You get precious little change out of £30,000 when studying towards a degree these days, and that’s just your tuition fees.
As such, there’s less room for error when you come to weigh up your university options. Your average student simply cannot afford to get part of the way through their course only to realise that they want to take their career in a completely different direction. Once you’ve made a decision, you have to stick by it, and that’s a lot of pressure to deal with at such a young age.
But are things really this black and white?
Can your degree open up new doors unexpectedly?
Granted, if your life-long ambition is to become a vet, for example, you’ll undoubtedly need to choose a degree that sets you on the right path. However, for many of us, the rigid restrictions that our academic choices once placed upon our careers are slowly being lifted, and nowhere is this more apparent than in digital marketing.
We asked a clutch of digital marketing professionals about their degree choices, and whether or not they felt their decisions had helped or hindered their progress. Our findings were enlightening…
From Biology graduate to Marketing & PR Executive
Ben Hardman, Marketing & PR Executive at Manchester-based Gorvins Solicitors, is the perfect case study to demonstrate that your choice of degree doesn’t necessarily determine the direction or trajectory of your career. Having achieved a first-class Biology degree from The University of Sheffield and a PGCE from The University of Manchester, you’d be forgiven for wondering how Ben ended up in his current role.
“I didn’t choose Biology with a career in mind, I chose it because it was what I found most interesting. I did, however, choose my PGCE with the thought of building a career in teaching. I taught full-time for a year to get my full qualification before reassessing my situation,” he commented.
So, why the move into digital marketing?
“I chose marketing because it involves being creative, thinking of ideas and largely managing my own workload. I think my degrees have massively helped my career but for different reasons,” Ben added.
“My undergraduate [degree] equipped me with solid, highly transferable skills, such as extended writing, ability to conduct research and analyse all types of data. My PGCE was one of my toughest years to date but helped me develop a fantastic set of useful skills, such as the ability to think independently and creatively, take on critical feedback effectively, speak confidently in front of large groups and manage an extremely heavy workload.”
Ali Cort, a 39-year-old PR Director, has a similarly unorthodox backstory, having earned a degree in Music.
“A non-vocational degree is more about developing the ability to problem solve than to progress in a specific career, in my opinion,” Ali commented.
Meanwhile, Matt Batterham, a 31-year-old Senior Account Manager, is another person who migrated across from Music to PR.
“I never intended to work in digital but I'm happy I ended up here,” he remarked.
“I fell into it. I studied music production, got a job in music PR and then realised I was better at selling music than making it! I got more involved in the digital side of things and here I am.”
Degrees that help you to nurture transferable skills do help!
While Ben, Ali and Matt are proof that digital marketers should not be constrained by that humble piece of paper they studied so hard for, it would be naïve of us to suggest that absolutely anybody can make a sudden career swerve. You need to have certain skills and attributes to make it in digital marketing.
We noticed that a lot of the people we spoke to had earned qualifications in English Literature or History - two subjects that give students a fair amount of leeway when they come to make longer-term career decisions.
Sam Wright, Managing Director at an SEO company, has a BA and MA in Creative Writing. The 32-year-old concedes that these courses did nothing to enhance his knowledge of the nuances of technical SEO (he has since managed to teach himself), but they did give him a solid platform from which to embark on a digital-focused career.
“Being able to write is pretty handy in a content-focused industry!” he said.
“In terms of writing skills, the courses were invaluable. They've given me a critical approach to language and communication that has served me pretty well so far.”
Emily Hier, a 23-year-old Marketing Executive, is one of many Journalism graduates who have ended up in marketing roles. Having achieved a 2:1 in an NCTJ-accredited Journalism course, Emily has a nose for a good story.
“I never planned to do this, my plan for a very long time was to be a fashion journalist,” she commented.
“I saw a tweet advertising a free digital marketing class by a startup called Fluency and went for it - and it was there I learned SEO, Google Analytics and basic coding. Two months later and I had a job with a tech startup in Shoreditch.
“Journalism helped me enormously. It helped me fine tune my writing into something worth reading, how to find the angle in even the most boring stories. I learned Photoshop which is an essential skill in marketing - you need to be able to design your own content.”
Is university really the be all and end all?
Everybody takes different paths in life and there’s no right or wrong way to embark on a career in digital marketing. There’s still a lingering misconception that only those who have studied for a degree at university have any chance of making waves in the industry. As we’re about to demonstrate, this simply isn’t the case in 2016.
Hanifa Dungarwalla, a 27-year-old Digital Marketing Manager at Whirlpool, feels she’s benefited from taking a different route to many people.
“I think experience has a massive part to play as well. I didn’t go to university, I studied while working so I built up a vast amount of digital knowledge while the arena was beginning to find its footing,” she commented.
“Often you can have a theoretical idea of what works and what doesn’t, but without understanding the commercial requirements of a business - ‘digital’ can just be seen as a waste of money. It’s all about presenting a valid business case and understanding that ‘digital’ is so easily measured and so instantly measureable too.”
Laura England, a 21-year-old Account Executive, is one of a growing legion of apprentices who are finding their feet in the digital marketing sector. The benefits of following this pathway, as opposed to taking an expensive university course, are clear, as Laura explains:
“Originally, my plan was to go to university but I was left overwhelmed with the sheer number of courses and institutions available. For me, committing to something that I wasn’t sure on, that due to the tuition [fee] increase would’ve landed me in £27,000 of student debt, was a scary thought,” she commented.
“Instead, I explored apprenticeships. Embarking on a 12-month apprenticeship at a local newspaper, I gained NVQs in marketing, business studies and customer service. I stayed at the company for two years before using the experience to make the move into my desired industry, public relations.”
Finally, Alex Ryan, a 31-year-old Marketing Manager for Paladone Products, chose to earn qualifications through several different college courses, though he admits to having one or two regrets.
“My reasons for not going to university were simple - life was too exciting at the time, and more education did not sound anywhere near as fun as moving to a big city and starting work! In hindsight, I do wish that I’d gone to university, I definitely feel that I missed out but, if I’m honest, probably more because of the lifestyle than the education,” he remarked.
If nothing else, these three stories should highlight to youngsters that there isn’t a predetermined blueprint to follow when attempting to forge a career in this dynamic, fast-paced industry.
Location, location, location! Where are the emerging digital hubs?
As expected, a lot of the digital marketing professionals that we spoke to weren’t interested in working anywhere other than the South East of England, particularly London (there was a lot of love for Colchester, Essex, too). This is perhaps inevitable, given the strong allure of the capital, but it’s important to know that other digital marketing hubs are forming elsewhere in the UK.
Last year, Forward Role looked at why the North West - and especially Manchester - is viewed as one of the most exciting burgeoning digital centres in Europe. Many of the people that we spoke to agreed that Manchester is a great place to be at the moment.
Ben Hardman said: “I enjoy working in Manchester as it’s a fantastic, buzzing city and I’m not being biased because it’s where I am from! If I could choose anywhere else it would probably be London, but with the prices down there I think I’d rather stick to the North!”
When asked where she wanted to base herself, Hannah Barnes, a 25-year-old Digital Marketing Consultant, commented: “Manchester (we rock)! Despite studying in London, my home town is still my favourite city in the UK. Creativity and life speaks from every street corner and the people have a unique imagination.”
Manchester is not the only place giving London a run for its money. Sam Wright explained that East Anglia has also got a lot going for it.
“I have to say, I’m happy in Norwich. It’s a bit of a digital hotbed around here, and I’m only a couple of hours from London on the train. Having so many creative writing graduates around here is great too, and it’s really helped the business,” he added.
Bristol, Leeds, Birmingham and the South Coast also cropped up numerous times during our interviews, which shows that there’s lots going on outside of London. Much in the same way that the subject of your degree doesn’t necessarily determine where you end up, it’s clear that the emergence of new digital clusters is adding even more glorious unpredictability and diversity for marketers. You may have a clear idea of where you want to lay roots, but don’t dismiss a city or area because it doesn’t have the same reputation as London and Manchester - things change very quickly in the digital world!
Key takeaways - 5 things for digital marketers to consider…
- No, your degree doesn’t prevent you from branching out into different areas - Too many people develop tunnel vision after leaving university. While it’s great if you know exactly what you want in life, you shouldn’t feel suffocated by choices that you made when you were in your teen years.
- Yes, it does help if you have transferrable skills - Without wishing to contradict our first point, it’s worth reiterating that you need certain skills and personal traits to make it in digital marketing. We’re seeing more journalism and history graduates making a splash in the industry, as the skills taught on such courses can be directly applied to marketing. Sometimes, as we’ve seen by the number of music and science graduates forging a career in digital, less obvious academic skills can also stand you in good stead.
- Apprenticeships are an increasingly attractive option - For all the great things that you take away from university, it’s definitely not the only option. More digital companies are taking on apprentices in 2016, and it’s easy to see why this is such an attractive option. You get paid to learn your trade, and you don’t have to fork out £27,000 to complete a three-year course with no guarantee of a job at the end of it.
- Learn from others, but don’t blindly follow in their footsteps - It’s always wise to learn from others; that was the whole point of this feature. However, don’t assume that the path that they took is any better than the one that you are heading down. Many senior digital marketers have got to where they are today via the scenic route. Don’t be afraid to blaze your own trail.
- There’s a big world out there - The South East is a fantastic place to base yourself, but don’t be blinded by the bright lights of London. Other digital hubs are emerging rapidly, and it pays to keep your options open. That opportunity you’ve been looking for could present itself in the most unexpected of places.