Q&A: HM Treasury Graduate Scheme
After completing her English Literature degree at Queen Mary, Sophie started her job on the HM Treasury Graduate Scheme in 2018. Sophie lets us in on what life as a civil servant can look like, and gives her tips for the competitive application process.
Photo: UK Investor Magazine
Did you know what you wanted to do when you left uni?
Honestly, I had no idea! I had a vague notion that I’d like to go into journalism because I ran the uni newspaper in my final year, but I’d heard how difficult the industry is to enter, so was keen to keep my options open to see what would crop up. I think it’s absolutely fine and normal to not know what you want to do when you leave uni. Not everyone has a set path in life, and for those who do, there’s a fair chance you’ll end up doing something entirely different! Life and career paths are unpredictable and there’s only so much planning you can do.
What is the HM Treasury Grad Scheme?
I am on the HM Treasury graduate scheme. This is different to the civil service fast stream, which is a general civil service entry scheme that allocates you into any department, anywhere in the UK. The three-year training programme I am doing is specific to HM Treasury. I’m currently working across public services, looking at Government funding and reform.
Why did you decide to apply for the scheme?
I took a slightly unconventional route to joining the scheme: because I studied English, I never though somewhere like the Treasury (which I assumed would be all about numbers and economics) would be the place for me, but it turned out I was very wrong! I did a consultancy internship during my final year, and the leader of the internship actually sent the application my way and suggested I apply. I thought it best to explore all opportunities, and that I had nothing to lose, so I applied. Around 60 graduates started alongside me in the scheme, which is a good size for a group and allows you to mix and mingle!
What was the application process like?
The application process runs over several months: the first stage is mainly answering questions on why you’re applying and what you have to offer the Treasury. You need to submit a CV and personal statement, providing some evidence as to how your skillset would fit the job. Once you’re past these initial rounds, you take a numerical test and verbal judgement-based test (sometimes known as psychometric testing). This can be done at home from your laptop and really isn’t as scary as it sounds. Following the tests, the final stage is an application centre, where you take a written exam that is related to the job and general policy work of Government. Following the test, you have to deliver a pre-prepared presentation to a panel of assessors, who ask you some questions on the content. Finally, you have an interview with a panel of civil servants, who want to hear about your previous experience and why you’re interested in working for the Government. The application centre runs over the course of a day, and you’re allowed lots of time to prep beforehand, plus breaks in between the test, presentation and interview.
Were there any particular criteria for the application?
The application is fairly open-ended in terms of what they are looking for. Broadly, anyone who has decent written and verbal communication skills, who has ideas on how to shape the country and world for the better, and who is willing to discuss these openly, is an ideal candidate I’d say. You must have at least a 2nd class degree to apply, but it can be in any subject and there’s no defined skillset you need. HMT really values diversity in people and so doesn’t prescribe a strict blueprint that applicants should mould to.
How were the first few weeks?
The first few weeks were a bit of a whirlwind, but really enjoyable. My graduate cohort started off with two weeks of training which introduces you to the Government, the role of the Treasury, and the various groups and teams within it. The training also gives an introduction to policy making, and for those who didn’t do a degree in economics, you get a crash course in macro and micro economics. This is made really accessible for people (like me) who didn’t have maths as their forté. Everyone makes friends really quickly, and I felt like I settled in well because I knew everyone around me was thinking and feeling the same things that I was. The friends I made on the very first day are still my really close friends two years later, which is great and definitely a testament to how those initial weeks bring everyone together.
Can you describe a typical day in the life of a civil servant?
Depending on what role you’re in, it can really vary. Broadly, a day will have a mixture of meetings (sometimes within Treasury, but also with other Government departments and relevant stakeholders to your policy area). You also have some downtime to do your own research and written work, which could be anything from writing a report to be published on Gov.uk, or a submission that gets sent to the Chancellor to read. I think you get a good mix of interaction with colleagues whilst also having time to progress your own work, but you can really make of it what you want and, if you’d prefer more interactive or more solo working time, you can carve that out for yourself.
How has the pandemic affected your job or changed the way you work?
As you can probably imagine, the pandemic has actually made work in Government a lot busier. Across the civil service, everyone had to mobilise in many different ways in order to respond to the pandemic – from organising PPE distribution to sorting out the logistics of the tiering system – people’s jobs had to adapt to meet the needs of the current day. For the Treasury specifically, we had a key role in supporting the Chancellor to deliver the various aspects of coronavirus support schemes, so it’s been a really interesting time to work in government and be part of the collective effort to support those in need.
Which departments have you worked in previously?
I’ve only ever worked in the Treasury, but within that department, I’ve worked across both Financial Services and Public Services. Both are quite different, but you learn skills that are applicable to all policy areas. As long as you’re willing to get stuck in and ask questions, and offer your own thoughts and opinions, then working across any department is possible.
What is your favourite part of the job?
I think my favourite part of the job is seeing how the work you do translates into the real world. You can be working in the Treasury press office and watch your work get announced on breaking news, you can be in a team introducing new legislation that will significantly improve the lives of people or businesses, and you can help take that bill through Parliament and see it become law. It’s crazy watching the work you do actively shape the country you live in, and when it’s for the better, it’s a really valuable thing to know you’ve added something positive to the world.
What are the challenges?
I think one of the key challenges of working in the civil service, and in the Treasury in particular, is the weight of responsibility that comes with your work. Because it can lead to a material change in society, there’s a lot of focus on what you do and a pressing need to get it right. Having a high level of responsibility is both a challenge and a highlight, because when things go well, it really pays off. The main thing is just making sure you always communicate with your team so you can work through any issues together. I’m a strong believer that most challenges in work (and in broader life actually) can be overcome by working through the problem with other people.
What are the benefits of the grad scheme and where can it take you?
The Treasury graduate scheme is a great way into the civil service more generally. Once you’re in, you have the mobility to work across many different departments and policy areas, getting involved in a whole range of topics from climate change and net zero to NHS spending and public health improvements. The Treasury grad scheme opens a lot of doors in this respect, and is great for kicking off a career in the civil service that really can take you anywhere (especially for those who work in jobs where they travel internationally, then it really can take you anywhere…) The scheme gives you a flavour of what it’s like to work in one of the busiest Government departments, and arms you with the necessary skillset to move into pretty much any role across both the public and private sector. Where you go after it is really up to you, but in terms of career pathways, you’ll never be stuck for choice!
What has the social side been like?
The Grad scheme, and the Treasury more generally, has a great focus on collaborating and socialising, and really recognise the value in that. There’s everything from a sports day in the summer, to fortnightly randomised coffee trials where you can get to know all the grads in Treasury, and other colleagues across the Civil Service. There’s a real sense of being a collective, and I really like that.
Aside from the core job, there’s also a big focus in Treasury on raising awareness of topical subjects that really matter. Many colleagues volunteer to hold training and discussion events on globally important issues like improving awareness on diversity, inclusion and race, raising the profile of mental health support, educating about disability and neurodiversity, and many many more topics. The Treasury makes sure people are able to have important conversations, to ensure everyone is educated about each other’s preferences, differences, and opinions. This is key to having a workplace that welcomes everyone from all walks of life.
Do you have any tips for those hoping to apply?
My main tip is just to be yourself in your application. Don’t feel like you need to come across as someone who has achieved 4 A*s in their A-levels and is gunning for a first at one of the UK’s top universities (unless that is you, good for you) – the main thing is just showing that you’ve got enthusiasm and willingness to tackle a wide range of societal and economic issues that are facing the country today, and that you’re tuned into the current state of the world. You don’t need to be an expert in economics or a pro wordsmith, you just need to be interested in making society a better place really. In terms of applying, I’d say start writing your personal statement early, make sure it is clear and simple, don’t overcomplicate with Shakespearean language or anything. Just showcase who you are, what you’ve done and enjoyed throughout uni and working life, and that’s the best you can do.
What is your idea of success and has it changed over time?
My idea of success really has changed, since graduating especially. I used to think it was all about earning a big salary, having a high-profile job and generally winning at every aspect of life. When you get out of uni you soon realise that actually, nobody is living a perfect image of ‘success’ (and if it seems like that on social media, then trust me, that’s not the whole picture).
What have you learned so far from the job, about your career aspirations and about yourself?
I think the main thing I’ve learned is to trust my instincts and be more confident in my opinions. When you get out into the working world, people want to hear your ideas and thoughts, they’ll want to debate with you, and sometimes they might disagree with you. But that’s good, and it’s healthy, and it’s exactly what helps you grow as a person and pushes you out of your comfort zone. I’ve learned that the best thing not to let anything hold you back – thoughts of ‘what if they think my idea is stupid?’ or ‘what if I say the wrong thing?’ People say stupid and wrong things all the time, but that’s exactly how they figure out what the right things are. You shouldn’t let your worries stop you from voicing your opinions – always pipe up and ask questions, don’t be afraid, and embrace the opportunity to get out of your comfort zone. People say ‘it really does get easier!’ and I think in this instance, they’re actually right.
Thank you Sophie!
Applications for the 2022 graduate scheme are open now and close at noon on 5th November. Visit the HM Treasury Careers website to find out more and apply.
Find out more:
Grad Bites: HM Treasury Grad Scheme
Hear more from Sophie about her experience as a civil servant on the HM Treasury graduate scheme
Grad Bites: Graduate Schemes
Hear some benefits of graduate schemes and learn some valuable tips for tackling the application process.