Category Archives: Alumni Spotlights

Alumna Profile: Stacey Mikelbart

Hi, I’m Stacey Mickelbart, and I’ve taken a circuitous path from graduating with my English degree in 1995 to my current position as editor of Envision, the Purdue College of Agriculture magazine—but I’ve never been unemployed!

I’ve worked in tech publishing, editing books in the “for Dummies” series, edited scientific journal papers and grants in a number of fields, worked in managing and communication in the performing arts, created and edited university magazines, and have written arts criticism for outlets including NUVO in Indianapolis and newyorker.com.

While I know a lot of people don’t automatically associate Purdue with the liberal arts, my training here was solid. When I attended NYU for my master’s in journalism, two people in my program were chosen as assistants to the director, and it always made me smile that one was a New Yorker who attended Michigan and the other was me. I think the Big 10’s reputation for graduating smart students who know how to get things done is often true—and includes our liberal arts graduates.

While in New York, I interned at The New Yorker and wrote for the book blog. Every day was an exercise in, “Can I write well enough to meet the standards here?” I highly recommend working places where you feel that challenge. Being in a room full of people smarter than you is a great way to grow and expand your skills.

The range of work you can take on with a degree in English is wide, and while that’s a selling point, it can also be a bit intimidating as you seek your first couple of jobs, when you really want to pin down the “what” instead of being told you can do anything! If you’re unsure, I recommend that instead of looking for specific categories of jobs, you think about your skills—the ones you think are your best and that you enjoy the most—and apply for jobs that require those skills. That makes selling yourself for the job easier, as you’ve already thought about why you’re a good match for what the employer needs.

Who is/was your favorite English professor at Purdue?

I was fortunate to take class with so many great faculty members, but David Miller, who died a few years ago, was one of my favorites. I finagled my way into three of his classes (at least two of them on Shakespeare), and he was supremely skilled at leading a smart and interesting class discussion, regardless of the material. Barbara Dixon has also influenced my career as a student and professional. She was my academic advisor for a short period, taught a great survey course I took, suggested I attend the graduate seminar that launched my editing career, and later became my supervisor when I edited the College of Liberal Arts magazine, THiNK, for a few years. She’s been a fantastic mentor and friend.

What is an interesting Heavilon Hall memory (or just one from campus generally)?

One semester I had FOUR classes in Heavilon 120, so I felt like I never left that room! I sat in a different corner of the class for each of the four to help me distinguish them from one another.

How has your English major helped you in your professional career?

It seems so obvious, and it’s true: reading and dissecting great works, as well as writing about them for challenging assignments, really does help you become a better writer, editor, and communicator in general. Learning how to interpret a difficult poem is great practice for learning how to read a molecular biology paper. Each requires patience, the curiosity to look up information you don’t understand, and the recognition of a new type of language and its conventions. (Some background on the scientific method, logic, and statistics help, too—so don’t neglect those!) My English degree also gave me the skills to organize and structure information about any topic when I’m writing, as well as the confidence to be stylistically creative when that’s appropriate.

Who is your favorite author and/or what are you currently reading?

I’m never sorry to pick up a book by Hilary Mantel or Ian McEwan or an essay by Zadie Smith or George Orwell. Right now I’m reading Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, since Wilson visited campus, thanks to the English department’s Big Read. I’m also reading some modern takes on these classic tales. I just finished Madeleine Miller’s Circe, and I’ve got Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad lined up next. After that, it feels urgent to read Chanel Miller’s Know My Name.

Project Managing with Kristi Brown (English BA, 2001)

It wasn’t too long ago that popular wisdom said the only thing you could do with an English degree was be a teacher. The idea that a degree in English wouldn’t lead to any other kind of job led to memes like this:

We, of course, know this is untrue. In fact, English majors are statistically more likely to end up as doctors or CEOs than as Starbucks baristas (Matz). English is one of the most versatile pre-professional majors, providing in-demand skills: every one needs the ability to read carefully, think critically, and write well. As more employers recognize the potential of an English major in the workforce, it’s opening whole new career trajectories for our graduates.

Kristi Brown, an alumna of Purdue English Department, is evidence of just that. After graduating from Purdue in 2001, Kristi went on to a successful career in construction, working her way up to projects administration for Capital Program Management. She decided to major in English because it interested her and she was good at it, but Kristi also considers it to be a vital part of her career success.

Portrait photo of Kristi Brown.
Image taken from https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/purduetoday/purdueprofiles/2018/Q2/purdue-profiles-kristi-brown.html

Project management is one of today’s fastest growing fields, with membership in the Project Management Institute growing 500% over the last fifteen years. “When big bosses go hunting for project managers,” George Anders, author of You Can Do Anything, tells us, “they cherish people with the full suite of critical-thinking skills. If you can make allies, think on your feet, and learn fast, you’re the sort of liberal arts graduate who should thrive in such settings” (94). So what is it about English majors that make them attractive employees? “In my opinion,” Kristi says, “the most undersold part of being an English major is our ability to tell and sell the story that needs to be told to accomplish the task. My work in construction affects the campus community and people’s ability to get around. Being able to convey the facts of what is happening, why it’s important and make that relatable to the public is important.” The storytelling skills that come with an English major are crucial to thriving in such a position.

As Kristi’s career shows us, the value of an English major doesn’t end with the classroom. While there is, of course, undeniable value in teaching as a profession, it’s not the only career path open to our majors. Project management is a viable option for those looking for opportunities in all sorts of industries. It isn’t limited to construction; companies such as Amazon, Google, and Sony hire project managers every day. The thinking skills acquired in the humanities will well-prepare you for planning, executing, managing, and meeting your team’s goals. Projects come in all shapes and sizes: tech, data science, finance, and even (surprise!) literature. Publishers and digital archivists need project managers to keep team members on track and on budget.

Projects are unique operations, limited in scope and resources, designed to accomplish a singular goal. For instance, a project might include the “development of software for an improved business process, the construction of a building or bridge, the relief effort after a natural disaster, [or] the expansion of sales into a new geographic market” (The Project Management Institute). Project managers, then, apply their knowledge and skills to special assignments, meeting their requirements successfully and on time.

Let’s look at an example. A recent job posting for a project manager at a digital marketing firm seeks “smart thinkers with strong communication, organization and project management abilities to service and support key clients.” Such a person’s responsibilities would include planning, budgeting, and managing projects; preparing marketing schedules; coordinating with vendors and clients; handling estimates, orders, and billing; and investigating media opportunities.

While this posting requests a degree in marketing, Kristi and others are proof that project managers come with all sorts of BA degrees as credentials. As George Anders informs us, “If you’ve got enough energy, optimism, and willingness to learn, what you’ve already developed might suffice” (98). The adage “hire for attitude, train for skill” is motivating companies’ out of the box hiring practices. As the value of a liberal arts increases, companies like Kristi’s are taking notice that, as she puts it, “even in a technical position, effective communication skills are essential.”

Of course, becoming a project manager may require additional training or certification, or a minimum number of years’ experience in industry. Still, not all project management jobs require or even seek such qualifications, and, oftentimes, the most important skills you can bring as a project manager are people-related ones. Kristi’s strategies for selling herself as an English major include knowing her own strengths: “I think it is important to have confidence in myself and understand the skillset I bring to a position. Being humble enough to know that I may need to work my way up and work hard to learn the technical skills but always knowing that I have a unique skillset that makes me a valuable employee.”

The Project Management Institute also offers classes and exams to obtain licensure. Membership to the Institute, which is available to students regardless of major, provides access to webinars and training, tools and templates for projects, and tips and tricks for navigating the job market. An invaluable benefit of membership in the Institute is the community of project managers—both local and global—that you can tap into and network with.

So the next time someone questions your choice to be an English major, or jokingly asks for a coffee, remember project management. Kristi Brown has built a successful career integrating the people skills she developed as an English major at Purdue with the needs of the construction industry. Similar opportunities abound.

What should you keep in mind while looking for jobs outside of traditional English professions? Follow Kristi’s advice: “Be flexible and think outside the perceived constraints that…you may think your English education puts on you. Spend time thinking about what you like to do and, if possible, get a range of experience in various fields to see what you like to do before you ‘decide’ what you want to be when you grow up. You might surprise yourself. I did!” Though the job market may seem daunting, project management is a rapidly growing field—one quite possibly looking for an English major like you.

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For more information:

Anders, George. You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education. Little, Brown, & Co., 2017.

Matz, George. “Cultural Myth of the English Major Barista.”

The Project Management Institute: https://www.pmi.org/

**We especially thank Kristi for her time and thoughtful answers to our questions!

Amanda Leary is a Literature PhD student in the English Department at Purdue University.