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Sophie - finishing up and moving on
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Name: Sophie
PhD discipline: French
Area(s) of work: Parliament; civil service
Year of graduation: 2004
Date of Interview: 03/06/2008

Now Playing: Sophie - finishing up and moving on
Sophie recounts how she started considering potential careers at the start of her final year, and describes the process by which she came to be a parliamentary clerk.

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Can you talk me through that last year of your PhD? 

At the beginning of my final year I was thinking, 'Ok, I've got a year to run, I'm funded for a year and then after that I've got to find something else to do.'  Academic jobs starting the following October were being advertised at that time, so I started applying for them. I basically took the decision then that I was going to have to apply for them at that point because I didn't want to be in the situation where I got to the end of my funding and didn't have anything to do. So I spoke to my supervisor and we had a talk about it and she said it's difficult to get a job if you don't have your PhD in hand or pretty much finished, which I didn't. But given the situation, she was very supportive and wrote me references and all the kind of things that supervisors do and so I sent off some applications for that. At the same time I went to see my careers advisor, booked an appointment, went to see her. I had this idea that I wanted to combine my academic interests with something a bit more real world, so this was the idea I had that I could maybe work for a think tank or something like that. I went to see her and she told me about this job that I'm doing now in the House of Commons which is recruited through the civil service Fast Stream but it's not actually part of the general civil service, it's a separate thing that has piggy backed on the application process. I think that's changed, I think the civil service application process has actually changed since I did it so I wouldn't want anyone to rely on what I was saying. At the time they had two application rounds in a year which were January and October and I applied for the one starting in the January 2004. This got me in to start working in October that year. So it's quite a long process, you do have to plan ahead otherwise you're going to have a gap.

Can you talk me through the process?

Yes, so this definitely has changed, I know. The way that we did it, was you initially got invited to sit a test which was a day long test and had to do various logical things, numerical things etc. There was a centre in Cambridge so I went and sat in the sports hall and did a test all day and then you wait for them to write to you and say whether you got through that or not. And that part I know is now done online so you go on a computer and you can do it from your house. So I got through that and then the next section was to come to London for a two day assessment centre which was group activities and interviews with various people and some more essay-like written tests and I got through that.

How did you find that?

It was fine, I think it was helped at the time because I still hadn't totally ruled out the academic route at that point so I wasn't thinking this is my entire future and I must do really well. I think that took some of the pressure off and let me just be myself because there is quite a lot of interaction in these groups tests and things. You all have to sit there and pretend to be policy people in the government and decide how to spend your budget and negotiate. I think I was a bit more relaxed, I took a few more risks, than I would have done if I'd been thinking 'Oh I must do well.'

Were you among similar kinds of people?

It was a bit of a mixture really. There were people who were twenty one year olds just graduated and there were plenty of people who had done various forms of postgraduate study and there were mature students or people who were career-changing so I didn't feel that I was older than everyone else. I was older than some of them but I didn't feel that it was an odd thing to be doing, to be applying a couple of years later than some of them. So then I got through that and for this job, and for some of the other civil service jobs, there is an extra interview session after that. The way that I did it, after you'd done that assessment centre, if you got through you were guaranteed a job of some kind but, because I wanted to do this job particularly, I had to come for another interview session which is more of a traditional interview where you just talk about your experiences and they give you questions, you know standard interview format.

Was it daunting? 

I'd say the same thing again really which was because I wasn't thinking this is my one and only option, it was less daunting than it would otherwise have been. I was more relaxed and that, I think, was to my benefit because I was thinking this an option and if I get this job then that's great, but if I don't, something else will come along before October probably.

How did you prepare for the interview?

I didn't prepare that much for it. I read some books about parliament which seems like a fairly obvious thing to do, although now I think, in retrospect the amount I knew is quite little really. For the previous assessment centre we had to pick a topic that we were going to research ourselves to talk about and I picked parliament because I thought I could reuse it again in the final interview. I think that was quite useful but they didn't really expect you to have prepared as such, they were just asking general questions.

Did they ask you anything about your PhD? And were they particularly interested in the fact that…?

No, no, not really, no. They asked me what it was about, that's one of the early questions but they didn't seem to ask me any searching questions about it, just more information and what it was about and why I had chosen to do it.

Could you sense any attitude that they had about the PhD? Whether they thought that generally it was a good thing to have done, might be useful in your job? Or was anybody dismissive of it?

No, certainly not, no one was dismissive of it. I think they valued it and I think I got the impression that it was a good thing to have. I think I was dealing with a job where all of the entrants are pretty highly qualified, I don't think they thought it was going to put me ahead of anyone else, I didn't get that impression at all.

And when you went through the civil service Fast Stream application process, did you think about going into the diplomatic service because you have languages?

Yeah, when I originally applied for the civil service after I finished my first degree in languages, that is what I had envisaged doing, that or European service but this time when I got this job I think I was pretty unusual in actually applying to become a clerk. Normally the way people become clerks is they apply to the Fast Stream and they discover that clerk shifts are part of it and then they come on an open day or something and say, 'Oh fine, I'll put that as one of my options.'  We only recruit three or four people a year so it's not a big department. I was completely the other way round because I had been so sold on this idea by my careers advisor, not in a bad way, in a good way. So I'd always had this as the thing that I was trying to achieve and if I didn't make it through the final board, I could probably still get a job in another department somewhere which would be great but this is what I really wanted to do.

So how was finishing up your PhD and starting working?

That was quite tough actually. I wouldn't recommend doing it unless you have got a pretty full draft done already because what I was doing was rewriting and editing and moving bits about. It wasn't starting from scratch on any of it, I had all of my chapters pretty much done and still it was quite tough because you get to the end of your working week and you're quite knackered. Then you have to spend the whole of your weekend on your PhD. So, yeah, it wasn't brilliant but it was doable and because the end was in sight I knew it wasn't going to go on for ever and ever.

Did you ever think that maybe taking that job would jeopardise finishing the PhD?

I know there are people who are in this job who have taken the job before finishing their PhD and never finished it. I never, ever, wanted that to happen to me because I always thought, 'What have I done three years for if I'm not actually going to finish it off.' So I was quite self-disciplined in a way really in saying, 'I have to do this and I'll regret it if I don't do it for the rest of my life.' So, yeah, but, as I say, I was in a good position by that point because I had got the full draft. If I hadn't, if I still had a lot of it to write I think it would have been a bad idea to have done that. The other thing that is quite useful here, is that you have to be on night duty some days because the House sits until eleven o'clock at night and there is a lot of hanging around and waiting for things to happen, so I could use a lot of that time to do a bit of work on my PhD while I was at work.

Did you apply for any other jobs?

I don't think I ended up applying for anything else because I applied for the civil service so far in advance, because it's such a long application process. I thought 'ok, if that goes wrong then I'll try for a different job.' But it was far too early for something that you wanted to start in October to be applying in January for it, pretty much any other job, publishing or whatever it might be.

If you look back at the career preparation that you did, would you have done anything differently?

No, I don't think so but I think there was an element of luck involved that I happened to get a nice careers advisor who happened to see exactly, to suggest something that's worked out so well for me. I'm very glad that I did go and have a good half hours conversation with her about what I liked doing and what I didn't like doing. In a way, in retrospect, I think I didn't realise at the time how important it was for me to go and do that and to do it relatively far in advance of the moment when I needed to make a decision. So I knew what was out there and I wasn't rushed into maybe doing something that wouldn't have been so suitable.

Do you think at the time, other things had come together in your mind and that she helped you to consolidate it? 

There is a luck part to it, I think. The job that I'm doing now is not a well-known job, it's not, if someone asked you what you wanted to do you wouldn't chose this job because you wouldn't know what it was. So if the careers adviser hadn't mentioned it to me, I don't think I would have discovered it in another way by, I don't know, going to the milk round or surfing the internet or whatever it is. So I think from that perspective, we had a really good careers service at university. We had a big database of what other students had done and so I think they were very clued up on a lot of things that you might not think of off your own back.

Did networking play any part?

Not really, no but I don't think it's a really networking job, you just, because it's such a long institutional application procedure it's not going to help you to network.

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