- Nancy Ritter is a writer with Pinkston