Zoe, Hannah, Jo and I all went to school together – we bonded on bus journeys into the depths of North London suburbia, then over schoolwork, smoking, musical obsessions, books, boys, general adolescent madness, and classical poetry. Funnily enough, we all ended up at the same university, but our lives and jobs have diverged since then. I caught up with them recently to find out where their careers have taken them – and if they could have predicted each other’s paths.
Jo is currently a PhD student at NYU, doing a semester in London, and writing a dissertation on medieval representations of India. I didn’t have far to go to catch up with her, because we’re living together (it is the best) for a couple of months while she’s in the UK.
“I met Hannah on the very first day of school, because I sat next to her on the bus. You were on the bus as well, so I guess that’s how we became friends – and Zoe was in my form. In retrospect, it all seemed very obvious that we would have formed a foursome.
“I don’t know if I would have guessed what we’re all doing now: I think we all had gigantic, preposterous, romantic dreams of what adulthood would be like. But if I’d known, at 15, that your job existed, I’d have thought that you would do it. I absolutely would have said that Hannah would work for the British Library and be a writer, but I thought that Zoe would end up writing really intense philosophy.
“As for what I’m doing, it’s strangely the stuff that I thought was incredibly cool when I was younger – the semiology and philology that’s in my PhD was like a dream, and I’m amazed that I get to study it. But I don’t think that I ever imagined having to make sacrifices for it.
“When I decided to study in New York, I wanted adventure and freedom and I didn’t think I could get that in London. But for the first six months I went to sleep every night thinking: ‘What the hell am I doing?’ It was a huge wrench to stay, but I now feel like I have two full lives, one in London and one in New York.
“In semesters when I teach, my weeks are very structured – I find myself frantically trying to squeeze research in between grading papers and doing lesson plans. You have to treat it like a job, because it is – a PhD is like a really big contract, and at the end of a certain amount of time I have an obligation to the university to produce a really big, original piece of research. [At this point, Jo spends an inordinate amount of time googling how long her dissertation is supposed to be.]
“I’ll apply for academic positions all over the place when I finish, but in the long term I’d like to continue practising as a visual artist – I did a Foundation degree at Camberwell before studying English. I think that I didn’t continue with studying art because I didn’t feel like the people around me took it seriously, but it’s hard to say if I would change that decision now.
“One reason that we’ve always been friends is because we have a spectacular amount in common, which persists and feeds into our friendship. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t finished moving around – I don’t think my demand for adventure and freedom is over.”
Zoe started university a year earlier than Hannah, Jo and I, but did a four year Classics degree and graduated in 2010 along with the rest of us. She now lives in London and works in executive search.
“I’ve got very fond memories of our friendship at school – we were all slightly unhinged in our various different ways, but it was lovely. I wouldn’t say that we were ambitious, though: I don’t remember ever thinking about jobs much myself. But we were all ambitious on the academic side of things.
“I think I would have predicted something remarkably close to what everyone is doing now, except for myself – I certainly never expected to end up where I am at this stage in my career. I think I rebelled against what was expected by school and by my family: I thought I was going to be a doctor, but I wasn’t clever enough. [This is total rubbish. Zoe is insanely clever.]
“It would have been helpful if I’d made use of the services offered at university, the milkround and so on. I wish I’d been more proactive about careers, because I probably would have taken a different path. However, I think what I’m doing now really suits me. I’m a senior researcher in an executive search firm, which is recruitment but only for jobs that are over £100k a year.
“I was at a bit of a loss after Finals. I got in touch with graduate recruitment firms, and I saw that the recruitment industry takes on lots of people, trains them up, and then they move onto something else. The job market was horrible at the time, but there were lots of vacancies in recruitment. However, almost all of the companies I interviewed for wanted people who were sales-focused, whereas the company that I’m at now prides itself on the intellectual capability of its staff.
“I didn’t want to be a desk monkey, to spend all my time on the phone. And from day one, I’ve been in front of clients, involved in the strategic elements of business – I’m still on the phone selling, but I also work in reviewing, strategizing, discussing new business. At a lot of other companies, I wouldn’t be anywhere near those discussions after only two and a half years.
“One issue that does come up is my youth: it can mean that I’m not taken seriously. But the only way to get around it is to be very business-oriented – I read the trade magazines, I know the market, I spend every day immersed in it. I hate to use the phrase ‘Fake it to make it’, but you have to project confidence even if you’re intimidated.
“It’s not impossible that I’ll go back to university and get a Masters degree, but I also have one eye on my next professional step. My employers are great at training, so I know much more than I did when I started about how my career might go – I’m a lot less naïve than I was at university.”
I spoke to Hannah as she was on a train back to London from Haworth, Yorkshire, where she’d been researching Bronte manuscripts for a project she’s currently working on at the British Library. She’d also managed to find the identikit pub of our teenage local while she was there.
“I don’t know if I would have described us as an ambitious group. But I certainly wouldn’t have predicted our careers because I didn’t think about jobs when I was 15, although I don’t think our jobs are particularly surprising.
“When I was at university, I thought I was going to be an academic. So thinking about my work was the same as thinking about my career; I took advantage of the stuff that I thought would be helpful, but it’s always going to be an educated guess at that point. I suppose I wish I hadn’t been so focused on just one thing, because it hasn’t turned out like that.
“I did a Masters in Glasgow, and didn’t do any internships until I’d finished that – I didn’t intern while I was at university because I had a job at a literary agency, which was still really good experience. I hadn’t thought about magazines and writing as a career until I did my first internship, at a monthly publication, and really liked it.
“Now, I have two jobs: for three days a week I work at the British Library as an English Resources Web Content Developer, and for the other two days I’m the acting managing editor and assistant editor of the Jewish Quarterly. At the library I’m researching its collections in the 19th century for what will eventually be an online learning resource for 19th century literature – I got the job because I was temping in the higher education team when I found out that the learning team was looking for researchers into Victorian work, which is what my Masters was on.
“That work comes about through me pitching ideas, and publications I’ve written for before asking me to review stuff. Financially, it usually works out that I’m usually paid for my writing in print and not paid for online work – although those tend to be the longer pieces. Writing for free isn’t an ideal arrangement, but I also feel really lucky that I get to do it. I don’t not think of it as a job, but I don’t think of it in terms of money: I am starting to feel like I would like more time to do freelance writing, but I wouldn’t want to give up either of my other jobs.
“It’s sad that we all live so far away from each other now [Hannah and I used to live a five minute walk from each other’s houses ], but even though Jo’s in America I still speak to her all the time. I’ve never felt like we’ve lost touch as a group.”
I didn’t go to the same sixth form as Jo, Zoe and Hannah, so it was particularly brilliant to end up at the same university, living just a couple of streets away from each other. It was like having the world’s best safety net in those weeks of confusion, vodka, and panicked essay writing (otherwise known as first term, and most of the terms after that).
I studied English and edited the Culture section of the student newspaper, but thought that after Finals I would try and get a job in publishing. However, work experience at Communicate, a business magazine, turned into a role as a publishing assistant, then a staff writer. Thanks to a great editor and publisher, I was quickly writing features and getting on-the-job journalism training.
Because I worked for a very small company (in terms of staff – its reach and influence definitely outweighed its resources) I moved up the ladder quite quickly. I became deputy editor, then when my editor left – to write for Steve Coogan, no less – I asked for his job. I was 23 and wildly underqualified, but I set about immersing myself in the industry. Learning how to produce a 50 page magazine each month and keep a website running was a steep learning curve, but I knew that it was invaluable training – and also really good fun.
Along the way, I moved in with my boyfriend, acquired a goldfish, started a (very intermittently updated) blog with Jo, wrote a couple of pieces for XOJane UK, and started to think about my next step. When I first came across GoThinkBig on Twitter, I was struck by the cleverness of the idea, and psyched myself up to apply for the editor’s role.
Two and a half years after I finished university, I left my first job and started on the GoThinkBig team. I now look after all the editorial content on the site and work on ways to get young people to realise that GoThinkBig can help them to achieve their dreams. It’s a daunting project at times, but there’s a great team in place and brilliant support from Bauer Media and O2.
I hate guessing about what the future holds, but I always knew that Jo, Zoe and Hannah would be in jobs that reflect their brilliance, as they are. I don’t think I could predict where we’ll be in five years, or ten, but I’m pretty certain it’ll be interesting. And that I’ll still be pestering them to tell me all about their cool jobs.