Rachel Halpern '14
Rachel Halpern graduated in 2014 with B.A. in English and a Professional Writing and Technical Communication (PWTC) certificate. She currently works as a content strategist at Facebook. View her LinkedIn profile to learn more or to connect with her.
Did you graduate with a specialization?
Yes, I specialized in Professional Writing and Technical Communication (PWTC).
Do you think it's helped you in your career?
The PWTC specialization was actually the thing that connected me with my first job. It was my senior year and the PWTC program had past alumni come in and talk about job opportunities. The specialization is pretty much in technical writing, but the first presentation was for UX writing which is kind of what I do now—content strategy and UX writing—so that really struck a chord with me. I think it was Professor Toomey who said, “you should really apply for this,” and I was like okay, and apparently he recommended me. That was my first job interview and I went and I got it and the rest is history.
So, that was your first job after graduation, but you work for Facebook as a content strategist now, right?
Yes, that was for Athenahealth. I worked there until I was about 25, so it was about 2 and a half years, almost three years, and at that point it was my first job. It was also the first time I got laid off. The entire writing team was laid off. I had a point in my career then, where I was like well, I could dovetail more into design or I could go back to school. I decided that I wanted to give content strategy another chance. I have a skill in writing, I have a degree in writing, so that is when I applied to Facebook.
What does a content strategist do?
As a content strategist, you are actually developing a product, rather than explaining how the product works or providing supplemental documentation about it. There’s a lot of collecting information and discussion about writing versus actual time to sit down to write. And a lot of thinking about how things will work on an international level. We have to think about writing in a way that doesn't rely too heavily on American ways of saying things or English ways of saying things. Things need to be able to localize to many different parts of the world.
If I had to summarize what I do, I’m a writer on a group of over 200 content strategists at Facebook that are spread across all the different businesses and different product areas. I’m focused in advertising and then delivery within advertising. And that means I’m working on web content.
What is a typical day-to-day at Facebook like for you?
A day-to-day for me is honestly packed with meetings. Basically, I write all of the content—and that's just purely writing. I'm not doing images or videos or anything. I am working on a bunch of different products that Facebook Ads [Manager] is either improving or putting out or we want to improve the quality of. So my day-to-day, I am spread across maybe two or three projects, sometimes more. I usually am not working on email at all, it’s all on Work Chat. I am going to a lot of meetings about “okay here’s some research we just ran” or “let’s talk about what’s the next step in the product development for this functionality” or “let’s talk to some people in sales” or “let’s talk to some customers about how the functionalities are working for them.” So, there's a lot of collecting information, and then I have to find pockets of time to really sit down and write the content for whatever solution we're trying to build.
Is this where you thought you would end up when you first became an English major?
No. I knew that I had an interest in technology, and I always had an interest in the logic that goes behind syntax with language. But also the logic that goes behind code, because code is a type of language as well. Did I think that I would be able to bring the two interests together? No. I had really no idea where I was going to go, and I think I was actually really okay with that. I wasn’t trying to plan anything out. I was kind of just letting my skills develop. I think that’s really important: to not plan your life too tightly and predict too much about where you’re going to be.
What advice might you have for students who are interested in this up-and-coming field of content strategy?
I think if people were interested, I would say really develop your soft skills. You need to have a really good base in writing and grammar and all that—that’s your basic hard skills. But you will be able to do nothing with that if you aren’t able to develop different ways of working with different people, patience with how other people work, and patience with the feedback that you might get. You kind of have to develop a thick skin—you have to build up confidence in being able to show things [to others] that you don’t feel 110% about or getting really harsh feedback on something that you built and feel really proud of.
What is your favorite memory of the English Department?
I think my favorite memory was when I switched into the English major. I remember going to Celeste and walking in and the vibe was just so different [compared to my old major]. The English advising office [in Bartlett Hall] was painted lime green with Celeste, who just has such a personality, and I remember being like wow, this is such a stark difference. And being a little bit afraid, because this is the first big decision of my career. Even though everyone was asking me, “what are you going to do with a degree in English?”, I just felt this is something I really connect to and this is something I have a strength in.
Can you tell us about a professor in the English Department that you really connected with?
I really liked TreaAndrea Russworm because she pulled in very disparate types of cultural footing. We watched Kanye West and the Matrix. She just had a different way of looking at things and she really pulled in very updated, cultural kinds of pieces that made it feel very relevant. It helped me kind of bring this analysis of writing into the everyday.
Did you study abroad and if so, where did you go?
I studied abroad at the University of Manchester in Manchester, England. UMass has a program with them where you get to directly enroll in classes which was important to me. I didn’t want to go to a different country and then be taught with other American students—I wanted the full experience.
Do you have any advice for English majors and soon-to-be graduates?
For English majors, I would say trust yourself. Trust that you know what you’re doing. Try to block out all the outside noise of people telling you “what are you going to do with it?” and “how are you going to make it relevant?” or “how is it going to be working at Starbucks?” People can say whatever they want, I heard all of those things. People had a lot of advice to give me. It’s scary but you really have to be able to trust that you know what you’re doing and it’s your decision to make, it’s no one else’s. If you really believe in yourself and try to find a way to make your English degree relevant—which is very easy—you will find a job, and you will enjoy what you’re doing at the same time. Don’t focus too much on learning the application of your job or the job you want to have. Focus on the skills and the passions that can come out of you from taking a varied course load.
For soon-to-be-graduates, it’s okay to not know exactly where you’re going. It’s okay to have careers in a bunch of different things. You don’t need to get your dream job right outside of college. I was really fortunate to land in something that I felt really happy with, but I have a lot of friends that tried out a bunch of different jobs and are only really starting to figure out what they like and are just starting to get into their dream careers now. I think that because we take courses that are so broad, they can be applied in many different ways. If you’re still kind of exploring what you really want to do with your English major, take the time to try a bunch of different things and decide.
Interview by Cayli Armstrong, Digital Communications Intern