Careers – Researcher / Advisor

Copyright Angus McIntyre 2001
Alex Marthews lives in California, where he
is the Executive Director of the Preservation Action Council, a non-profit organisation
which aims to reconcile the preservation of historic buildings with economic development.

Why did you want to study English at university?

I wanted to experience and understand a lot of different ways of writing, so
that I could write more flexibly and powerfully myself.

What did you enjoy most about the course?

The fact that everyone was there explicitly to learn about books. At school,
being interested in books is pretty much social death; at university, most people
want to understand what books have to say.

What was the most difficult thing about the course?

English is a very broad course, and there’s a lot to study within it, so you
don’t always have the time to understand a book deeply before you’re on to the
next one. That means that when you write about, say, Milton or Dickens, you
might only have had a week to study what they wrote.

What did you go on to do after university?

My girlfriend (now my wife) and I decided to emigrate to San Francisco, California.
I spent two years doing a master’s degree in public policy at Berkeley, and
two years doing research and public relations for nonprofits. Now, I’m just
about to start a new job as the Executive Director of a nonprofit called the
Preservation Action Council. They’re a political group that fights to make sure
that old and beautiful buildings don’t get demolished.

Copyright Angus McIntyre 2001

How did your English degree prepare you for this?

It’s given me huge advantages. Expressing yourself clearly and concisely in
print is a lot harder than many people think: most people don’t do it well.
Being aware of what words mean and how they’re put together makes you write
much more precisely and effectively. I would find it much harder to persuade
people to do things if I hadn’t had that training.

What has your career route been?

I haven’t really had a “career”, in the sense that I always knew
what I wanted to do with my life. I think very few people want to choose just
one thing to do for forty or fifty years, and they don’t have to. I have simply
kept an open mind about what I could do, and I’ve grasped the best opportunities
that have come my way. And the result is that I’m doing really exciting work.
I used to think too that most jobs were really dull, but I’ve come to realize
that there are lots of jobs out there that careers advisers and parents and
friends have never thought of, and most of them are a lot more exciting than
the ones those people have thought of.

But it sort of worked out like this. Towards the end of my English degree,
I realized I wanted to use my verbal skills to achieve political changes. But
I needed to understand lots of things like economics and statistics that I didn’t
know about. The best way of learning these things was to do public policy, and
the best place to do it was UC Berkeley in California, so I came out here. Like
I say, you keep an open mind!

Doing that helped me convince a lot of pressure groups that I could help them
communicate their messages better. I worked on lots of different issues, like
civil liberties and homelessness, and tried to learn as much as I could. Now
I have the chance to shape the whole future of an organization and a cause,
and that’ll be really exciting.

What’s your typical day?

I will have to write a lot of fundraising letters and proposals, for which
English is very important. I will have to spend a lot of time in meetings with
city officials, persuading them to work with us to preserve old buildings instead
of knocking them down to build high-rises, and English is useful for that too.
The rest of the time, I will be organizing events, and managing our board of
directors and our volunteers.

What do you love about your job?

That I’m doing something unambiguously good for the community. The people I
work with are very committed and very knowledgeable, and that helps a lot.

What do you hate about your job?

Sometimes I feel that a lot of political issues that come up aren’t really
political issues at all, but personal ones, and that with a little more imagination
and courtesy, it would be possible to achieve a solution that is better for
everyone: in this case, that preserves and renovates old buildings, but that
also leaves space for economic development.

What’s your advice for young people who are thinking about choosing
A-levels and a degree course?

You should choose courses that will help you think and express yourself clearly.
And you shouldn’t take a course that’s so narrow that you can only do that one
thing for the rest of your life.

The key thing is to be imaginative about how you might spend your life. It’s
very easy to trap yourself into doing a dull job, and to deceive yourself into
thinking that that’s the best option available. Think, instead, about the whole
world and all the good work that can be done in it – and choose a bit of that
work for you to do.