“What can I do with an English degree?” Many students ask this question, as do parents and skeptics. In fact, English degrees lead to many different careers.
McGill alumni who have studied English have gone on to careers as casting agents, novelists, advertising executives, government policy advisers, teachers, pension fund managers, psychiatrists, documentary film-makers, playwrights and directors, management consultants, communications officers, and many other jobs.
If you are a McGill English alum and would like to contribute a profile of 150-200 words and a high-resolution picture, please send these to Prof. Erin Hurley at erin.hurley [at] mcgill.ca. Profiles may be edited for content and length.
Arts and Culture
Nicole Luongo (Honours B.A., 2021)
There is no question that my studies in the English Department at McGill University have both informed and shaped my career today. For my first two years at McGill, I felt lost in terms of what I wanted to study. So lost, in fact, that I declared a neuroscience major before switching to political science…all within my first year! But then I took an English class—I vividly remember it was Intro to Theatre Studies—as an elective. Almost immediately, I realized these are the classes that inspired and invigorated me as a scholar, not organic chemistry and political theory, as I previously thought. At this point, I knew the major I wanted to declare, but what would I do with it?
It wasn’t until I took ENGL 322, Theories of the Text, that everything started to fall into place. Aha, I thought. I want to be a book editor. From then on, my whole career trajectory changed. I applied to editorial internships during the summers, I altered the forthcoming classes in my schedule, and I used my studies on the sociology of literature to write my Honours dissertation, which included my critiques of a major celebrity book club and its ramifications for marginalized authors (as well as a qualitative study of Goodreads reviews!) Learning about the world of publishing in such acute detail during ENGL 322 invigorated me, not only because I felt my skillsets would complement those required of an editor, but also because I wanted to effect change in the industry for any marginalized individual, whether it be an author, an editor, a literary agent, and so forth.
I am thrilled to say that my dream came true, and I am now an editor at HarperCollins Publishers. I am the primary editor on over five books since I began this job in October of 2021, with a vast majority of these authors coming from underrepresented backgrounds. I owe so much to McGill’s English Department and feel so grateful and proud to carry this degree with me.
Bryn Turnbull (B.A., 2010)
In the weeks before I started my undergraduate studies at McGill, I told my friends that I was pursuing a degree in “storytelling”. Though I said it with a smile, I worried as I watched my companions head off to lectures in the McConnell Engineering and Desautels buildings, that my degree in English literature might end up feeling like wasted time. Why hadn’t I chosen something more tangible like finance or medicine? What use would an English degree be, once I was in the world beyond McLennan-Redpath Library?
When I chose my major, my parents advised me that the value in an undergraduate degree doesn’t lie in knowing your career path at nineteen or twenty years old. Instead, it lies in learning how to learn: introducing oneself to different areas of interest to see where the intellectual sparks might fly. In narrowing my focus on humanities, I learned that my passion does, in fact, lie in storytelling. I took what I learned in the classroom – my courses on romantic literature and children’s literature and Greco-Roman myth – and began knocking together paragraphs and chapters to build stories of my own, which I broke them apart in a creative writing group that met in a high forgotten corner of the Arts building. I learned how to give and take creative criticism, how to structure stories – and, most crucially, how to have the confidence to share those stories with a broader audience.
My time at McGill also taught me to think more flexibly about what an English degree offers to learners. Though I didn’t know it on the day I earned my “storytelling degree,” being a storyteller is a skill that goes far beyond the obvious. In my thirteen years since leaving McGill I’ve worked in communications, politics, healthcare and the non-profit sector: all fields which require storytelling, in their own way. All companies need storytellers to communicate the value of what they do to their customers, shareholders, or donor base.
Today, I make my living telling stories. In 2020, I published my first novel, which became one of the top ten bestselling works of Canadian fiction for the year. My second and third novels followed in 2022 and 2023, and my fourth is scheduled for publication in 2024. As an author, I’m drawn to the lived experiences of others – women who’ve fallen through the cracks of the historical record. My work has taken me across North America and Europe, into cloistered halls of academia and palatial mansions inhabited by the characters whose voices I follow. I dive deeply into my research to create historically authentic worlds and share what I learned at McGill and beyond with students who are on their own storytelling paths. I followed my passion at McGill and it’s led me to a career I’d always hoped for: one where I get to tell stories that ought to be shared.
Caroline Zimmerman (Honours B.A., 2008)
At McGill, I lived and breathed critical theory: a thesis on gothic hermeneutics for Peter Gibian; hours discussing the New Criticism with Miranda Hickman. Little did I know, until I took a job at a literary agency, that few outside of academia care much for it; what most readers want is a good story. I now spend my time scouring literary journals, blogs, magazines, and faculty profiles in search of the best storytellers. I help authors develop book projects that I then sell to major New York publishers. Poring over Derrida served its purpose, though: it taught me to be a close reader and a critical thinker. These skills—along with a stint at the McGill Daily, several journalism and publishing internships, and a part-time job writing for a news website—were key to breaking into the book industry after I graduated. I started as an intern at the Boston office of The Kneerim & Williams Agency’s, before moving on to assist one of the firm’s founding partners. Now I handle projects of my own, including the international bestseller Paris Versus New York (Penguin, 2012). I’d recommend finding a balance between academic and professional development early on, in order to build your CV and a network of contacts upon which to draw after graduation.
Christine Munroe (Honours B.A., 2007; M.A., 2009)Two key aspects of my time in McGill's English department pointed me in the direction of a career in book publishing: discussions with Professor Robert Lecker about the Canadian book publishing industry; and courses with Professor Thomas Mole exploring the materiality of texts. Primed by these interests, I moved to New York City after completing my Master's degree to pursue a publishing job. My McGill degrees helped me stand out amongst strong competition trying to enter the publishing field, and I secured an internship and subsequently a job at a literary agency. A keen interest in foreign rights led me to accept a job at a book scouting company, where I have worked since 2010. I read and analyze forthcoming books and make recommendations to foreign publishers regarding their potential for translation into other languages and markets. I love that I can continue examining literature critically, and I especially enjoy traveling to various international book fairs. My advice to current students interested in non-academic jobs is to start exploring options right away. Apply for summer internships, talk to as many professionals as possible, then try to zero in on the career options that seem most appealing.
Anca L. Szilágyi (B.A., English and Archeology, 2004)
I wanted to major in English literature because I love stories. The degree allowed me to pursue more practical things, I suppose, like an MA in TESOL at Teachers College, Columbia University and a brief stint as a legal assistant, but in each of these pursuits I found myself enraptured with language, culture—and stories. And I kept thinking back to the courses in literature I took at McGill, diving into Ovid’s Metamorphoses with Professor Borris, Paradise Lost with Professor Kilgour, Mrs. Dalloway with Professor Hepburn, modern Israeli novels with Professor Halevi-Wise, and Autobiography of Red with Professor Cooke. All of these experiences enriched my experience of the world and helped shape me as a writer. I’m proud to share that my debut novel, Daughters of the Air, was recently published. Fellow McGill alum Sean Michaels (BA ’04), winner of the Giller Prize, calls Daughters of the Air “a riveting, magical lament…rich in history and humanity.” Without books, life is short; I can’t think of anything better to do with my time than read and write stories.
Preanka Hai (Honours B.A., 2011)
In the last year, I have experienced an intense shift from rewriting drafts of my English thesis to completing rigorous corporate finance and strategy courses. Yet there have been consistent themes in this transition from a BA in English literature at McGill to an MSc in Management at London Business School. I can compose business reports quickly and effectively; my peers seek my editorial advice for assignments, cover letters, and resumes. My English degree also gave me the confidence to articulate myself with clarity and concision. This is a skill that is transferable—indeed, necessary—for success in whichever profession you pursue. Managers in finance, consulting, and other industry jobs actively recruit individuals who can navigate ambiguous information and extract defensible findings. The creative element of my English degree has been essential to me as I pursue a career in corporate strategy. Many business paths, including marketing and entrepreneurship, value originality. I adored my four years as a student of literature. As I pivot towards business, the skills that McGill's English department gave me still remain.
Josh Tavlin (B.A., 1983)
In 1983, I left McGill with a BA in English literature, and pretty much no plan for the future. Now that I look back, I’m astonished that I wasn’t a complete basket case. Generally speaking, a degree in English literature does not portend a life of wealth and fame. Which is good, because I wasn’t looking for that. All I wanted to do was find a job that could use my writing skills. Which I did: for three years I worked at two publishing houses that required me to write book jacket copy for college textbooks. That was not what I had in mind. Thinking advertising might be more fun, I got a job with Macy’s department store in NYC, where I wrote ads with clever headlines like, “Sale 99.99.” It was around this time, that I remembered a book that I had bought at “The Word” bookstore on Milton in 1982. It was David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man. I probably bought it because it was cheap and it had a somewhat titillating title. But I remember loving it, and thinking this sort of career might be fun. So a year after writing, “Sale 99.99,” I found a job at an ad agency, where my talents seemed to fit right in. As fate would have it, I’ve worked most of my career at Ogilvy & Mather advertising, the very agency that David Ogilvy built. There I worked on brands like IBM and American Express and rose to Senior VP Creative Director. Currently I’m the Executive Creative Director at an agency called Momentum. I’ve often wondered myself what McGill and my degree contributed to my career, and I think it’s less about the degree, and more about the degree to which McGill professors pushed and encouraged me to be insatiably curious, fiercely opinionated, and to love the written word. Which I still do today.
Robert Davis (B.A., 1971)
I completed my BA in English at McGill in 1971 and then went on to get an MLS, also at McGill, in 1973. I ran a small, specialized library in Montreal before finding a job at the British Library in London. When I realized that I could not make ends meet financially as a librarian in London, I decided to get an MBA. I had always been interested in investing and the stock market, and the MBA gave me the knowledge and skills to make a career change. I returned to McGill and received my MBA in 1980. I was fortunate to find a job immediately upon graduation at the Bell Canada Pension Fund where I eventually managed a large US equity portfolio for many years. One of the reasons that I was initially hired was because my boss-to-be assumed that, with an English degree, I would be able to write clearly in English, a skill that in his experience couldn’t be taken for granted. While it is true that I could not have done my job without the knowledge and understanding of subjects like macroeconomics and accounting that I acquired in the MBA, the basic process of decision-making wasn’t that different from writing a term paper back in the English department: analyzing a problem, identifying and evaluating the factors relevant to the decision, and reaching a conclusion. Also, an investment decision is always to some extent a forecast of the future which is inherently uncertain. I always felt that my background in English had given me a much higher tolerance for ambiguity, which made making decisions under uncertainty easier and contributed to my success as a portfolio manager. Many people over the years have expressed surprise that I could move from a liberal arts background to the investment world, but to me the two worlds are more related than most people think.
Trevor Ellis (B.A., English and Political Science, 2012)
2012 will serve as a sort of gap year for me. In the next few years, I hope to work in a field related to my degree—perhaps at a newspaper or a polling firm. In the immediate future I would like to take a break from school and do something fast-paced, such as waitering, or work for a youth-run organization. In the long term, I want to teach high school English or work in a job related to public policy. When I was at McGill, my Poetics instructor, Chelsea Honeyman, was outgoing, helpful, and instrumental in providing me with the skills and confidence to complete my English degree. If I had any advice to give to a person graduating with an English degree it would be this: do not expect to enjoy every class or everything you read, but do yourself the favour of attending class and doing the readings; in the end what you will like and what you may not like might surprise you.
Brett Hooton (Honours B.A., 2002; M.A., 2005)Since August 2011, I have been the Associate Director, Communications, for the Office of the Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations) at McGill. Previously, I was the E-Communications Officer for the University’s Development and Alumni Relations office. In that position, I received several awards for my work from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education (CCAE), including the CCAE’s Rising Star Award for 2011. In addition to my day job, I have worked as a freelance writer, editor, and researcher. For example, between 2007 and 2009 I served as the theatre critic for Hour, a free weekly newspaper in Montreal that, sadly, ceased publishing in early 2012. Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, I came to McGill as a student, eventually earning my BA with honours in English literature and history in 2002 and my MA in English literature in 2005. Through the years, McGill, its faculty, and its staff have remained excellent professional resources for me, and I am deeply indebted to everyone here for their support.
Molly McCullough (Honours B.A., 2004)
Like many people, I started my undergraduate degree with no idea of what I would do afterwards. I studied English because I loved the material and hoped that my career—whatever it ended up being—would sort itself out. In the end, my Honours degree in Cultural Studies, obtained from the McGill English Department in 2004, gave me the best imaginable foundation for my work in museums. As the Assistant Curator at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, I regularly analyze artifacts as cultural products, a skill I developed studying literature at McGill. Essays written for professors at university prepared me to write proposals for artifacts and projects at work. What I was taught about narrative has shaped how I interpret the museum’s collections. Researching and writing an honours thesis is my most memorable experience from McGill. Not surprisingly, this turned out to be one of the most useful experiences as well. Under the supervision of Professor Allan Hepburn, I learnt how to organize a large research project and to turn a lot of unstructured information into a persuasive argument, useful skills in almost any workplace.
Libbie Snyder (B.A., 2005)I majored in English because I simply love reading and exploring novels, drama, and poetry, but I had no idea what career path I wanted to pursue. My first job post-graduation was in marketing at a Jewish non-profit organization in Boston (my hometown). Marketing was a natural transition, since effective marketing relies on good writing. I worked there for three years, then in 2009 I decided to emigrate to Israel. I met my husband at a wedding in Tel Aviv and we married two years later; we continue to reside in Tel Aviv. I got a job as a Linguistic Editor at Time To Know, an "e-learning" company, where I edited their English curricula for US schools. Having strong English writing skills is extremely valuable if you're living abroad, especially in a country like Israel, which depends so much on international business: English is the language of international business. As I continue to develop my career in Israel, I am thankful to have had the superb training in writing and editing that I received at McGill. It was the best gift I could have given myself.
Sophie Boyer (Honours B.A., 2002)
My studies at McGill began in the Sciences, but it took only one English course to convince me to switch disciplines to the Arts: an introductory American Literature course with Professor Gibian. I remember this and so many other great courses in the English Department at McGill. One professor in particular made a significant impression on me: Professor Hepburn. His love of literature, and perspective on culture and history, inspired me to pursue an Honours degree. It was his Spy Novel course that first captured my interest; it was not only the content and his knowledge of the material, but also his approachability that made the course so enjoyable. With the help of Professor Hepburn, Professor Carney, and the other teachers in the English department, I graduated with First Class Honours in English Literature, with a minor in Humanities, in 2002.
After graduating McGill, I obtained a Bachelor of Education degree at the University of Ottawa, with a focus on Senior English and History. From there, I travelled to the United Kingdom, where I taught high school in Cambridge for almost two years. With my background in literature and history from McGill, it was a natural choice to travel to the birthplace of so many literary geniuses and their works. I subsequently taught in Ontario and British Columbia. Teaching high school and sharing my love of literature with teenagers across the country has been a blessing. My experiences have varied, but one thing remains the same no matter where I go: the strong education I received at McGill has served me well. It formed the basis for the expertise that I now share with enthusiasm.
My advice to those graduating from the English department is to follow your passions, no matter where they take you. Even if you don’t end up teaching English, or studying English further, or writing a textbook about literature, your education in the discipline will always be of great service. You have learned how to think critically about the world around you, the discipline to study it, and the ability to write about it. One of the biggest compliments I have ever received is that I write well. And I have McGill to thank for that.
Michael F. Cooley (M.A., 2006)
Upon graduation from McGill, I accepted an internship with the Government of Alberta in the Ministry of Health. I communicated with over 200 users of an administrative health data warehouse, trained new users on software navigate the data, and participated in Information Technology projects. In 2007, I supplemented by education with a certificate in Project Management, which led to development and maintenance projects as a Business Intelligence Consultant. I recently accepted a position as a Customer Relationship Management Specialist with Alberta Health, where I oversee the disclosure of health administrative data in accordance with relevant privacy legislation. An education in English literature and an interest in technology provided me with the analytical skills necessary to translate between business needs and information technology solutions. My time at McGill gave me the freedom to explore my interests while instilling me with the discipline to manage larger projects. While a degree in English is highly transferrable, I’d recommend supplementing it with some more specialized education or work experience to stand out with employers.
Véronique Dorais Ram (Honours B.A., 2002; M.A., 2004)
For the longest time, I only had one goal: to study literature at McGill. My goal achieved, I felt a little lost, not quite sure what to do next. Like many of my peers, I opted to pursue doctoral studies to become a professor. I began my PhD at the University of Calgary in 2006 and will defend in September 2012. During these six years, I engaged in new areas of research (especially narrative medicine), participated in student politics, and underwent major changes in perspective. I discovered literature was but a stepping stone to my professional path as a future physician. Therefore, I applied to the MD/PhD Leaders in Medicine program at the University of Calgary, and will graduate with both degrees in 2016. Degrees in literature aren’t often considered “pre-med” – I am the first PhD in literature in the U of C MD program. Yet I can’t imagine having a better background. Current international literature demonstrates that physicians with exposure to arts-based learning improve their critical thinking skills and bring enhanced sensitivity and analysis to their diagnostic reasoning. I firmly believe that my degrees make me a unique and better clinician.
David McPherson (B.A., 1968)
I am a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst with a private, medicare-based practice in Montreal. Coming from Saint John, NB, I entered McGill in 1964 in the General Arts program. During prolonged rehabilitation after a serious car accident in 1966, I had time to ponder some of the important questions of life: “Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do?” Under the influence of Professor Archie Malloch, I decided that I could best find answers to these questions by studying English literature. While completing my degree, I was President of the Literary Society; Eleanor Wachtel was Vice-President. After my BA, I completed an MA in English at the University of Toronto with a research paper on James Joyce. I found a position at the CBC as a staff producer for the radio program Ideas. In 1972—still asking questions—I talked my way into medical school and finished my way to an MD while working as a freelancer at the CBC. I did a residency in psychiatry at the New York University-Bellevue Medical Center, then returned to Montreal. I worked for 22 years at the Montreal General Hospital before setting up my private office. Many of my patients tilt toward the younger side: where there is youth, I believe, there is hope.
Terri Susan Zurbrigg (BA Honours 2004, MA 2006)
Your McGill English degree will enable you to do much more than silently correct other people’s grammar at dinner parties. After I graduated from the MA program at McGill, I went to law school. In 2008 I graduated from the University of Alberta law program, where I was Co-Editor in Chief of the Alberta Law Review. I clerked at the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench in Edmonton and articled at Field LLP, where I am currently an associate who practices labour, employment, and privacy law. In 2011, I was called to the bar in the Northwest Territories. The skills I developed while studying English Literature help me succeed on a daily basis as a lawyer. At McGill, I learned how to write clearly and persuasively, and the analytical skills I honed enable me to construct my arguments effectively and dismantle those advanced by my opponents. Finally, a degree in English Literature taught me to see everything as a story, which is really all legal files are: stories about people (usually people behaving badly). While you may not ascend to the heights of Atticus Finch—in fact, you’ll probably have to slog it out in a grey office like Wallace Stevens—your English degree will stand you in good stead for a rewarding and engaging career should you opt to go the legal route.
Katherine Mullen (B.A., 2006)
Always an avid reader, I decided to major in English Literature, since I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life. This felt like a perfect fit for me—until I graduated and had to face the daunting task of finding a job with a literature degree. There were certainly options, but most required some formal writing experience, which I did not have. After a year as a retail supervisor, I decided it was time to go back to school. With my background in English from McGill I found myself rapidly accepted to the MA program in Library Science at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts. Now I’m very happy, working as an archivist at a publishing company while attending law school at night. My literature degree may not have gotten me far when I had no experience to back it up, but it offered a perfect springboard for further learning and entering the publishing field. I have also found that the analytical skills I gained while dissecting Henry James and desperately trying to impress my favourite Professor, Allan Hepburn, have given me a great leg up in law school.
Nick Rieck (English Major and Arts Undergraduate Society’s VP Academic, 2023)
The Department of English's advising structure is one of the most comprehensive and robust among the Faculty of Arts. Students have often remarked (including myself!) that the accessible nature of most (if not all) faculty members is a highlight of the program and that the advising structure as a whole fosters a strong sense of community in the Department.
Shannon Constantine (M.A., 2023)
I took courses with Professors Zien, Hurley, Yachnin, and Hickman. The courses that I took helped solidify my interests and greatly influenced my decision to pursue a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies. Additionally, I have found the plays and critical texts taught at McGill extremely helpful as a foundation for PhD coursework. The professors I met were very kind and were deeply invested in both their subjects and their students, going out of their way to help with professional and academic development in class, during office hours, and even with preparation for the PhD. I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to do my M.A. at McGill, and I believe that I will reap the benefits of the courses that I took with these four professors throughout my academic career.
Shailee Rajak (M.A., 2023)
Pursuing graduate studies in the English Department at McGill University has been a transformative journey for me as a scholar specializing in drama and performance studies. The department's distinguished faculty, with their commitment to interdisciplinary exploration, provided an unparalleled academic environment that nurtured both traditional scholarly rigour and avant-garde research methodologies. I even got to publish my first graphic novel thanks to the creative opportunities offered through seminars such as 'Public Scholarship' by Prof. Yachnin within the department. I am particularly grateful for the immense support and access to extensive resources provided by my supervisors, Dr Hurley and Dr Zien. As performance scholars themselves, their networks within the vibrant cultural and artistic scene in Montreal enriched my research and expanded my professional horizons. The graduate experience at McGill equipped me with a robust foundation, critical analytical skills, and a global perspective—I feel I am positioned well to contribute meaningfully to performance studies and academic discourse at large.
Katie Lund (M.A., 2023)
I chose to take my MA at McGill for many reasons. Chief among these were the opportunity to work with Peter Sabor as a research assistant and as a student, which I knew would be a fantastic way to gain experience in my chosen field, and the course-based degree option that would allow me to take a greater variety of courses than in a thesis-based degree and also to conduct an extended independent research project - most other course-based MAs in Canada do not have this feature. I have come away from my MA with a wealth of research experience, a supportive community in the form of my cohort, and renewed excitement to continue my academic career.