First Hand — From an English degree to service design: Recent grad Natalie Harney’s first 12 months
Just over a year ago, Natalie Harney graduated with an English degree from Oxford University. Although she was unsure about her next steps, she was keen to pursue something creative – despite being told numerous times that it wasn’t a valid option. So, swiftly sidestepping expectations of becoming a journalist or teacher, she enrolled in a graduate scheme. Twelve months on, she’s working to design services and solutions for public-sector problems at Transform, a digital consultancy. And if that wasn’t enough, she also freelances as an illustrator in her spare time. She reflects on her first steps into the world of work, from picking up new industry languages to learning new skills, and finding fresh ways to apply existing ones.
As soon as I graduated, I joined the Engine graduate scheme, which is a media and communications grad scheme. It allows you to work in four companies within Engine group, across four different roles, before deciding which suits you best. As someone who wasn’t quite sure what they wanted to do, but eager to get started, it was the perfect opportunity.
I worked in consultancy and service design, PR, customer experience design, then finally in data. Working across those different sectors not only allowed me to learn a wide range of skills, it also gave me a broad understanding of the communications landscape. These days, the creative industries are becoming increasingly intertwined, which means the more industry languages you can speak, the better. So, while I’m probably never going to be a data analyst, I know enough to have informed conversations about machine learning or GDPR [General Data Protection regulation], which comes in surprisingly handy.
At the end of that rotation scheme, I chose to return to my first placement, Transform. Since starting, I’ve worked on a number public sector projects, on everything from product safety to getting people to live healthier lives. Going home at night knowing you’re working on making the world work a little better is wonderful.
Keep company culture in mind
I work mainly within a great team of service designers, who’ve taught me so much about the importance of putting the user at the heart of everything you do. I don’t have a big jazz-hands personality, so finding a community of people who make me feel included and inspired is so vital to me being my best self at work. As you search for roles, don’t overlook a company’s culture – it can make a huge difference to your day.
Finding your skill set sweet spot
Before I worked at Transform, I had no idea what service design was, but I so wish I had. The three things I loved about studying English were its creativity, analysing and researching a topic, and the empathy it required. For me, service design hits a wonderful sweet spot between creativity, analysis, and something very human, with the added bonus of making something real. People talk a lot about transferrable skills when it comes to jobs, but transferrable interests are just as important.
I balance my day job with a side hustle of freelance illustration, because making things keeps me out of trouble and I just couldn’t give it up. It can be a bit of a struggle to find the time to do both, but the things I learn in one make me better at the other. Plus, blogging regularly is the best way to reflect on how much you’ve learned!
“Find the things you love and use them as career building blocks – you’ll start to put together the pieces of a job you love.”
Don’t settle and try everything first
I love what I do now. But I’m so glad that I gave myself the chance to try out a few different things first, and if I could I would have gone for an even wider range. It’s something I would recommend to any new grad, even if you think you know exactly what you want to do. No job is exactly what you think it will be in practice, and it’s hard to know what you’ll enjoy doing day in day out unless you’ve given it a go. The more you do, the more you’ll start to put together the pieces of a job you love. Whether that’s discovering you love working with a smaller team, a bit of logical thinking, or doing something with a social conscience.
If you can’t try everything you want to, make sure that you put some research into all of your options. Careers advice, at least in my experience, can be quite limited when it comes to creative careers, and even more so when it comes to the new world of side hustles. I was basically only ever asked if I wanted to be a teacher or a journalist. So, don’t just settle for the options that are offered to you, find the things you love and use them as career building blocks.
Your degree doesn’t define you
But the one piece of advice I wish I’d been given before I set out on my grad journey is: Don’t feel limited by what you think you should be doing based on your degree or experience. Where you’ve come from doesn’t define how creatively you can think, or how much you can learn. I thought that because I’d done and English degree I wouldn’t be able to have a creative role, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.