Perspectives on Life After Graduation

Martha Cheng, associate professor of English

Interview by Emily Beardsley '10

Surprise Endings

When she graduated with a B.A. in literature, Martha Cheng never would have imagined that major would lead her to work at a software company. While there she discovered that she enjoyed working in technology and even considered it for advanced study. Cheng cites this experience as an example of the importance of keeping one’s options open; you can never tell where your degree might take you.

Career Payoff

Cheng’s detour into a more technical field prompted her to consider the innovative technology program at Carnegie Mellon University for graduate school. With her background in literature, a Ph.D. in English would have been an obvious next step—until she was told how difficult it would be difficult to find employment. A faculty member at CMU suggested she look into rhetoric and was told that it had a 100% success rate in job placement. Rhetoric allowed her to preserve her past interest in writing while keeping an eye on her professional future.

Keeping it Professional

While it is worthwhile to give graduate school entrance committees a taste of who you are, Martha Cheng couldn’t stress enough the importance of making sure your entrance essay addresses who you are as a student. Cheng suggested researching the faculty at the schools to which you are applying and writing about the professors you could see yourself working with. A good entrance essay should explain why you want to be a part of a specific program and your academic and professional goals, not your childhood memories and how you’ve grown as a person.

Communication: The Competitive Edge

English majors often complain of not having a focused career path based on their major. Unlike engineers or pre-med students, there is no prescribed professional field to move into. While teaching and journalism seem like two viable options, Cheng aptly pointed out that through exposure to literature, English majors have the unique ability to adapt to and interpret situations, can analyze problems and can write well. These skills, as well as an aptitude for communication, give most English majors a competitive edge in the job market.