From English degree to corporate governance

Cambridge alumnus Philip Sidney reveals how his English degree has proven useful in the corporate world

Seeking some structure

If, while I was finishing my PhD, someone had tapped me on the shoulder in the UL and told me that I would be working in corporate governance in a few years’ time, I would have been reluctant to believe them. For one, I had no idea of what ‘corporate governance’ was, and I was also committed to what I thought would be the natural follow-ons to a PhD in English – either academia, or writing full-time as an author or journalist. However, after a year as a research assistant to my former PhD supervisor, and then a couple of years of freelance journalism and applying for academic positions, a more structured, full-time job seemed appealing – so after trawling the Careers Service website and sending in an application, I found myself working for a corporate advisory firm in London.

many of the skills that English students (and humanities students in general) bring to bear on literary texts are highly useful in a corporate context

Utilising key skills

At first glance, helping big companies work out how they can be run better – which, essentially, is what corporate governance advisory aims to do – seems a far cry from, say, working out what D.H. Lawrence is saying about the nature of modernity in Women in Love. But aside from the primary material that you’re focusing on, many of the skills that English students (and humanities students in general) bring to bear on literary texts are highly useful in a corporate context. A sensitivity to the nuances of language – and, in particular, an ability to gauge the precise meaning of a text while also leaving room for ambiguity – is a valuable attribute in a sector that requires analysis and communication of complex problems, and graduates able to recognise and write in different registers (from reports for shareholders to internal emails) are highly prized.

The skills that Cambridge gives you in terms of structuring an argument, and marshalling evidence to address a given problem, will also stand you in good stead for the corporate world, whether you’re researching what makes boards effective or pitching to a new client. Moreover, the experience of managing and prioritising your workload – as well as working to deadlines – that is provided by years of essays and dissertations will also be attractive to companies whose goal is to deliver work to clients as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

it’s always great to see applicants taking an example of something from their degree that they’ve really enjoyed or excelled at and adapting it to fit the requirements of the role

All these skills are worth mentioning in the applications that you send to prospective employers – as someone who now has responsibility for recruiting grads, postgrads and post-PhDs, it’s always great to see applicants taking an example of something from their degree that they’ve really enjoyed or excelled at and adapting it to fit the requirements of the role. For example, you could say how making line-by-line analyses of Donne poems in supervisions gave you an eye for detail and the ability to convince other people of your interpretation, or how you appreciated the sense of satisfaction you gained from seeing the themes and structure of your Masters thesis emerge over the course of the project.

Standing out from the crowd

In summary: your Cambridge English degree equips you with a very particular set of skills, skills which employers in the corporate world are very interested in. Your task when you apply for roles is to demonstrate that you can make use of those skills to help them deliver work of the highest quality; and the chief way of doing so is ensuring that your CV and covering letter are well researched, tailored to the company you’re applying for, and written in flawless English – it’s practically a law of physics that anyone claiming they have a ‘great attention to detail’ will make a spelling mistake in the same sentence…

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