Whether you prefer to keep your academic and professional life separate, or plan for your major to be the first step along a professional path, major declaration is a significant milestone on your academic journey here at Columbia.
This spring, we were excited to learn that both the English and History departments would be welcoming alumni back to campus for their major open houses. As big fans of alumni panels, naturally we couldn’t miss it.
Who Was There
On two evenings, we ventured out from East Campus to hear what alumni from the majors had to share about how their experiences in the major had shaped their lives beyond Columbia.
In a reprise of last year’s successful panel, History alumni James Bennett II (CC ‘ 13), Paul Imperatore (CC ‘ 10), and Molly Anderson Brachfeld (CC ‘15), as well as current PhD student Yasmin Akcaguner (Barnard ‘17), braved wintry weather to join Director of Undergraduate Studies Adam Tooze, Undergraduate Administrator Kimberly Solomon, and students for a lively discussion.
The next week, English Director of Undergraduate Studies Molly Murray, a Columbia alumna herself (CC ‘94), moderated the inaugural panel of English alums Jack Dickey (CC’13), Jason Kim (CC ‘08), and Heather O’Donnell (CC ‘93) to a packed room of students, faculty, and staff.
Here’s what we learned.
“Just because you’re declaring a major doesn’t mean you’re declaring a life.”
–Jason Kim (CC ‘08)
Lesson #1: Career journeys are often non-linear. You never know how your experiences now may pay off down the road.
When Heather O’Donnell entered Columbia in 1989, she knew she wanted to be an English major and English professor. It was a goal she pursued, “with type-A fervor,” through her time at Columbia, her PhD at Yale, and postdoctoral fellowship at the Princeton Society of Fellows.
Until, finally, she didn’t. After three years at Princeton, Heather secured a job at Bauman Rare Books on Madison Avenue. Now Heather owns her own rare book dealership, Honey & Wax Booksellers, based in Brooklyn, which she founded in 2011.
Heather credits the many side gigs she had as a scholarship student—selling books at the Strand, shelving artsy tomes at Avery, assisting curators at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library—as key to her getting her foot in the door of the rare book world. Once peripheral to her CV, these work experiences became central on her resume as she pursued work outside academia. Though at the time Heather regretted not having more time for on-campus extracurriculars, now, looking back, she sees this work as being the foundation of what she does today.
Lesson #2: You don’t have to have it all figured out now.
Jason Kim, now a successful screenwriter and playwright, spent his first three years at Columbia not knowing what he wanted to do. He signed up to be pre-med, then pre-law, and finally landed in the English major after a dubious deal made with his mother about his intention to take the LSAT. (Spoiler alert: He did not.)
Jason, still unsure of his future career path, was nevertheless considering a PhD—trying to “convince himself that he wanted to study poetry for the rest of [his] life.” Meanwhile, outside of class, he was out in the city, seeing every play he could.
This love of theater led him, his last semester of college, to enroll in a playwriting class with a faculty member whose work he’d seen performed. Jason would go on to complete an MFA in Playwriting and become a playwright, screenwriter, and producer: he spent 3 years on the writing staff for HBO’s Girls, penned a K-pop musical, has had plays produced across the US, and now works as a producer on HBO’s Barry.
Looking back, Jason wishes he’d know that “just because you’re declaring a major doesn’t mean you’re declaring a life.” He went on: “Rather than letting your major make you feel pigeonholed, think of it as opening up a world of possibilities.”
Lesson #3: You’re gaining valuable transferable skills through your coursework.
When it comes to applying skills built in the major to the world of work, panelists and faculty spoke about written and oral communication, critical thinking, and analysis—all of which consistently rank as top skills sought by employers. In the case of History, Professor Tooze specifically referenced learning to read critically, ask tough interpretative questions, conduct research, and write.
Another skill mentioned: the empathy built through reading stories, which can help you not only produce thoughtful, quality work but also navigate diverse, multigenerational workplaces. As Jason Kim put it:
“The major gives you access to a larger understanding of the world.”
These skills have concrete applications in the workplace. For James Bennett II, the methods he learned when studying cultural history are the same ones he uses to research and write articles as a music writer for WQXR. For Jack Dickey, the many papers he wrote helped him develop an ability to formulate novel ideas, a skill he uses daily as a journalist at Sports Illustrated.
More broadly, your ability to analyze narratives, Heather O’Donnell said, will help you understand clients, find points of connection between people, and represent your organization in a thoughtful, persuasive, and articulate way. No matter what field you pursue, these skills are crucial.
And, in both majors, where you take classes across a range of topics, geographic areas, and time periods, you’ll learn to “think eclectically” and “forge interesting connections across areas and texts,” as Professor Murray put it. This ability to draw unexpected connections is a proven method for generating creative ideas for business innovation.
Lesson #4: If you think grad school might be right for you, be thoughtful and intentional about it.
A rigorous undergraduate education in English or History at Columbia can prepare you well for a wide variety of graduate programs.
For Molly Anderson Brachfeld, now a 2L at Columbia Law, her passion for social issues tied her history studies with her legal interests. For Jason Kim, doing his MFA in playwriting helped him practice a new genre of writing.
Because pre-law coursework is relatively uncommon in the US, Paul Imperatore advised, you should study what you like—for him, History and French. Reading history texts, he said, is similar to what you do as a lawyer; he’s now an associate at Cleary Gottleib. Both Paul and Molly suggested that taking a philosophy course, as well as symbolic logic, would be helpful preparation for the LSAT.
If you’re thinking about a PhD, the English department holds an annual fall seminar about doctoral programs. Still, cautioned Professor Murray, “You need to be able to answer, strongly, why you want to do the PhD.” If you decide to pursue this path, keep in mind panelist and faculty advice like writing a senior thesis, taking grad-level seminars in the department, and enrolling in classes taught by full professors with name recognition in your field. In particular, writing a senior thesis, Yasmin Akcaguner said, will help you learn to develop an original project and articulate why you, in particular, should be the one to write it.
Paul remembers thinking about law school as a well-defined path that would allow him to work in New York, but wishes he’d put more thought into it at the time. Jack Dickey, who began working as a journalist straight from undergrad, did just this: One of the reasons he decided not to pursue an advanced degree in English was realizing that he wanted to focus on writing for broader audiences.
Though graduate school does not have to mean a final decision about a career, it is time-consuming, and often expensive, so it’s important to reflect carefully on your reasons for attending. This is something your faculty mentors, academic or career advisers, or pre-professional advisers can help you do.
Lesson #5: Nurture your relationships with faculty, even if grad school’s not your goal.
As James Bennett II reminded the audience, the connections you make in the department may end up being helpful even if you don’t go to graduate school—and, he pointed out, you don’t have to.
In the journalism world he inhabits, James said, there are many history majors, and his work is often research-intensive. When researching a piece, he often reaches out to faculty he studied with as undergrad to pick their brain for suggestions on the topic or experts to connect with. Through his faculty relationships, he’s been able to tap into a network of historians across the country. Makes us feel inspired to stay in touch with our professors!
We have data and resources for you!
We admit it: we might have silently cheered when Professor Julie Peters told the room that “there are many, many things you can do as an English major”—something true of History as well. Though this year’s panelists worked in business, journalism, media, law, and academia, this is just a small sampling of the many career paths alumni of these majors have tread. Stay tuned for 2018 data from us soon!