At university I always felt like I was studying for two degrees. “You’d better not be submitting any of that Chicken Shack, Amelia,” my tutor would say during seminars, much to my embarrassment. Chicken Shop Date, as it’s pronounced, is the name of the YouTube channel that I started during my first year studying fashion journalism at Central St Martins. It was the cause of both my tutor’s continual annoyance and my intense workload.
I went on my first chicken shop date when I was 17 years old. The show started life in 2011 as a column in a makeshift youth magazine called The Cut. I would ask a friend to come along and take photos while I did deadpan Q&As with London grime artists.
It wasn’t until three years later that I made the leap to video. I chose YouTube as my platform because I liked that there was no paywall or subscription – anyone can watch. Over the next couple of years, the show gradually became more popular. I could tell because people kept telling me “you’re the chicken shop girl” on campus.
The channel now has millions of views and thousands of subscribers – probably helped by my tendency to disarm media-trained guests with my social awkwardness. When this led me to other presenting jobs, I started to wonder whether it would be my degree or YouTube that might eventually lead to a career. Should I leave my education behind for the bright lights of a video-sharing website?
Since 2008, YouTube has allowed users to enable advertising on their videos, which has turned YouTubing into a real job. This monetisation is how some users can turn a video titled “10 Things You Didn’t Know about Me!” into a month’s rent. Annoyingly I don’t earn enough from my videos to live off them alone. I have to diversify my income with writing and other presenting work while I pray to the digital content gods for a sweet sponsorship deal.
But if there are students running successful channels while earning real money, aren’t they tempted to quit university, save 9 grand a year and go full-time? I spoke to some of these YouTubers and found out why the answer isn’t so simple.
Photograph: Grace Beverly/YouTube
Take Oxford student Grace Beverly. She manages to fit in 6,000 words a week for her music degree and run her fitness and vlogging channel, Grace Fit UK. She has nearly 200,000 subscribers and over 500,000 Instagram followers. That’s a lot of people who like to watch Grace work out. She has just been signed to Gleam, one of the leading influencer management agencies, but finding the right team was tough as her university commitments always come first.
“Most companies would be put off if they couldn’t get a massive deal through because I had an essay to write,” Grace tells me over the phone from California, where she is away filming content. “But Gleam totally understood and saw (my degree) as a positive. This is my future and that’s what I’m selling.”
Both Grace and other YouTubers, such as Cambridge undergrad Holly Gabrielle, whose channel records her student life, are aware that going to a prestigious university is undeniably part of their USP. Their subscribers buy into their work-hard, play-hard lifestyle and this is one of the reasons why finishing their degree is so important.
Others are less convinced that uni is the route for them. “Ugh, I literally did not want to go to uni at all,” says YouTuber Nella Rose (140,000 subscribers) on the phone from the University of Leicester, where she studies sociology. “I just wanted to get a job. But I knew that if I didn’t go to uni, my family would never let it go.”
Nella views her channel, which contains frank and rather hilarious “chit chat” videos of her talking to friends, as her main career option. “I’ve had opportunities to interview celebrities, to present at shows and go places I never could have.” Now Nella has sponsorships which pay her bills and YouTube has upped her standard of living.
Photograph: Nella Rose/YouTube
“I see uni as a hurdle that gets in the way,” Nella tells me. “If you want to be creative, then go ahead and chase your dreams. I have so many opportunities in London but I’m stuck in Leicester doing a flipping dissertation.”
But Nella is maybe an exception to the rule. Not everyone who starts a channel is going to make it. And even if you do, the perks may not last forever.
Since she is so passionate about both YouTube and her studies, I wanted to know what Grace’s plans would be if she didn’t have the channel. “I would intern every holiday,” she says confidently. “I’m the type of person to do as much work experience as I could because I was always terrified of not doing what I wanted to do.”
All the YouTubers I’ve met are busy people. They balance filming content on top of essays and revision, but they have the advantage of long holidays and flexible working hours. It gave me precious time to work on my videos – there was no way I could have built it up otherwise. Uni and YouTube can complement each other perfectly, even if the subjects are unrelated. So if you want to try it yourself, my only advice is don’t quit your day job – or degree – just yet.
Follow Guardian Students on Twitter: @GdnStudents. For graduate career opportunities, take a look at Guardian Jobs.
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