Nicola Aitken combined her love of history with the German language to take a joint degree at Edinburgh. She explains how that ultimately inspired her decision to follow a career that looks at how information is disseminated and how disinformation can become prevalent.
German and History
|Year of graduation||2015|
At the moment
I’ve been working from home in London since March. I’m a policy manager at Full Fact, the UK’s independent fact checking charity. My job is to advocate for ways to prevent misinformation and reduce the harm caused. This has taken on even more importance with the outbreak of Covid-19, and I’ve been working with several organisations to understand what false information is online and how the social media platforms should respond.
Your time at the University
If you can make friends in a foreign language you can make friends anywhere!
I enjoyed my time at Edinburgh - I had visited the city a few times but it was nerve-racking when I first arrived as I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know what I wanted my career to be but I was excited that I was able to do a joint degree that combined my main interest (history) and gave me opportunities to learn and experience new things (German). The first year was hard being away from home, but there was a real sense of community within the languages department. We ran charity events, plays, and, of course, had plenty of social events. My best friends now are people who were also studying German.
I also got the opportunity to go into schools and speak to students who might be thinking about studying languages at university. That inspired me to sign up to the mentoring programme for foreign students, as well as to become a proofreader for students who didn’t speak English as a first language.
A real highlight was my third year abroad, when I studied at the University of Leipzig and took a range of history and cultural courses. A module on Communist propaganda techniques in Eastern Germany was the beginning of my interest in how information is disseminated, which eventually led to my current career. I came back to my final year in Edinburgh with (vastly) improved language skills, friends who I am still in touch with now and a new burst of confidence from living abroad. If you can make friends in a foreign language you can make friends anywhere!
Your experiences since leaving the University
I didn’t really have a plan for what I wanted to do when I left university. In my fourth year I applied for the Civil Service fast stream, mostly because everyone else in my class was. I had no idea if it was actually the perfect place for me! I didn’t get on to the graduate scheme, but I did get offered a different role a few months later. I then spent almost five years in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport where I worked on a range of policy issues from the BBC Charter Review, Brexit and finally helping to create the first plan in the world to regulate the social media companies. I’m most proud of being the first person in government to work on countering disinformation. I brought together a range of experts to create a framework which was outlined in the Online Harms White Paper. All of the time spent on précis writing taught me to communicate information succinctly - an invaluable skill!
In my time in government I was lucky enough to have experiences I wouldn’t have ever thought of - I’ve met the Queen while working at the Rememberance Sunday service, been to the White House to brief the US Government on UK legislation, and represented the UK at EU level working groups.
Now I’m working for a charity trying to tackle the same issues, but from outside of government. It’s been really exciting to have the space to do my own research projects, collaborate with other organisations and learn different ways to influence government policy. If I ever go back to the civil service I’m sure I’ll be more effective for having experienced policymaking from a different perspective.
To new graduates, I would say that this is a tough time to be graduating but it might open up new opportunities you wouldn’t have thought of before. Be open to different things and apply for jobs even if you think you’re not fully qualified for them. I wasn’t an expert in any of the jobs that I have done, but I did do my research before an interview and gave examples of other times I had successfully taken on new projects. Being enthusiastic, flexible and open to learning can take you much further than you might think.
It’s a cliche, but networking really is important. I was very shy when I first graduated, but I would go to every industry event I could and make a deal with myself that I wasn’t allowed to leave until I had spoken to three different people. Practice is the only way to get more comfortable in those situations! But building a network of contacts is invaluable, and is a great way to progress your career.
To all graduates I would say don’t be scared to try something new and don’t be limited by what you think the 'right' career path is from your degree - some of the best opportunities come from unexpected places.