from English degree to career

Recently on Facebook, a grad school friend of mine posted a link about the value of humanities degrees. Another grad school friend, Thomas Vandervort, commented:

You’d be surprised how many English, History, and Philosophy majors I meet in business. Even some with Master’s degrees in humanities. My masters in Lit has taken me further in business than many of my peers thought possible.

A few of us asked Thomas to share his story: How did he go from a background in English to a successful business career?

Here is his answer, which he said I could share here….


I was once told by a mentor of mine that my greatest strength is that I, “don’t know any better.” What was meant by this statement is that I have never shied away from an opportunity due to lacking the knowledge and experience necessary for succeeding in the new responsibility. I’ve always felt that I could learn, through study and support from mentors, how to excel in whatever it is that I do. This mentality is a direct result of my liberal arts education, beginning with Bethany College for my undergraduate degree in English, then through my Master’s Degree in English from Duquesne University, and continuing every day through my professional career. I am not alone in this—many of my industry colleagues earned degrees in English, History, and Philosophy. One such recent acquaintance, an investment banker, wrote to me saying, “It is fun to meet another liberal arts grad in this field. I use all aspects of my brain in my job—one of its many benefits.”

Without a technical degree, I was not 100% qualified for any job after completing my Master’s at Duquesne. I knew how to read, understand what I had read, and communicate clearly. After typing so many papers, my typing speed was pretty impressive too. DDN Pharmaceutical Logistics hired me as an executive assistant, probably due to the typing speed, after I applied to their advertisement in the newspaper. I went on to hold leadership positions in quality assurance, project management, account management, and sales over my 8 years with the company. My English degree provided me with the communication and presentation skills and, more importantly, my ability to lead by defending my position. In sales roles, my teams have doubled the sales of two companies in two distinct parts of the pharmaceutical industry by clearly communicating the value offered to other companies and negotiating favorable partnerships. Even without experience in mergers, acquisitions, and product licensing transactions, I was recruited to lead business development activities for two publicly held pharmaceutical companies, West-Ward Pharmaceuticals (a subsidiary of Hikma Plc) and IGI Laboratories. In each case, I found success by defining the problem to solve, communicating a solution, garnering support amongst my colleagues, and executing the solution. I currently serve as the Vice President of Business Development for IGI Laboratories.

While a technical degree in a certain field would have ensured that I was qualified for a job, it would not have necessarily provided me with a career. My desire to learn, ability to read and understand, and acceptance of challenges in spite of my lack of experience facilitated the progression of my career, which were fostered by my undergraduate and graduate studies in English. More important than any of the previously mentioned factors in my personal development has been the presence of mentors who gave me the space to learn and make mistakes, assisted in minimizing the impact of my mistakes, and provided me with the resources necessary to succeed. I chose to be an English major because of a mentor, Dr. Lana Hartman Landon. I did not choose to be an English major because I wanted to teach. In fact, I was pre-med for my first year at Bethany and achieved a 4.0 GPA through the first round of biology and chemistry courses. Dr. Landon presented me with a unique opportunity: to learn how to effectively participate in a dialogue with others at personal, local, and global levels through study, writing, and a shared desire to advance the dialogue to the next meaningful conclusion. This foundation is the same whether I am discussing literature or defining transaction-based solutions to problems within a business.


I know Thomas’s success is not solely due to his English degree, but I appreciate his ability to apply what he learned as an English major to each new situation and opportunity he has encountered. And I hope his story inspires others to do the same!

…here at Marywood, and beyond.

–Laurie McMillan is a faculty person in Marywood’s English department. She learned a lot while in graduate school with Thomas, and she is extremely grateful for his generosity: He continues to share his wisdom all these years later!



2 thoughts on “from English degree to career

  1. Pingback: Entrepreneurship in the Humanities | The Ugly Truth

  2. Pingback: Getting an Edge in Your Career | Patrick J. Kernan

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