The Wisdom of Avenue Q: What do you do with a BA in English?

Which I’m not actually getting, but makes for a catchy title.

(Look up the song on YouTube—it’s hilarious.)

During my junior and senior years of high school and during my freshman year of college, I really struggled trying to decide what I wanted to study and what I wanted my major to be.

Some people just seem to know from the time they’re young what they want to do.  I once interviewed a veterinarian for a school project, and when I asked her, “When did you know you wanted to be a veterinarian?”  she answered, “When I was old enough to realize I couldn’t grow up to be a horse.”  I thought that was pretty funny.

In some ways I envy those people.  They have a path so early in life.  Sometimes I feel like I have a lot of determination but no direction, like a little car chugging boldly down a narrow, rocky back road, but having no idea if that road will lead to its destination, or even what that destination is.

That’s a frightening feeling, but not all of us are lucky enough to intuitively know from an early age what the right path is for us.

So I was considering many different things.  Math didn’t come naturally to me like it did for some, but I was decent at it.  Science was interesting to me, and both of my parents had backgrounds in science.  I come from a fairly musical family and loved singing in the choir.  I liked to draw and paint.  I loved to read, and I knew I had a way with words—the ability to speak and write just seemed to come naturally to me.

After much agonizing and going back and forth in my mind, I got scared by the job prospects in the liberal arts and more artistic fields, even though I knew those things interested me more than science.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read or heard about how English majors can’t find jobs, or heard people crack jokes (“jokes”) about it.  My sister’s friend’s dad started telling a story once:  “I have this friend who’s a bartender—”  He looked at me, “—She was an English major—”  As I groaned, he laughed and said, “Just joking.”  It made me laugh but it also kind of killed me a little bit inside…

I also had a friend who’s majoring in physics send this to me:


I’m pretty sure I laughed, but I also sent her a very articulate note back saying, “I hate you.”

Before entering my freshman year, I decided to start as a biology major since I was decent at it and knew there were more career options in science than the arts.  I figured I would at least give it a shot.

It wasn’t long before I knew that by erring on the side of caution and practicality, I had made the wrong decision.  I didn’t enjoy my classes, finding them extremely boring and very difficult, and I knew I would be miserable doing research or practicing medicine for the rest of my life.  When I had made the decision to go into science, I had been ignoring what I already knew, especially after having some wonderful experiences with English later in high school:  that what I was good at, what I really loved, was reading and writing.

Preparing for “The Real World” with a Liberal-Artsy Major like English or Writing

Now after having two years of college classes under my belt, I decided that English wasn’t quite right for me either, and opted to get a double major in Creative and Professional writing.  (The former being focused on reading and literature analysis, and the latter being focused on writing with a mixture of creativity and practicality that I enjoy.)  I feel much more comfortable with what I’m doing now.

But unlike in fields such as computer science or engineering in which graduates know what their careers will be, writing doesn’t have a set job afterwards:  you have to sell yourself.  I’ve realized that it’s important to develop as many skills as possible, and not just stick exclusively to writing like it’s isolated in a little bubble.  These are some of the tips I’m giving myself as I learn more about what I need to know and what I should know how to do:

  • Learn how to analyze and write for a particular audience.
  • Learn how to market an idea or product or organization to the right people.
  • Learn how to promote and how to form partnerships with other organizations with whom you could mutually benefit.
  • Learn about computers and websites.
  • Learn about graphic design and presentation.
  • Hone your editing skills.
  • Learn to judge what kind of writing will appeal to people (if you’re in a more creative endeavor like editing and publishing.  Even if it’s not “great literature,” it might still be very successful.)  *coughcoughTWILIGHT*  Or if you’re running a theater and your target audience is families and well-to-do, middle-aged/older people, book shows they’re going to want to see!
  • In other words, learn skills that employers are seeking in an employee, and learn what will sell.

Art for its own sake and appreciating the literary merit of a piece of work is important too, of course, (like I said, I love reading!) …but it would be nice to have food and a place to live someday.

That’s why I feel like this internship is a very important step for me as I am learning and developing these skills, and as I’m learning more about what I do and don’t want to do someday.  That’s another piece of advice I’d give:

  • Get as much experience as you can as early as you can.
  • Participate in activities relevant to your chosen career path so you won’t have a “desert island” resume (as my Intro to Professional and Technical Writing professor, Professor Wynn, calls it) when it’s time to find a job.
  • Participate in things that will give you some writing samples.
  • Seek out summer opportunities, even if they’re unpaid internships, because those are the things that will get you paid jobs someday.

And look early.  Start looking at the beginning of the school year.  I got help from the career center at the beginning of the year and then applied for my internship in early spring.

The Hillman Center for Performing Arts

The internship I found is with The Hillman Center for Performing Arts (, as I said in my last entry.  It’s a non-profit professional performing space located at Shady Side Academy that brings in internationally acclaimed performers throughout the year, and has various groups use the theater throughout the summer.  The shows from the 2011-2012 season were Illusionist Stephen Knight’s The Magic of the Night, Animal Exploration with Jarod Miller, The Platters and the Marvelettes in concert, Carnegie Mellon Chamber Orchestra, Elements of Humor comedy tour with Kristen Schaal (Flight of the Conchords, The Daily Show), Hannibal Buress (Saturday Night Live, Thirty Rock), Faye Lane (Faye Lane’s Beauty Shop Stories), and Ted Alexandro (Comedy Central Presents), and last but not least, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.  I was able to see the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre as they danced to songs by Bruce Springsteen and George and Ira Gershwin, and it was incredible:




This summer there have been many different groups who have used the theater space, and lucky me, I get to see and hear them all running around backstage as I’m working.  Some of these groups include Michele’s Dance Center, Dance Moms, the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh for its Summerfest, Bagpipers, and Camp Jam (a rock n roll camp for kids), all of which are REALLY. FUN. to hear backstage.  Especially the rehearsing opera singers/students, rehearsing bagpipers, and a bunch of kids trying to sing rock songs…  (Key word is “trying,” poor things.  And my poor ears…) There may have been some earplugs involved when the bagpipers were rehearsing.  And I think that was the same day a toilet exploded and started gushing water like a geyser.  My boss, Sarah, ran headlong into the spewing water to flush the toilet and attempted to stop the flow.  It ebbed a little and she raised her arms in triumph, shouting, “I am victorious!!”  But then it kind of started again so we called maintenance.  But it was still a brave gesture that I will probably never forget.  I hope I’ve repaid that by all the spiders I’ve taken out of the office.

But in all seriousness, it really is a fun place to work, and it’s super cool to see all the people who come through there.  I even got to see one of the operas, Candide, which I enjoyed a lot, especially since I read it in AP English in high school.


The three main people standing directly behind the sheep are Candide, the Old Woman, and Paquette.  The old woman is actually played by a man named Andrey Nemzer who is a countertenor, meaning his singing voice is high enough that it sounds almost like a woman’s.

I’ve also been helping to set up partnerships and promotions for shows in the 2012-2013 season, and I’m really looking forward to them:





I’m so glad that I’m interning here this summer.  Not only am I doing some writing for a place that appeals to my interest in the arts, but I’m also learning about marketing, promotion, setting up partnerships with other organizations, analyzing audiences, putting together mailing lists depending on the type of population you want to target, the language that should be used to promote a group and grab people’s interest, designing posters and flyers, and more.  And I’m also meeting some really nice people, including some of the other interns.  I feel like I’m on the right track in my studies and career path (for now), and I feel very lucky.

More soon,

Thank you to my dear readers,



Introductions, Confessions, and Thank Yous

Before I jump into things, let me briefly introduce myself:  my name is Laura Stiles, and I’m a Creative Writing, Professional Writing double major at Carnegie Mellon University.  If all goes well (meaning, if I don’t die from exhaustion by the time I’m finished here…), I’ll be graduating in 2014.  This summer, I’m living in Pittsburgh and interning at The Hillman Center for Performing Arts with the help of a Dozzi scholarship I was awarded through Carnegie Mellon, which is really what this blog is about.

Also, just so you get an idea of who I am aside from all the professional-sounding stuff, other things you might like to know about me…I like singing along to music on long car rides, playing in lakes and creeks, and reading.  Also cute animals, soft blankets, cinnamon rolls, and sushi.

…Clearly it doesn’t take much to keep me happy…

So the blog finally begins!

But before I go any further, I must confess that I’m pretty proud of myself for creating this blog in the summer time.  I firmly maintain that at the end of every school year, after that final test or paper has been completed and it is suddenly possible to crash into bed and just be DONE, whatever motivating power that somehow keeps a person working throughout an entire semester seeps out of his or her brain through the ears and is rapidly melted away by dreams of campfires and s’mores, lemonade and locust drones, eighty degree temperatures, and firefly glows in the evenings.

Depending on how nice the weather is, I think it takes a lot to overcome these challenges.  So I’m happy I was able to create this blog for you all.  Huzzah!!

Also, I must confess that it took me awhile to pluck up the guts to create this blog in the first place.  Why?  To put it simply, I’m really afraid of being boring.  Every time I sit down to write, I can’t help thinking:  Who really wants to read about a twenty year old in college who happens to be an intern for the summer?

I’ve always been perplexed by the contradiction in our society about the interest vs. non-interest in other people’s lives.  On the one hand, there is the blatant “I don’t care” attitude:  the t-shirts with “For a Minute There You Bored Me to Death” or similar phrases on them, the cynical ecards on, and the frustrating scenario of someone taking forever to tell you a long, detailed story from his or her life.  But on the other hand, there’s the obsession with celebrities and “reality” television, people spending hours blogging or reading blogs, people spending hours on Facebook, people talking on the phone or getting together with friends to gossip, people reading and getting lost in stories all the time.

The only thing I’ve been able to come up with is that if you want to be on the “interesting” rather than “boring” end of the spectrum, it really helps to be rich or famous.  And if you’re not, then you’d better be entertaining, insightful, or relatable—preferably all three at once.  So since I am neither rich nor famous, I will at least try to make my blog entries entertaining, insightful, and relatable for everyone.  And I hope that I can provide some helpful information for other college students trying to navigate this tricky territory of “I need to get an internship so I can get experience, but I need experience to get an internship.”  I found it to be a very frustrating double bind, and I expect this is a frustrating problem for others as well.

So in my next entry, (which I hope will be soon), I’ll talk about the very cool place where I’m doing my internship this summer:  The Hillman Center for Performing Arts (  A HUGE thank you to everyone there, and especially to my boss Sarah York Rubin, who has been very, very helpful to me.  And even if she can’t pay her interns, she always makes sure we have enough delicious food to eat.  Thank you, Sarah.<3

Signing off until then,

I love anyone who takes the time to read this,



Before I end this first, long-awaited, introductory entry, a shout out to Carnegie Mellon and the Career and Professional Development Center, who asked me to write this blog in the first place.  The Career Center (my career counselor Ray Mizgorski in particular) has been incredibly helpful to me over the past year, helping me explore career opportunities, giving me resources to look for internships, helping me polish up my resume, and giving me advice about interviews.  And once I did land my internship, it was Ray who told me about the Dozzi scholarship, one of which I was lucky enough to receive and which has been an immense help to me this summer.  A HUGE thank you to the Dozzi family for helping out unpaid Pittsburgh summer interns!  Thank you thank you thank you!!  (I’m nothing if not grateful.)