Grad Talk with Nicola Stebbing

Interviewed by Lily Guenault

I spoke to Nicola, our previous co-director, about her new job as a content manager for a Berlin start up selling vegan, ethically produced nail polish. You can find their Instagram here and Nicola’s art account here.

Lily What made you decide to find a job abroad? 

Nicola I think I’m not really ready for London. It feels a bit big and daunting and so expensive. Because I’ve already done a year abroad, moving abroad felt a more natural choice. I’d like to work in a creative industry and creative jobs don’t tend to pay well initially, so I’d rather live in a city where I can afford to be on a lower salary because rent and cost of living is cheaper. Also, I kind of thought if I didn’t do this now, when else in your life do you have the opportunity to do it?

Lily That’s so true. Do you have any idea of how long you’re going to stay there? 

Nicola I’m just gonna see how it goes. I’m going to take stock when my lease runs out and think, do I want to move back to the UK? But I’m trying hard not to think about anything long term because who knows what the hell is going to happen. I want to focus on: am I currently happy? If yes, then I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. I like having the freedom to be able to say yes or no to that question and to be able to change something. I think that’s a product of being in your early 20s. 

Lily Would you say that being around young people is quite characteristic of working in a start-up?

Nicola Yeah, it’s super young which is really nice. It gives you the opportunity to try out lots of different things because age and experience isn’t so much of a factor – it’s more about what you can bring to the team. All the decision making is much flatter hierarchically – you can be a trainee and make a decision about an entire campaign. It’s really nice that everyone takes a chunk of responsibility. 

Lily Do you miss anything about a traditional work culture? 

Nicola I think that the structure of a traditional work culture is really nice when you’re at the beginning of your career. When I was on my year abroad and did a traineeship, the structure was so nice: there’s a full H.R. department, you know exactly who to go to, and everything’s already set up in terms of your working hours. A start-up is a bit more chaotic: you often don’t quite know where you stand or who is in charge of what. And the hours can sometimes be a bit chaotic as well.

Lily And when you were looking for jobs, were you looking for ones that had an ethical ethos?

Nicola Yeah, so I did apply for pretty much everything I could see because of corona, but it is really important to me to work for a company which is in line with my ethics. I spend so much time working on these projects, and if the end goal wasn’t in line with what I fundamentally agree with, that would be really demotivating. 

Lily So you work quite a lot with social media? 

Nicola Yeah, social media is my whole job. I think people really underestimate social media and think, how could that be a job? But it’s genuinely a lot of work. And brands like this live and die on Instagram. 

Lily How much did you know about how Instagram worked before you got the job? 

Nicola Honestly, not a huge amount, so please don’t tell my boss! It’s been a real learning curve seeing how much social media really sells stuff or gets ideas out. Especially recently, people want to buy from ethical businesses and social media is the place to find them. 

Lily: Do you find that using Instagram professionally, it’s changed the way you’re using Instagram personally?  

Nicola I separate it quite a lot, although I do notice that with any companies I follow, like glossier for example, I’m so aware of who made this and what was the thought behind this? I now know that all these posts have proper planning behind them and how much strategy goes into the smallest things. 

Lily And in terms of getting into social media as a career: would you have any advice for people who are not sure where to start? 

Nicola Build up a portfolio of stuff so that even if you don’t have experience, you can show them, this is the kind of stuff I can make. And just be engaged with that kind of stuff, like visual trends, and make as much as you can. Because what got me this job is that I spent a year doing cartoons, teaching myself graphic drawing and Photoshop, and then I was able to grow a portfolio of things I could do. I could show that I could still do the same as someone with a more industry specific degree. 

Lily You’d obviously been drawing for a while, but was there a moment when you thought, maybe I can use this as a career?

Nicola Not really to be honest, because I was so unsure of what kind of career I wanted to go into, but I knew I really enjoyed doing it and that I could view it as a skill to have on my CV. But I was honestly just applying to a million different things. Thankfully, this is the thing that stuck.

Lily And turning a creative hobby into a career: how do you ensure that it’s still something you enjoy, rather than viewing it entirely as a skill, because from people I know who, for example, choose music, sometimes it can be hard to maintain stress-free enjoyment of the hobby. 

Nicola I’m quite lucky in that the stuff I make for work isn’t the kind of stuff I would make for myself, because everything has to be very much under company guidelines. It’s then sometimes difficult at work because stuff I think is really cool doesn’t work for the company. There’s been times where I’ve spent a lot of time making something and then they just say that it’s not really on brand. But it’s cool that I can then use the skills I’m learning at work to make my stuff even better. 

Lily Moving abroad generally, especially with Corona, do you have any advice on how to cope with the challenges that it presents? 

Nicola To be honest, it’s really difficult. It’s not your Emily in Paris moment. It can be really, really tough, especially with social media, because you see all your friends from home hanging out and it’s easy to think, that could be me. But I would also advise anyone to move abroad. I know I sound like such a Year Abroad w*nker, but it’s so good for you and teaches you a lot. The important thing is to find a support network as quickly as you can. I think I enjoyed my Year Abroad so much because I treated it like I wasn’t going to leave. I really tried to invest as much as possible in the people I met. It means that it’s been easier for me to come back this time because I already have some connections. And although I’m not thinking long term, I’m trying to act long term. Not thinking too hard about where I’m going to be in a year or two years’ time but trying to invest in people and knowing the city as if I’m going to live there for the rest of my life. 

Lily In terms of new friends you made in Berlin, were they mainly through work, or have you found other ways to meet people? Because that’s obviously quite hard at the moment. 

Nicola I’ve made quite a few friends outside of work, and one really nice thing about moving abroad is that it reduces your shame barrier about messaging people to hang out. You meet someone at a party and you just have to be like, f*ck it, I’m going to get their Whatsapp and say, hey, you wanna go for coffee?

Lily It’s such an important skill even if you move home, because the rest of our lives is not going to be everyone at Cambridge working in the city in London.

Nicola Yeah, it makes you less afraid to move in general because you know that you’re capable of making friends. You’ve gone through life in these institutions with no break, and in every institution, there’s an element of forced socialising. That’s also why things like grad schemes look really attractive because it’s like university again. You do a test, you get in and then you have your cohort and you spend all your time together. They’re so appealing because of that, and I think a lot of people go into them and end up really unhappy because it’s the kind of option that’s really pushed by the Careers Service and because it feels like what you’re used to already. 

Lily Yeah, it’s safe. Making friends seems to happen at every stage of your life: you’re never going to get to a stage where you think, okay I have a comfortable number of friends, I’m just going to leave it at that. 

Nicola Yeah, definitely. Also, I don’t know if it’s just my experience, but the older you get, the easier it is to do things on your own and not need to have a person come with you for everything. If you want to see a cool exhibition, you can just go to it and not have to think, oh God, who’s going to go with me? 

Lily Definitely. I’m annoyed at my first and second year self for the number of things I missed out on because I couldn’t find someone at the time to go with, so I just didn’t go. And coming back from having spent some time abroad you realise that the only person who’s going to lose out in that situation is me. 

Nicola Completely. And what’s nice about being in a bigger city than Cambridge is that you have complete anonymity. You can do things and think, I don’t care because I don’t know anyone here, I’m never going to see them again, so f*ck it. On Year Abroad, I went to a lot of gigs on my own and I had the best time because I just felt so un-self-conscious. I didn’t feel responsible for anyone else having a good time. I could just turn up when I wanted, leave when I wanted, and have a dance because who’s going to care.

Lily Yeah, definitely. I had a similar thing with taking myself out for dinner. We need to normalise eating alone: it’s great to take yourself out for dinner for the sake of it, maybe buy a drink and just sit with your own company. It seems so foreign but why wouldn’t you do it. 

Nicola I love it, I think it’s such a power move. 

Lily It always reminds me of films where they come over to the woman and they ask, “table for one?” And then the woman’s sad because the man’s not coming or she’s single. 

Nicola Oh God. It’s always a sad woman who’s been stood up by some arsehole man. 

Lily Always. Are there any other parts of your experience that we haven’t touched on?

Nicola I’ve been thinking a lot recently about career stuff and what’s been sticking in my mind is the extreme pressure to do everything straight away. It feels like everyone is doing grad schemes and consultancy and all this kind of stuff when they’re really not. You start with GCSEs, and before you finish them, you know what A-levels you’re going to do, and before you finish your A-levels, you apply to university and then before you finish university, you’ve applied to your grad scheme. There’s this clear pathway of, this is what you do if you’re smart and hardworking. And then you get to university and are told, this is what you do if you’re smart and hardworking: you apply to this and that company. You have to have a real mental shift and realise there’s not one option anymore. And also, that I don’t have to know what that option is, and I don’t have to do it right now. Which is really hard to realise when you’re in Cambridge and at these career talks and everything feels so highly pressurised. In reality, no one knows what they’re doing, and you can change your career at any point in your life. 

Lily Yeah, it’s so true. It always feels like you should be doing something, even if what you’re interested in is an ad hoc job that won’t get advertised until summer. 

Nicola Completely. Everyone’s asking you, what are you doing after uni? And I hated that so much. As soon as I finished my exams, people asked, what are you doing now? I’m recovering. Honestly, I’m going to play Mario Kart until I get my results and then I’m going to think about it. Stop asking. And with all these jobs that aren’t on a clear path: I don’t know what jobs exist! No one knows what jobs exist until you get into companies and you realise these things are real positions. I had no idea that a content manager was a job. Where do you find that out?! 

Lily I know! There’s so much focus on the sector or the industry without thinking about the fact that, like you said, there’s roles in content management in a wide variety of sectors. 

Nicola Yeah, there are so many jobs and you just have no idea what they are until faced with them. 

Lily When thinking about career paths, I always try to define what success means to me and that it’s not necessarily related to a career goal. But then to stick to your own definition in Cambridge is so hard. 

Nicola Because you’re in a bubble of people that have defined their self-worth by academic success for the last twenty years! It’s really important to think about what you see as success. For me, working a high-paid financial job while working sixty hours a week would not be success because I don’t see myself being happy with that kind of lifestyle. Success to me is valued differently and it’s really important to figure out those values when considering what kind of job you want. For example, I want a job where I can have free time to pursue my hobbies and where there’s a young working environment, so it’s not as important what kind of industry it’s in and what the job is. Think about what you want your early 20s to look like. And also, remember that your values can change. I have no idea what I want and it’s nice to know that I can reassess every six months. Your first job doesn’t have to be the path your life goes down.

Illustration by Nicola Stebbing

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