University of Vermont

Yes, There’s a Career for That

Expanded winter session program helps students link academics, careers

Susanmarie Harrington
Professor Susanmarie Harrington's course "Careers and English: What Next?" helps answer a question that's a perennial concern of students and graduates: "What can I do with a major in English?" (Photo: Ben Sarle)

Perhaps the most hapless of the fanciful organizations that mock-sponsor A Prairie Home Companion (think the Catchup Advisory Board and the American Duct Tape Council) is the Professional Organization of English Majors, or P.O.E.M. The joke – gentle as it is, given host Garrison Keillor’s clear affection for the species and card-carrying membership in the club – lies in putting the words “English major” and “professional” in the same sentence.   

That knowing wink at the career prospects of English majors wouldn’t sit well with Susanmarie Harrington, professor of English and director of UVM’s Writing in the Disciplines program

Harrington just finished teaching a one-credit online winter session course called "Careers and English: What Next?" that made clear to the nine English majors in her charge that their job prospects – given the right preparation – were just fine, thank you.

“What an English major teaches you is that words matter,” she says. “I can’t imagine a world in which those skills aren’t important, but it does mean we have to be creative in figuring out how to talk about those talents to other people.”           

Harrington’s course was one of 22 offered between Dec. 26 and Jan. 10 through Continuing and Distance Education -- covering majors from anthropology and computer science to areas of interest like public health, arts administration and the environment -- that sought to help students marshal their academic interests and accomplishments in the service of determining an actual career direction and strategy.

“Frequently, students don’t quite understand the connection between what they’re studying and what they might want to do,” says Pamela Gardner, director of UVM's Career Center. “The career courses allow them to understand how careers and majors connect and provide some structure to explore some of their own ideas about what they’d like to do.” 

Opposite sides, same coin

Harrington wanted both to build confidence in her students, some of whom needed a boost, and give them the insights and tools to succeed. Over the 10-day course, they looked inward, examining their experiences, interests and values for career direction clues, and outward, scanning the federal government’s venerable Occupational Outlook Handbook and interviewing a working professional about his or her career path. As a final project, Harrington asked students to create a compelling cover letter and resume for a real job or internship that highlighted the analytical, communication, writing, people and persuasion skills that – properly described – do get English majors hired. 

While liberal arts majors struggle with a lack of what Harrington calls a “linear” connection to a profession, and therefore fear a life of underemployment, those in the much ballyhooed STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines may have the opposite problem. The jobs, according to the media at least, are there. But too many students haven’t gotten past the headlines to know if they’re really suited for them.

“People are interested in computer science because of the job market,” says Bob Erickson, senior lecturer in computer science, who taught "Careers in Computer Science" over winter session. “But computer science isn’t for everyone.” 

Erickson pushed students, most of whom were not computer science majors, to define computer science, a surprisingly hazy topic for many, then to find a real computer science job they’d be interested in and to list the courses they'd need to qualify for it. To learn more about the field, they interviewed a working computer scientist. Finally they identified a computer science job they wanted to pursue, found a student partner, and mock interviewed for the position, videotaping the performance for a group critique.

Origin of the species

Both Harrison’s and Erickson’s offerings were inspired by a lone online course anthropology professor and Center for Teaching and Learning director J. Dickinson began teaching during winter session in 2006, after attending a Career Center workshop for faculty and brainstorming with the center’s associate director, Mary Beth Barritt.

The course, "Anthropology at Work," struck a chord. It was usually full, sometimes had two sections and frequently included majors in other academic disciplines, whom Dickinson did her best to accommodate.

“The students who were most excited about the class felt that it offered them an opportunity to think about their own career path, to think about internships, to go to the Career Center, to write a resume,” says Dickinson, “to do things they’d never thought of or done before. It was like a gentle on-ramp, not a push. It broke the ice and gave them confidence.”

Given Dickinson’s positive feedback about the class, its at-capacity enrollments, and the popularity of a six-credit summer course called "Business Savvy," which provided career advice to liberal arts majors, staff in Continuing and Distance Education knew there was student demand for courses that connected the dots between academia and the world of work.   

Last year the unit offered nine courses similar to Dickinson’s in varying disciplines. But the real expansion came this year, as a result of a recommendation in the Career Success Action plan Honors College dean Abu Rizvi and a team of colleagues developed two years ago at the request of President Tom Sullivan.

“What I saw in the winter session courses was a very effective and easy way for students to learn about how their interests might relate to eventual careers,” Rizvi says. “It was between semesters, it was online, it could be accessed anywhere, and it was one credit, so not a huge burden for students. So not only was it effective, it was also easy.”

In three years, enrollments have grown from 28 to 111 to 217.

For Corin Vallee, a senior English major from Londonderry, N.H. who’s applying for a paid summer internship in the Enterprise Solutions Division of a local technology company, Harrington's course was just the tonic she needed to quell her anxiety as graduation approached. 

"What was really great about the course is that it didn't only explore the linear career paths for English majors like editors and things like that,” she says. “It comes back to realizing the different skills and experiences you pull out of it. The best thing about being an English major is that you’re not stuck on one path, and you have so many options.”