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What Are You Going to Do with that Humanities Degree?

Krook Lecture_FBPost“What’s the difference between a bench and an English major? The bench can support family of four.” This dispiriting joke was part of the opening statements delivered by Sean Latham, director of the Oklahoma Center of the Humanities (OCH), prior to Anne Krook’s lecture: “What Are You Going to DO with that Humanities Major?” This talk (and the workshop that followed) was part of a new annual series at OCH called the Humanities at Work, which explores the transition between college life and the workplace. Krook concluded that humanities majors possess skills that allow them not only to find a job, but to thrive amid the tumult of the modern workplace.

Krook received a bachelor’s degree in English from Yale and a doctorate from Cornell in 1989 before beginning her career as a professor at the University of Michigan. After being denied tenure, however, she suddenly found herself out of a job and uncertain about what to do next. Even 30 years ago, humanities degrees were seen as less than optimal for finding a job, and Krook moved to Seattle where she became a bartender. A friend recommended she check out a new start-up company called Amazon: It was an online bookseller and, this friend assumed, Krook’s love of books made it a natural fit. That friend was right; and after being hired as an editor, Krook quickly rose through the ranks to hold a number of executive positions. She has since held similar positions at other tech start-up companies and become a member of the board of directors for a nonprofit legal firm. While most of her jobs were not intimately tied to her English major, Krook emphasized that her work in the humanities equipped her with the skills she needed to become an effective leader in the constantly changing tech industry.

During her campus lecture, which will shortly appear on our YouTube channel, Krook explained that humanities students should not think of themselves as a major, but as masters of key skills. “I always hire a person,” she explained, “never a major.” Drawing on her own experiences as a hiring manager, she described what companies want to see in candidates and how humanities students, in particular, can describe their skills most effectively. “All jobs require skills,” she noted, and for jobs that do not require a specific certification (like an M.D., for example), the ability to learn quickly, think critically, write clearly and work effectively with diverse groups of people are essential. Humanities majors typically have all of these valuable skills as well as a distinctive flexibility. In her lecture, Krook explained how students should inventory their accomplishments, link them into a compelling narrative and then integrate them successfully on a resume. Here’s the resume-building tool she provided to help with this process.

As Krook noted in her talk, workers now hold an average of 11 different jobs in their lives. Humanities majors, she contended, are expert at moving from position to position since learning a new job is much like learning 18th-century poetry or classical philosophy: you go in knowing very little then plunge into complex tasks and communicate them clearly to others. It’s the same kind of flexibility that allowed an expert on Milton to manage the launch of Amazon’s international websites, oversee the development of the company’s data centers, direct operations at a tech company and reinvigorate a nonprofit. The answer to the question, “What are you going to do with a humanities degree?” is “Anything you want.”

You can find more helpful advice, readings and job-searching tools at www.annekrook.com.

  • – by Mikayla Pevac