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?

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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 asks, mocking 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 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. Take a look at what's on offer and you might be surprised – not just by the salaries and training, but also the work/life balance.

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

MI6 doesn't run a graduate scheme, but it has graduate-level roles, including intelligence officers, data analysts and language specialists. The organisation runs its own training academy to provide bespoke training for its staff.

Thinking of applying to MI6?

There are strict eligibility requirements for applying to jobs with MI6. You need to be a British citizen and have lived in the UK for the majority of the past 10 years. If you've studied here, you may still be able to apply, and if you have dual nationality you may also still be eligible.

You'll also need to pass a security process as part of your application. MI6 recommends you read through how the process works before you begin your application (it's published on their website).

When you're 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 four 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 five-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 alongside MI5’s own tools and techniques. You’ll need a 2.2 degree or equivalent full-time work experience.

Technology graduate development programme (TGDP). There are two streams within this programme: the business stream, which focuses on supporting key business areas, and the specialist stream, which is for people with excellent technological skills. You'll need at least a 2.2 to apply to these streams.

Business enablers entry scheme. On this scheme, you'll spend time in different departments such as HR and legal. After two or three years, you'll be able to apply for more senior roles.

Thinking of applying to MI5?

Part of the application process is a security vetting. You'll have to pass the highest level of security clearance before you can be offered a job.

Graduate jobs with GCHQ (gathers and analyses electronic communications)

GCHQ advertises graduate-level roles on its website as and when they become vacant, in areas such as technical (including cyber security and software development), intelligence and maths. Entry requirements vary, but the expectation for many is at least a 2.1 degree.

Thinking of applying to GCHQ?

As with the other intelligence services, there are strict eligibility and security requirements for people applying for jobs at GCHQ. You'll need to be a British citizen or have dual nationality (including British) , and pass a high-level security check.

Flexible, supportive workplaces

Just because intelligence organisations are secretive doesn't mean they're not great places to work. In fact, they're very open about the work they do to make people from all backgrounds feel welcome, and the initiatives they run – such as flexible working – that create a good work/life balance for their staff.

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. 'Signing up for a life of secrecy is not for everyone and not being able to tell close friends where I work has felt odd,' explains Isha, a business support officer at MI6, when interviewed for the UK 300 2020/21.
  • Career tip #2 for securing an intelligence role is to demonstrate your interest and willingness to learn during the application process, while taking time and being patient with yourself when answering difficult questions. ‘Ask lots of questions and don’t worry too much about knowing all the answers – it's OK to admit if you aren’t sure,’ says Amanda, number theory researcher at GCHQ when interviewed for the UK 300 2019/20. This attitude will help when you start working for GCHQ. ‘You’ll get stuck at times, but the most important thing is that you’re willing to learn,’ explains Amanda.
  • Career tip #3 is to show understanding that you are able to work both with others and for the public – and therefore that you have an understanding of how people work. Work experience in which you regularly cooperate with and help others (eg in customer service) should help with this. ‘I recently led a small team that worked with other government departments on new laws to help protect children using the internet,’ says Amanda.
  • Career tip #4 is to be ready to change roles and to be adaptable – both in learning and grasping new things and working with new people (as the last two tips make reference to). ‘People generally change roles every two to three years and I’m looking forward to building up a real breadth of knowledge in this way,’ says Isha.

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