An English Major in the Workforce

English major Sam Lawyer shares her optimistic employment outlook in the third installmemt of our summer intern blog post series.

There is one question that is the bane of every hopeful English major’s existence: What are you going to do with that degree? It is not a question at all really, but rather a warning in disguise presuming we will all waste away in a life long attempt to write the next great American novel. Some of us definitely will write the next great American novels, but if there is one thing I’ve learned this summer as an intern at the Penn Press, it’s that the rest of us need not fret about a total absence of future employment opportunities. The Press has given me exposure to the variety of important roles that its staff members play, roles that will always be necessary in the publishing industry—yes, even when today’s young adults enter into the workforce.

The Acquisitions Department carefully selects which books the Press will publish, a duty which is highly significant and subsequently demands a refined expertise in language, literature, and sometimes the subject matter of the specific manuscripts they encounter. Their selection process is based upon the quality of the proposed work, what it might add to the collection the Press has already published in its specific subject area, and finally, how the work fits into the conversation among the different authors in this collection. These judgments stem from a strong background in scholarly writing, the kind of preparation specially provided by a degree in the liberal arts. Without qualified individuals to hold these gate-keeping positions, it would be nearly impossible for publishers to develop a repertoire among scholarly circles or become a trustworthy source for the academic community. The Acquisitions Department will always be a central feature of publishing companies, and graduates passionate about the humanities are the strongest candidates for these positions.

Next, the Managing Editorial Department provides a similarly crucial function whose link to a degree in English needs little explicating. Any liberal arts student knows that while Spell Check is certainly helpful, it is no substitute for the proofreading offered by a sagacious human eye. As long as they write, authors will make typos and misplace commas, which means there will always be a need in the Press for those of us who are sticklers for grammar and detail-oriented in general. Not only are English majors qualified for such a job, it allows them to get paid to do something they enjoy: read books (in the making).

Once editing is done, there are the physical details of the books that need to be planned for. That is where the Production staff comes in. While the font, binding color, and type of paper used in the books we read is often take for granted, these design elements don’t materialize from the thin air. Various employees at publishing houses work hard to make them possible. While these roles may not require a background in English, they can certainly be performed by Enlighs majors who are visual, organized, and efficient.

Even after books have been released, there are many roles that the Press performs that provide entry-level positions for ambitious young adults. There are jobs in the Marketing Department, carrying out the valiant task of publicizing the Press’ newly published works to the journals, conferences, and news networks. These efforts help spread an otherwise undiscovered wealth of information to intellectual communities that will then use it to inform their own work and others.

There are also positions in Rights and Administration which require an analytical mind such as that effectively fostered by an English or other liberal arts degree. Rights and adminstration professionals parcel out reproduction and translation rights, which are only granted to sources that the Press feels confident will do justice by the work and promote the integrity of their organization. This ability to discern where the works of the Press belong is incredibly important, as it maintains the credibility of its content and the context in which it is used. Both the Marketing and Rights and Administration Departments are excellent employment opportunities for English majors that are effective communicators and negotiators. These abilities have become increasingly valuable in the age of Wikipedia and a host of other Internet sources with little regulation.

The plethora of work required to run a publishing house does not negate tight budgets and the surplus of candidates looking for jobs, but it is undoubtedly work that gets done by someone. English majors, like graduates in any other academic discipline, are going to have to be competitive in order to thrive in this industry and getting a job is by no means easy. What we can feel confident about is that we are equipped with an important skill set that has a place in the workforce, and that a love of literature is not necessarily a sentence to life as a starving artist. With the right combination of motivation, networking, and timing, it is certainly possible to gain employment even against what might appear to be frightening odds. Next time someone asks me what I’ll be doing with my English major, I still probably won’t be certain, but it won’t be for lack of options.

Sam Lawyer is a student at the University of Pennsylvania College of Arts & Sciences.

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