She worked for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for the first year of the scheme in London. Then she moved to Manchester for her placement in HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenues & Customs). She tells us what working in government is really like and how her PhD stood her in excellent stead for the programme.
How did you make the decision to leave academia?
I always knew I wanted to leave academia. I thought I would move into the private sector but I just came across the Civil Service opportunity by chance on a graduate scheme website and decided to apply.
Why the Civil Service?
It caught my attention for a few reasons: job security, great pension and there wasn’t any psychometric testing as part of the application process. You can also apply for up to 4 different streams (out of 10) within the Fast Stream programme with just one application. I went for the Science & Engineering stream and the Commercial stream. The Commercial stream takes 3 years and you study for a professional qualification (from the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply) alongside your work. This is really in demand in the labour market so it will help me move on if and when I move to the private sector. I’d like to be a Commercial Director in ten years’ time. In total I applied to 5 different graduate schemes while I was writing up my thesis including patent law and accountancy and got an offer from 1 of them, the Civil Service.
What is the Civil Service? I think a lot of people aren’t completely sure what it actually is!
Basically the Civil Service enacts policy decisions made by the current government on all manner of things: pensions, education, healthcare etc. If you work as a civil servant you need to be impartial, you can’t let political affiliations influence your work.
And what’s your role at the moment?
I work as a Contracts Manager. I have to go out to the market to procure services and goods from private companies to get the best deal for the public. Government has to buy services from private companies to install things like streetlights or railway tracks for the HS2 project. The most random contract I’ve heard about was one for squirrel contraceptives – they hired a company to spray the nuts which squirrels were eating to curb the spread of squirrels in a town!
In my day to day role I draft contracts and I advise departments on their contracts. This requires some legal knowledge (something I’ve learned on the job). I also do some marketing around promoting tender opportunities to different companies. It’s a really varied role.
Are there any skills which you learned during your PhD help you now in your role?
I don’t use anything directly from Dentistry research but my PhD soft skills have really helped me. In the group interview section of the assessment centre we had to analyse some data. There was another PhD in the group and he and I were able to really analyse and interpret the data in a way that others struggled with. My research skills mean that I can quickly get up to speed with almost any topic, I never panic if I’m presented with a document that I don’t understand because that’s something I was having to do in my PhD all the time. I also have a lot of patience that I don’t always observe in people without PhDs. I’m able to take a step back and really understand what a task is before diving into it. The writing that I had to do in my PhD also helps with writing reports for senior managers and for the postgraduate course that I’m studying for.
Were the skills acquired during your PhD enough to get into the Civil Service?
It’s difficult to say. The application process is so rigorous that they expect that the people who get through it will be able to pick things up very quickly. I don’t think you really need to have specific work experience, except perhaps on the Finance stream. They are recruiting you more on your personality and your soft skills. It doesn’t matter what degree you have, or how old you are, as long as you have a 2:2 (or a 2:1 for some streams).
How did you make sure your applications and interview performance were as good as possible?
I got my boyfriend to read over my initial application which was really helpful. In the video interview stage you have to film yourself answering pre-recorded questions. They give you 15 seconds to think of an answer and then 2 minutes to record the answer. I thought of lots of examples ahead of the interview based on the competencies which they make available on their website. After that there was an Assessment Centre with a written exercise, a group exercise and a presentation. They give you a lot of information to read on each of these stages. My best advice? Skim the documents and pick out the areas which you feel you need to work hardest on (that’s kind of what you have to do in real life in the Civil Service).
Advice for current PhDs? (including non-scientists/engineers)
Be open to opportunities! I didn’t initially want to get into the Fast Stream but actually it is a really good fit for me.
There's a lot of talk at the moment in academia about mental health and imposter syndrome. Was there any time in your PhD or career so far where you have felt like a fraud or that you didn't know enough?
All the time! The Fast Stream wants to ‘stretch’ you so you’re expected to work at a high-level from day 1. It can be quite difficult to be put in a senior position and tell people what to do and what not to do and make decisions, especially when you come from a non-commercial background. Sometimes I wonder ‘should I really be doing this?’ It’s taken me about a year and a half to get over the imposter syndrome. For me, I think it’s just a matter of time to learn to trust myself.