Creative + Writing: Aaron Nicely on selling your degree

Say hello to Aaron Nicely, an alumnus of the Ball State English department.

nicely

Photo provided by Aaron Nicely

Originally from Cincinnati, OH, Aaron currently resides in Noblesville, IN, though he has also lived in Boston, St. Louis, Muncie, and Ingalls, IN. He graduated from Wabash College in 2006 with a BA in English and a minor in theatre. He then came to Ball State, where he completed his MA in Creative Writing in 2008, and his MA in Literature in 2010.

Currently, Aaron serves as the Director of Digital Marketing at Elbert Construction.

Below, Aaron shares his advice on what employers are really looking for, how to “pitch yourself,” and what you can really do with a BA in English.

Tell us about your collegiate journey.

My timeline went kind of like it’s supposed to.

College years

I went to Wabash College to get an English degree and write, which I did.  I won a grant to write a novel.  I got an internship with an ad agency. As a kid I ripped my favorite ads out of magazines and tucked them away in boxes, in books, and dreamed of copywriting.  I wanted to know why and how it worked.  I was incurably curious.

An internship at an agency in Philadelphia during the fall semester of my junior year at Wabash College squeezed the romance out of the dream, but I got a taste of the work it takes to do the job, which is quite different than the sitting around being brilliant I’d imagined.  There’s research, planning, a tiny bit of writing, lots of revising, tracking, evaluating, and reporting.

Then, I graduated.

In between college and grad school

I didn’t get into an MFA program, and I didn’t have a backup plan.  And I didn’t know what to do.  I worked at a Guitar Center for a few months, then followed my fiance to Boston.  I took the first job I could get and sold copiers for two years.

Grad school

I ran the application gauntlet again, and found my way to the Creative Writing program at Ball State, which offered the balance of creative writing and literature I was looking for.  Thanks to the Graduate Assistantship (G.A.) program, I discovered I wasn’t meant to be a teacher.  While I love the classroom, I couldn’t handle the grading.

I wanted to continue with a Ph.D. in Literature, but wisely, the powers that be denied me with the basic question, “Then what?”  Ph.Ds in Literature become teachers, which was not for me.

I countered with, “What now?”  Ball State let me in to the MA Literature program, but advised me against it, which again was wise, suggesting I’d just be delaying the inevitable return to the non-academic work force.  I couldn’t go back in the G.A. program teaching, and I couldn’t pay for classes.

How did that turn out?

The Dean of the College of Sciences and Humanities needed an assistant to manage the College’s social media presence. He called the English department for a writer.  Within a week I was back in school and writing social media posts, doing alumni profiles, shooting and editing video, drafting strategy, reviewing analytics, and working with Dean Michael Maggiotto, Steve Fulton, the Director of New Media for Ball State, and the heads of 20 departments ranging from Math and Astronomy to Philosophy and English.

That’s how I paid for school instead of teaching as a G.A.

What happened after you graduated?

I hung a 3rd diploma on my wall in May of 2010, and within a month turned my assistantship into a job at Hubler Automotive Group, a ten-store car dealership based in Indianapolis.

Here’s what I did: 

  • I worked with 45 managers, ten stores, seven brands, both service and sales, developing a voice for both the group as a whole and the individual stores.
  • I built a company intranet from scratch.
  • I managed vendors, over 30 web properties, and eventually the entire digital voice of Hubler, including online ads, websites, social media, and email marketing.
  • I also supported and helped manage the 20-person Customer Care phone team.

Then, Elbert Construction of Noblesville, a Top 100 Roofing Contractor in the country, wanted to bring their website and social media in house due to slow response time and poor performance from vendors. I heard about the need through a friend, and was able to pitch my experience as a match for their needs.

While it’s a lateral career move at best, I get to write again, and that, along with being an hour closer to home, is more than worth it.  I get to do more of what I love, and spend more time with the ones I love. At the same time, it saves the company and we’re already growing results in under month.

Okay, so how did your English degree help?

An English degree doesn’t specifically help much with most of that.

A liberal arts degree, however, does.  

A major like English does, because it forces both depth and breadth at breakneck speeds: reading Chaucer, 10 articles about Chaucer, Toni Morrison and 10 articles about Toni Morrison, all at once.  But perhaps most importantly, an English degree encourages curiosity.

I’ve basically tripled my value in two years because I have a rare skill set and I can sell it using rhetorical tools.  

Here’s what I’ve learned since I graduated: businesses need English-y services, but don’t know how to ask for them. You could knock on almost any door in an office park or industrial park and get an interview with the owner and they’d say, “Yeah, I want it, how much do I pay you!”

So tell us: What are employers really looking for?

I think that when employers see applicants with college degrees, they’re thinking two things:

  1. This applicant is probably organized and grown up enough to have made it through college with a decent enough GPA and some skills that fit our needs.
  2. This applicant is probably in debt, and since the labor market is saturated with college graduates, I can hire her cheaply and she’ll work hard and probably be happy to do it

What will make you stand out as an employee is curiosity.

Most people can manage the who, what, where, and when part of a job.  The people who ask why and how are the ones who can move a process forward, and an English degree, creative writing or literature or any other focus, trains (or perhaps attracts) students to (that) ask those questions relentlessly.

Curiosity alone isn’t enough.  It needs direction and focus, and that’s where the degree part comes in.  Students have spent time with professors who can harness that energy and turn it into results like a critical essay or a piece of creative writing.  They’ve learned to make confining structures like MLA and APA work for them.  They’ve learned to use rhetorical devices, and (maybe more importantly) when rhetorical devices are being used against them.

Every job is sales.  We all push a product, whether that’s the value of higher education, copiers, roofs, software, office supplies, or information about breastfeeding to an un-accepting public.  Every IT person, office clerk, manager, and salesman has the same responsibility to the product.  Work is often not romantic.  If your job is to sweep a floor, you’d better sweep it well enough that you can sell it well enough that they’ll hire you the next day to sweep it again.

Even though your work may not be romantic, your hobbies should be. I play bass, sing and write for The Stampede String Band.

Nicely (second from left) performing with the Stampede String Band.

Nicely (second from left) performing with the Stampede String Band.

As a creative writer, how can I “pitch” myself to those employers?

Creative writers should pitch themselves to employers using these two words.

  1. Creative.
  2. Writing.

I’m a creative person, which means I’m very curious, I have great problem-making (or finding) skills, and I have critical thinking and problem solving skills to fix the problems I make/find.

And on top of that, I can express myself clearly in writing!

Having one of those skills is rare enough, and having both can make you very valuable.  

Thanks for the advice, Aaron!

And if you’ve read this far, you’ll like this last message from Aaron:

“I’m available for phone or email consultations anytime, but I charge by word count. Or maybe you could send me an intern some day.”

Connect with Aaron here.

For more information on Life After the English Major, check out these posts.

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