|Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities|
|Government and civil service|
|Large business (250+ employees)|
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A day in the life of a Civil Servant in the United Kingdom
York has some fantastic internships on offer within the university itself and in other partner organisations, and I wish I'd taken advantage of them.
Briefly describe the organisation you work for
I work for the UK Government in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) which is all about driving up housing supply, increasing home ownership, devolving powers and budgets to boost local growth in England and supporting strong communities. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, we've been doing our best to support local councils to ensure they can continue to deliver essential services, particularly for the most vulnerable members of society.
What do you do?
I'm currently the East Midlands Regional Lead for Shielding as part of the UK Government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic. I'm the Government's main point of contact for local councils in the East Midlands region (covering Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Rutland) for advice on how to support people who are clinically extremely vulnerable (or "CEV"). Before that I was a Senior Policy Advisor in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) where I worked on negotiating positions for the UK's future relationship with the EU’s Euratom Research and Training programme on nuclear R&D. My first civil service job was as a Policy Advisor in MHCLG working on the prevention of hate crime against EU nationals.
Reflecting upon your past employment and education, what led you to your current career choice?
I'd always been interested in politics and the work of government so after completing my BA in Historical Archaeology I did an MA in Contemporary History and International Politics at York and then went on to do a PhD at the University of Kent on British foreign policy towards Europe 1957-73. My PhD's specific focus was on the attitudes of British diplomats and officials towards the idea of joining the then European Economic Community (EEC; now the EU). This opened up lots of doors for me as I had the opportunity to meet and interview high-profile people like the then Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Secretary-General of the French Foreign Ministry as part of my research, which really gave me an in-depth look at life and work inside the civil service. The UK referendum on EU membership in 2016 also happened slap-bang in the middle of my PhD, so it didn't hurt suddenly being flavour of the month! After finishing my PhD I trawled the UK civil service jobs website and looked out for positions which piqued my interest.
Is your current job sector different from what you thought you would enter when you graduated?
Yes, definitely. I didn't really know what I wanted to do for a living until I was a couple of years into my PhD. Before that I had pretty much assumed I'd go into academia but I knew I wasn't madly enthusiastic about it.
Describe your most memorable day at work
Being in the civil service is thankfully never dull and it's quite hard to pin down one specific day, but I think I'd pick the time I was invited to the Romanian embassy to give a presentation to a delegation of Romanian MPs and diplomatic officials. At the time I was working on the prevention of hate crime against EU nationals and I was asked to give a short Q&A session on the work the UK Government is doing to tackle hate crime alongside a couple of colleagues from the Home Office and Metropolitan Police who were there to talk about tackling Modern Slavery. I was a relatively junior civil servant at the time so I was very nervous! We were able to showcase some genuinely good work that the UK Government was doing and how we were cooperating with the Romanian authorities. The delegation of MPs and diplomats seemed impressed and it was great to participate in a session which showed how much could be achieved through international cooperation, particularly for a foreign policy geek.
Are there any challenges associated with your job?
Thankfully I can't think of too many but I would say that there's an expectation that you'll always be willing and able to roll up your sleeves and get stuck into a problem at very short notice. That can sometimes be tough when you're working on a particularly tricky policy issue and you can't see a way through. You have to be able to come to terms with the fact that you won't be able to fix/solve everything, which can sometimes be a little demoralising if you're passionate about what you're doing.
What’s your work environment and culture like?
When Covid struck, we were all ordered to work permanently from home (with a small number of exceptions) but beforehand I was working in the Department's central London offices three times a week and from home twice a week. In general I've found work-life balance to be excellent in the civil service and it is often strongly defended by senior managers, which is great. There's a healthy acknowledgement that overworked staff are unhappy staff, so there's a big emphasis on not staying online/in the office for too long and making sure everyone has some downtime. The civil service is very much in favour of flexible working, so we can (within reason) start and finish our days when we want, which is great if you can't face being in before 9am or don't like working far beyond 5pm. There's a strong culture of ensuring that each individual employee has a work pattern which suits them which is fantastic. The overall atmosphere in the office is actually pretty relaxed and informal. Most people dress smartly but senior managers generally sit with the rest of us and there's always chit-chat and friendly banter. I've never felt uncomfortable or unsupported.
What extracurricular activities did you undertake at university and what transferable skills did you develop through these?
I can't emphasise the importance of work experience before you graduate enough. During my undergraduate I worked part-time in a bog-standard customer service retail gig and did a few other bits and pieces which really helped me pad out an otherwise pretty thin CV. I didn't really have any work experience before university and I regret that. Employers nowadays generally like to see a well-rounded person who has a bit of work experience and extracurricular interests as well as a university degree. Even a small bit of work experience in a role which may seem irrelevant to what you want to do in the future can teach you basic skills like working in a team, taking on responsibility, communicating with customers/the wider public. York has some fantastic internships on offer within the university itself and in other partner organisations and I wish I'd taken advantage of them. I also got involved in York's Archaeology Society (ArchSoc) and got elected Secretary in my 2nd year. In this role I had to keep on top of lots of details, such as updating the membership database/mailing lists, sending out regular updates/newsletters, taking minutes at meetings and organising events like the ArchSoc Christmas party and the Summer Ball. I probably didn't realise it at the time but performing tasks like these aren't a million miles away from the kind of things you'll be expected to do in most office jobs.
What would you like to do next with your career?
I'm pretty content with where I am now. I've been fortunate enough to have been promoted twice in the space of 2 and a half years, and I'm definitely comfortable staying within the civil service. In the coming years I'll probably try and get a bit more experience in other Government departments and eventually work my way up into the ranks of the senior civil service.
What top tips do you have for York students preparing for today’s job market and life after graduation?
1. The modern jobs market is tough and rejection can be hard, especially if it's for a role you felt you were perfect for. I had a naive expectation that finding a job would be relatively straightforward and would get frustrated when I got rejected for a job which I felt I was a good fit for. Don't take it personally and try not to get too emotionally invested. Resilience and a thick skin are really important, but above all, be patient. It took me nearly 8 months to get my first job in the civil service.
2. Don't be afraid to apply for as many roles as possible. As per the above, I had a naive expectation that I would come across the ideal job advert and would apply for it and get it instantly. In reality, applying for jobs can simply be a numbers game. You may come across a job which you think is perfect and lose out simply because 200 other people applied and the competition was too fierce. By the same token, you may then apply for a job which you have a slight interest in and get it because only 10 other people applied and you stood out from the crowd. Casting your net as far and wide as possible is key. I applied for over 50 roles before I got my first job in the civil service. You only need to succeed once. Those 49 other failures won't matter when you do.
3. This may sound obvious but always, always tailor your application to the job advert. As an interviewer/application sifter, you'd be amazed at the number of applicants who throw in really poor applications. I was asked to review 20 personal statements once - the applicants each had 500 words to explain why they were applying for the role and what they would bring. 15 of them didn't come close to making full use of the 500 word limit, and a handful literally submitted a single sentence. It was a complete waste of both their time and mine. The best applicants always cover the essential criteria and make your job as a recruiter easier for you.
What topics from students are you happy to answer questions on?
I'm more than happy to talk to anyone about applying for jobs in the UK civil service and any other queries on life as a civil servant. I'm also happy to talk about postgraduate study, be it at MA or PhD level.
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