In early March, students, faculty, and staff from the English department gathered in the Maison Française for a lively conversation and reception in honor of major declaration. The facilitated discussion, led by Director of Undergraduate Studies Molly Murray, built on last year’s robust conversation about the English major and post-grad careers, including pathways within and beyond academia.

Joining Murray were department alumni Marco Roth (CC ‘96), founder of n+1 magazine, and Denise Xu (CC’ 19), a current PhD student in English at Princeton. Represented by Murray in absentia was Jonathan Blitzer (CC ‘07), of The New Yorker.

Everyone’s Path Looks a Little Different

Each alumnus had their own pathway through and beyond their English classes at Columbia.

From Research to Writing

Roth, who majored in Comparative Literature, continued on to do graduate work in the field at Yale, where he discovered that he enjoyed writing more than research. This interest in writing sparked the idea of one day starting a magazine.

Several years later, when he was on his third adjunct job, he finally took the plunge. Roth founded n+1 in 2004, where he remains an editor and contributing writer to this day.

Roth reminded the audience that “there is no set path” after an English major. But as an English major, he said, you have more internal resources to find your path than you may realize.

From Latin America to The New Yorker

Blitzer, as Murray recounted, was an English major with a focus on Latin America. After graduation, he wanted to improve his Spanish, and set off for Buenos Aires. While there, he started to pick up freelance gigs working for local publications. 

After several research-focused positions, including a Fulbright, he secured his first staff role at a newspaper, kicking off his journalism career. Today Blitzer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, contributing frequent pieces on American politics and the Spanish-speaking world.

Pursuing the PhD Path “Against All Advice”

Xu, who graduated with her BA last spring, came into Columbia with wide-ranging interests: English, philosophy, classics, East Asian studies. Though initially she felt pressure to “maximize” her experience at Columbia by double-majoring, she ultimately decided to do a single major, English, to leave herself room to explore her other interests inside and beyond the classroom. 

Xu never planned to do a PhD; in fact, she did everything she could to try out other interests and fields, as she knew how tight the academia job market is. Though she is still at the beginning of her academic journey, she embarks on it with a knowledge that her multifaceted, interdisciplinary interests could be applied in a variety of professional settings.

The Humanities at Work

“Your work in the academy doesn’t have to be limited to the academy.” – Denise Xu

Indeed, during the panel and Q&A conversation, participants frequently alluded to the porosity between the academy and the broader world.

For Denise, this came to the forefront in her junior summer, when she interned as a teaching assistant for the Freedom and Citizenship initiative at the Double Discovery Center. In this program, high school students from first-generation or low-income backgrounds build tools to engage critically with present-day civic life. As a TA, Denise supported students during their summer seminar and through the development of year-long projects—which in recent years, have included topics like gender equality, gentrification, students’ rights, climate change.

Denise came away from this experience with a greater understanding that “your work in the academy doesn’t have to be limited to the academy”—a mindset that she has brought with her to graduate school.

Humanities at Work: Questions for Reflection

As you consider where your study of English might take you during and beyond Columbia, we recommend using your reflective capacity to think about your career interests and goals:

  • Thinking about your English coursework and projects, what are you doing when you’re doing humanities work?
  • What would doing public humanities work mean for you? What communities or audiences would you want to engage with? How could you make your academic research accessible to broader publics?
  • How could you be a humanist at work? Would it mean working for an explicitly humanistic organization, like a humanities council or a cultural publication? Would it mean having a job where you can use your humanities skills, like qualitative research and analysis, writing or storytelling, facilitating dialogue…?
  • What are the ways in which you might bring your humanistic habits of mind to any job you do?

Continue to Explore Using CCE Resources:

Finally, our career counselors know that each person’s story is unique. A 30-minute appointment with a career counselor can help you start crafting yours.