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secrets of getting a job with MI5, MI6 or GCHQ

Psst! The secrets of getting a graduate job with MI5, MI6 or GCHQ

It seems the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) doesn’t equip students for a movie star lifestyle. So what should you expect and how do you get in?
The secrecy element can be challenging and I've only told my parents and partner that I work for MI6.

There’s a scene in the James Bond film Skyfall where 007 is rightly miffed by the lack of gadgets given to him by his new quartermaster: a paltry personalised pistol and a miniature radio transmitter.

Then to add injury to insult, Q lobs Bond a grenade of a put-down: ‘Were you expecting an exploding pen?,’ he mocks 007. 'We don’t really go in for that anymore.’

Indeed, among the recruitment pages of the real MI6’s website, there are no pictures of her Majesty’s graduates brandishing killer biros. There is, however, plenty of information about the range of jobs open to graduates in the intelligence community, from roles in intelligence and business support to science and technology and languages.

The top three tips for getting hired as a graduate at MI6, MI5 and GCHQ

  • Career tip #1 for getting a graduate role with the Secret Intelligence Service is to expect the unexpected, and to make sure you're not motivated by prestige or a desire to be in the limelight. 'The secrecy element can be challenging and I've only told my parents and partner that I work for MI6,' explains Fatima, an intelligence officer at MI6, when interviewed for the UK 300 2017/18.
  • Career tip #2 for securing intelligence roles is to demonstrate your patience and powers of observation and analysis. 'I tried not to second guess the recruitment process and I didn't try to behave how I thought a spy might,' continues Fatima. 'Instead, I tried to approach things in the most sensible way. During the role plays, I drew on my interpersonal skills and made a concerted effort to think about what was driving people's behaviours so I could use these motivations to achieve what I needed to. I also tried to show I could build genuine relationships.'
  • Career tip #3: in all of your dealings with MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, show understanding that working with others to serve the public good means understanding how different people work. 'To work for the MI6, it's important to be interested in foreign affairs, cultures and travel. I did quite a lot of volunteering at university, which was a great opportunity to learn about working with different people, sometimes in difficult circumstances. This provided me with great material for my competency-based interviews about working with others,' says Fatima. 

Here are some of the varied roles that various branches of the intelligence services are looking to fill. Some roles are specifically open only to graduates, while others are open to any applicants who have the expertise needed, whether they have developed their skills through studying at degree level or by other means.

Graduate jobs with MI6 (deals with threats outside the UK)

Jobs roles in MI6 for university graduates only

  • Intelligence officer. The recruitment criteria state that ‘the ideal candidate is probably not the obvious candidate’. You’ll need at least a 2.2 along with qualities such as an interest in foreign culture, sound judgement, emotional intelligence and the ability to understand and connect with a diverse range of people.

Jobs roles in MI6 open to both graduates and non-graduates

  • Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Arabic language specialist. You could have gained your skills through growing up in a multilingual family or by living or working abroad or by studying the language to a high level.
  • Software graduate and support roles are open both to graduates and to those who have developed their skills through a vocational course or study.

When you are applying for roles with MI6, you are warned not to talk about your application to anyone other than your partner or a close family member, providing that they are British, and you are also advised to make sure they are aware that it is important to be discreet. You are explicitly warned not to post on social media sites about your application or to discuss it with anybody else at this stage.

Graduate roles with MI5 (deals with threats inside the UK)

MI5 runs three distinct two-year graduate training programmes. Which one is right for you?

Intelligence officer development programme (IODP). You’ll need a 2.2 degree or equivalent full-time work experience. If you complete this two-year programme successfully, you can undertake the six-week Foundation Investigative Training Course to prepare you for a move into one of MI5’s investigative sections. At this stage, your work could involve tasks such as investigating a new lead, analysing agent intelligence, or liaising with police officers about when to make arrests.

Intelligence and data analyst development programme (I&DADP). You’ll be trained to use advanced data analytical techniques and could work on uncovering and mapping communications networks, answering questions such as ‘Who is using this mobile phone?’, ‘Where are they located?’ and ‘What are their activities?’ You’ll need a 2.2 degree or equivalent full-time work experience.

Technology graduate development programme (TGDP). You’ll be assigned to a business specialist area, ranging from IT service management to information architecture. You could work on projects such as building and testing applications to support investigations and agent running. A passion for technology and a 2.2 university degree (or expected 2.2 degree) is necessary for this graduate role.

Graduate jobs with GCHQ (gathers and analyses electronic communications)

GCHQ is the UK’s biggest employer of language analysts, taking on a mix of graduates and non-graduates. It also runs a future leaders programme that can last up to five years and equips recruits with the knowledge and skills needed to take on a senior leadership role in British intelligence. You’ll need at least a 2.2 degree in any subject or a postgraduate certificate (PGC) with a business or management focus.

Here are some examples of GCHQ roles that require specific degree or relevant experience:

  • Computer network operations specialist. You’ll need a 2.2 or above in computer science, maths, physics or a combination or a BA or masters incorporating ethical hacking, digital forensics or information security.
  • Applied research. Graduates are recruited from a range of scientific and technical degree backgrounds, including electronic engineering, physics, computer science, maths, engineering and linguistics. However, roles are open to anyone from a numerate or scientific background and strong experience of problem solving or algorithms using programming skills. You could end up working on projects to do with deep technology, media and language or security.
  • Software engineers and developers. To apply for this role you will need to be a current or recent graduate who is expected to achieve or has a minimum 2.2 degree in a relevant STEM (science, technology, engineering or maths) subject.

The skills needed to work for GCHQ, MI5 and MI6

The competencies required for graduate work within the intelligence sector are as various as the vacancies it advertises. However, some skills are fundamental, and not just for frontline operatives. So, to demonstrate your patience and powers of observation and analysis (tip #2 above): 

DO consider applying if you’re the sort of person who can do a 5,000 piece jigsaw of a sixteenth century painting and stay alert to the fact that the two men at the corner of the picture, on the pier and away from the fighting galleons, are smugglers exchanging small bags of contraband.

DO consider applying if this morning you brushed your teeth wondering: ‘If a country runs out of money for medical supplies at what point do people take to the streets and protest: when the children suffer visibly or the elderly die early?’ Excellent thinking, you’re analysing a possible cause of dissent.

DON’T apply if you think that, generally in life, waiting for results is a mug’s game. 007 may have an itchy trigger finger but he has an attention span of a fly and wouldn’t be hired by the real SIS. When applying to it, emphasise achievements that highlight your ability to liaise with colleagues, take decisions and quietly think things through – and don’t be tempted to garnish the application form with ‘dramatic incidents’ in your life, not unless you approached them thoughtfully.

Reporting for a graduate scheme…

Because of its secretive nature, intelligence work has often defined itself by what it isn’t: it’s not Ian Fleming, Jason Bourne or Mission Impossible. Nonetheless, partly because of how it used to recruit, many still see it as being stuffed full of white, mostly Oxbridge-educated alpha males. Now, in order to tackle what is sees as an ever fragmented world of threats, it’s going all out to present a multicultural image. Those who help you piece together an intelligence puzzle could speak English or Farsi, be gay or straight. Inclusiveness is not about being soft; it’s standard procedure. Lone wolves need not apply.

Former MI6 spy David Shayler was recruited after answering a newspaper ad which said ‘Godot isn’t coming’. These days getting hired as a spy is a more high-tech and open process. MI6 launched a campaign to coincide with the release of the James Bond film, Spectre, that invited applicants to ‘explore the human side of global intelligence’. The aim was to recruit emotionally intelligent candidates from a range of backgrounds who are comfortable with social interaction and interested in understanding beliefs and motivations. Hence, career tip #3 above: in all of your dealings with MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, demonstrate an  understanding that working with others to serve the public good means understanding how different people work.

For your brains only: researching the intelligence organsations

So your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to now start researching these organisations and shape up as a candidate. Thereafter, it’s a case of using your most secret advanced weapon – your brain – and thinking through a stonking application. Using your brain? Slumming it when you think that the Bond of yore would have had his own strap-on rocket booster.