Psst! The secrets of getting a graduate job with MI5, MI6 or GCHQ
Interested in joining the MI5 graduate scheme or working for MI6 or GCHQ? Find out how to apply and what to expect from the recruitment process.
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 websites of the real MI6, MI5 and GCHQ, 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, technology and languages. Take a look at what's on offer and you might be surprised.
Read on to hear from employees at each of these important organisations, who shared their experiences and advice with targetjobs’ sister publication the UK 300 2021/22 . They’ll show you how to get into MI6, join MI5 or start your career at GCHQ.
Graduate jobs with MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service – deals with threats outside the UK)
MI6 doesn’t run a graduate scheme but it has graduate-level roles, including intelligence officer, business support officer and language specialist. The organisation runs its own training academy to provide bespoke training for its staff.
How to join 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, known as vetting, as part of the application process.
Typically, the MI6 recruitment process begins with a short application via its website to confirm you meet the initial eligibility criteria. This is followed by a combination of online forms, online tests, interviews and assessment centres, which varies according to the role applied for. If successful you’ll then receive a conditional job offer, subject to vetting. However, the process might not be as daunting as you’d expect and much of targetjobs’ usual advice for graduates will be equally helpful.
‘The recruitment process for MI6 involved an initial application form, some online tests, a telephone interview and an assessment centre consisting of roleplays, written exercises and a final face-to-face interview,’ explains Charlie, a graduate working in an operational team at MI6, when interviewed for the UK 300 . ‘Going through the vetting process was slightly uncomfortable – but it was clear from the start why it had to be done and my vetting officer made the process easier than I thought it would be.’
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 schemes at MI5 (the Security Service – deals with threats inside the UK)
Interested in working for MI5? 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.
MI5 also offers 11-week technical and intelligence summer internships and a 12-month procurement internship.
How to join MI5
How hard is it to get into MI5 and what is the application process? As with MI6, you’ll need to answer eligibility questions before you apply and you’ll have to pass the highest level of security clearance before you can be unconditionally offered a job. Discretion is vital and you can only talk about your application with your partner or a close family member, providing that they are British.
Depending on the graduate scheme you’re applying for, you’ll need to complete an online application, telephone or video interview and assessment centre – and possibly also an online situational judgement or cognitive ability test. Read the information on MI5’s website carefully for your chosen programme.
‘To my surprise, the recruitment process wasn’t too dissimilar an experience from that of my peers who applied for private sector companies,’ reflects Frankie, a data architect at MI5, when interviewed for the UK 300 . ‘The application form involved giving brief answers to questions about myself and my motivations to join. I then attended an interview day, which included a job-specific technical interview and a more general interview asking about soft skills. After this, I went through the vetting process, where I was required to give an honest account of my life in detail. I was asked quite personal questions, but, looking back, they weren’t designed to catch me out.’
Graduate jobs with GCHQ (government communication headquarters – 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.
GCHQ careers for graduates: how to apply
As with the other intelligence services, there are strict eligibility and security requirements for people who are considering working for GCHQ. You'll need to be a British citizen or have dual nationality (including British), and pass a high-level security check.
To apply to GCHQ, a typical application process begins with online application forms and sometimes an online test, followed by an interview or assessment centre. Like Mi6 and MI5, if successful at this stage you’ll be made an unconditional offer and go through the vetting process.
Marissa, a strategic co-lead in the digital transformation team at GCHQ, advised when interviewed for the UK 300 : ‘There is no one sort of person that we need at GCHQ – the key to what we do is the right mix of minds. That said, you do need to be curious, resilient, and adaptive. By investing in your passions and fostering a lifelong love of learning, you’ll develop the kind of mindset we seek. Plus, a good knowledge of current affairs has never harmed anyone!’
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 all three run – such as flexible working, sports clubs and well-being support – that create a good work/life balance for their staff. In addition, not being able to take work home or talk openly about the job other than with colleagues actually helps maintain a healthy separation between work and home life.
‘I love my job and yet I also have a great work/life balance, being able to spend quality time with my family and my horse,’ says Marissa. Both Frankie and Charlie benefit from flexi time schemes, allowing them to leave early on Fridays or quieter days after working longer hours on other days.
The top four 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. ‘Read the job requirements and really understand them, so that when you’re applying you know what skills the assessors are looking for,’ says Charlie.
- 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. ‘If you are not confident about the answer to a question, work through your thinking with your interviewer so that they can see your ability to problem solve,’ suggests Frankie.
- 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 was able to draw on my experiences of working in a café during my interviews,’ says Frankie.
- 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). ‘Don’t overthink your career plan,’ Marissa advises. ‘If an opportunity comes up, take a chance.’