Interviews & Tips

Ben Kirst, SUNY Fredonia graduate and current employee at The Buffalo News, provides some information about graduating with a degree in English and how he has found a job that he enjoys.

1. Can you please tell me about yourself? (degree(s) you graduated with, previous jobs and a description of your current job)

My name is Ben Kirst.  I am the digital communications manager for at The Buffalo News.  My job consists of directing the email marketing programs for The Buffalo News; managing the social network and its community contributor/college internship program; leading the company's use of social marketing "killer apps" like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.; and working with The Buffalo News marketing department on various TBN & promotional activities.

I graduated cum laude with a B.A. in English from SUNY Fredonia in 2000.  Before reaching my current position, I worked as a city reporter and sports writer for The Dunkirk Observer, public relations assistant to the director of Rockefeller Arts Center at SUNY Fredonia, assistant to the director of media relations at SUNY Fredonia, and online interactive manager for at The Buffalo News.  In addition, I have done a great deal of freelance writing for local publications such as Artvoice and The Chautauqua Region Word, sports and music Web sites, local politicians, businesses, etc.

2. How did you get your first job after you graduated college?

I got my job the old-fashioned way: I looked in the classifieds.  I was wrapping up my final semester at SUNY Fredonia in the spring of 2000 and I was not sure what I was going to do, career-wise, once I had my degree.  I knew I didn't want to continue working in the kitchen at Applebee's, but - because I worked to help put myself through school - I had not completed any internships or actively participated in clubs or organizations that led to specific career paths during the course of my undergraduate education.

Perusing the classifieds in The Dunkirk Observer one day, I saw that the paper was looking for a reporter to cover the Westfield and Ripley areas.  I applied, was interviewed by the managing editor about a week later, had a great conversation - I wasn't trained in journalism, but was a voracious newspaper reader, and was able to speak conversantly about idiosyncrasies in The Observer that really seemed to impress the editor. Two hours after the interview, I got a phone call telling me I was hired.  I started the next day.

3. How did your English courses prepare you for your former and current jobs? Were there any important skills that you learned from your English courses that assisted you in your jobs?

Obviously the media world has changed dramatically since 2000, so - from a strictly technical perspective - I don't use much of what I learned in college on a day-to-day basis.  Additionally, the focus of my study was Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, which does not have a lot of practical application in the job market, unless I was planning some sort of revenge murder which was destined to go horribly awry.

The most important skills that my English courses gave me were the ability to read and process all kinds of text - everything from complicated postmodern literary criticisms to 16th century Middle English comedy to mid-20th century bestsellers - and then analyze that information and use it to defend a theory or bolster an argument in my own writing.  This skill was incredibly valuable as a journalist, when pulling together various strands and threads of ideas and arguments (many times contradictory) is a requirement of finding some kind of truth.

My English courses gave me the flexibility as a writer to be able to jump into journalism and, later, public relations (a field that is much more writing-intensive than some may imagine) and to be able to compete with other individuals who had more professional experience or educational background in those specific fields simply because I was a better writer than they were.  I don't want to imply that writing allowed me to "fake it," but the bottom line is that a good story is a good story, a good press release is a good press release, a good pitch is a good pitch, and a good tag-line is a good tag-line, regardless of where you went to school, what classes you took, or how long someone's been paying you. 

Over the course of my career, I think I have made a lot of mediocre people very nervous because I was able to step in and immediately challenge them in companies and organizations where they had carved out their little territories based more on politicking and experience rather than skill and results, and that scared them.  In turn, however, I have always been motivated - and, frankly, worried - by the fact that I lack the technical background that others take for granted, which forces me to work twice as hard to keep moving forward.

4. What advice do you have for English majors (sophomores/juniors) who are trying to figure out their future plans?

Read everything.  Newspapers, magazines, blogs, ads, cereal boxes, bestsellers, The Torah.  Go to the library and read.  Go to the bookstore and read.  Get subscriptions.  Get a Kindle.  Read constantly.

Why?  There's the whole "reading expands your mind, helps you grow, blah blah blah" warm-and-fuzzy aspect of it - but that's not why I suggest it.  Read because other writers are your competition.  Know your competitors.  See what sells.  Recognize what works.  Find their mistakes.  When you write, be better.  Writing is a cutthroat business where every dollar is being ruthlessly chased by a million hacks.  How do you beat the hacks?  By learning their habits and avoiding them.

Write.  Write often.  Start a journal.  Start a blog.  Write a short story, a screenplay, a novel.  If it sucks, who cares?  If you don't finish, so what?  At least you're writing.  Take any opportunity you can get (especially when you're starting out) to get your name out there - write for weeklies, blogs, student papers, anyone who will give you a byline.  Don't worry about the money - there isn't any (at least there won't be yet).  If you're an English major for the money, then I have some bad news for you.

Learn as much about computer programming as you can, because every employer thinks that writers and PR people should have a conversational knowledge of HTML and, preferably, a couple other programming languages.  Is that fair or reasonable for a $28K job?  Probably not, but it's the way it is.

Get some experience behind a camera and a microphone.  Get some experience in front of a camera.  Get some experience editing sound and film.  Employers think that everyone in your generation in a natural multimedia wizard, and will be sorely disappointed if you don't have at least basic skills in these areas.

Learn Spanish.  It just makes sense at this point.  Or Chinese.  This is not a cultural or political argument.  The truth is that more and more people are going to be speaking these languages, and if you want to stay relevant, you'd better speak the language, or at least understand when they're talking about you.

Keep the drinking pictures and esoteric conversations with friends using hip-hop lyrics off of your Facebook page.  Google yourself regularly to see if there's any incriminating evidence floating around online about you.  If there is, find a way to get it removed, or at least come up with an airtight explanation.

5. What tips do you have for English majors preparing to graduate?

When I was a senior, Dr. Warner - the professor who ran our capstone seminar - told my class a great story.  He said that he once went to a dinner party and met a guy who was a PR executive for Coca-Cola.  Made six figures, loved - loved - his job, had a fantastic life.  Relatively young, had it made, woke up every day with a smile on his face.  Had he gone to an Ivy League school for business or economics?  Did he intern for some powerful Fortune 500 company?  Was his father or uncle or stepmother connected to those shadowy power brokers we all think exist in some separate reality where people get great jobs, fascinating careers, and unbelievable opportunities while the rest of us struggle to make a few extra bucks to take a vacation at a state park?

Nope - the guy was a history major at a SUNY school.  But because of that liberal arts background - because he could read, write, and think - he was able to do things that his competitors in the job market could not do.  He could learn a job quickly. He was disciplined and used to hard work.  He could think "outside the box," to use a phrase I hate.  He could clearly express his ideas and thoughts in ways that others could not.

As an English major, you should be developing communication skills that will give you an inherent advantage in every job you walk into.  You are a fantastic processing machine - not human calculator like those kids in the math department, or a string of code like the guys over in the CS department.  You process words and stories and ideas and people.  You create the dialogue.  Your life - your work - is going to be your great novel, and you're going to write it with every conversation you have.

Pour all of your experience and all of your understanding of the way people think into all of your work - because, at the end of the day, isn't that what you're learning in your English classes - how people think?  Why people do what they do?  The world isn't a sociology textbook or an Engineering drafting table, it's a story, a million different stories, and you are uniquely skilled at both understanding and creating stories.  You have a leg up on everyone.  Now figure out how to use that to your advantage.

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