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Name: Amanda
PhD discipline: German Literature
Area(s) of work: Diplomacy (foreign and commonwealth office)
Year of graduation: 2001
Date of Interview: 03/06/2008

Amanda - finishing up and moving on
Amanda recalls the ideas she had about careers during her PhD, and the process of finishing up and applying for the fast stream civil service.

At what point do you think in your PhD were you thinking about careers afterwards? Were you thinking about it from the beginning or did there come a point?

Yeah, I was always thinking about it. I was always thinking about it loosely without a fixed idea. I mean you always think about options and during the PhD I became more and more firm that the academic option was not one that I would pursue.

Did you do anything during the PhD that you'd kind of consider career building?


Did you access any career services or did you do any extracurricular stuff?

No. I mean I probably looked, I mean through doing the teaching and some seminars I looked at 'do I want to be an academic or not' to make sure I really knew the answer to that question.  I always had from undergraduate I had the Foreign Office as a job in the back of my mind because of the skills of languages and travelling and politics and those remained my interests and remained what I was most interested in pursuing. So I kept thinking 'OK still out there as an option and nothing that I've come across particularly attracts me elsewhere'. So I probably looked into different aspects of teaching and then thought yeah they're not really grabbing me.

And you started full-time but then you said you moved into working on your PhD part-time


Were you working for money as well as doing a PhD at that time?

No. It was because I was involved in sporting events and so because I was competitive and had competitions. That had sort of developed to a level where I needed to go away for periods of the summer, so that's why I was part time.

And did you ever consider moving in that direction professionally?

Well I mean I sort of amateur professionally did. And the PhD gave me the flexibility to do that if you like, to work around that to enable me to pursue the sporting side of things.

Did you apply for any other jobs when you were coming towards the end of your PhD?

No I didn't actually. Yeah. (laughing)

So, talk me through the last year of your PhD in terms of what you went on to do afterwards.

Well the last, I mean I definitely had fluctuations in, you know, I found it very difficult when I had gone part time in the middle. I sort of got lost out of the momentum a bit and then had to, you know, really reached a sort of crisis point where I thought 'OK, either I get back on track or I'm just not, you know I've lost this kind of thing', and so I was then massively focused in the last year on just really getting back into it and completing it.

So was there a point where you thought you might not finish it?
Yeah. Yeah I would say there was. Possibly, I can think of one crisis point when I then just threw a lot more time into it and essentially I'd had too much time away and just had lost the momentum and then I was starting to be in theory ready to complete and yet when I went back I just kind of could see all these gaps and then I just thought oh my God I need to start again, as one does. It just sort of seemed very overwhelming so yeah, I would say that. So then at the end I was just super-focused on really getting it done and being really strict about what I was trying to achieve in it. And all those things that the editing process forces you to do, but that also creates a huge amount of targeted work to be done and then yes.

 So when did you apply for the fast stream Civil Service?

 I applied in 2000.

And it was fast stream?

Yeah recruitment.

Recruitment for the Diplomatic Service?

Yes. You apply I think fast stream Civil Service and stipulate that you want to join the Foreign Office.

And you'd finished, you'd submitted and been viva'd?

I had yes, yeah.

So you didn't actually do anything?

No I didn't apply during the PhD, no.

What did you think was going to happen? Was there a moment of uncertainty about what?

I mean I had, I was also still engaged in sporting activities at that time so I was also competing. So I was kind of busy in that sense and I didn't feel; I never felt that I was applying and it was my only option. I almost felt; I'd always had this idea to apply and if I don't do it now then I'll never find out and I ought to apply just to find out a bit more about whether it's something I really want to do or whether they want me to do it. So I didn't feel in a pressure situation of 'it's my only option, it's got to work'. I actually almost thought 'well it's been hanging around there and I just ought to see if this is going to happen or not before I, you know because I'm getting older now', and so…

And if it hadn't happened, what did you think your other options might have been?

Erm, oh I would have, yeah I don't know. I felt there were other options either in non-governmental organisations, other international organisations, yeah I felt quite relaxed there were other options and I just hadn't fully explored them all.

And you applied for the fast stream Civil Service and talk me through that process a little bit

Yes you put in an application with all the sort of normal qualifications and some blurb about why you want to do it and then you go through a process. I think there's an initial sift where you do a, just everyone attends in London and does one of these kind of biometric tests or something? Or psychometric tests, I'm not sure, or both of those, you know a multiple choice paper and that sifts out a certain amount. Then you go into your first assessment. I'm not sure if it was a day or a day and a half where you had exercises, written exercises where you'd get lots of different information, you'd have to sift through it and then write some kind of recommendation or report or you'd have different options for a situation. It could be an incident that had happened, what action should be taken and you'd have different views on something or 'should we build a dam in this country?' and you'd have different papers on environmental impact and political impact and you would have to summarise them and suggest a way forward, that sort of thing. Then we had role play exercises where you'd be given a short while in advance a role if you like, representing a country perhaps in a negotiation, and then you would enter the exercise with the other candidates and you'd have to get something, perhaps your brief might tell you 'you need to fight for this but you could actually negotiate on this point'. And of course you don't know what everyone else has been prepared to do so part of is again seeing how you react in that kind of scenario. So those sorts of work-related exercises and then an actual interview on your motivation for joining and I think another interview on political issues that you declared in advance you would be willing to discuss.

Did your PhD come up in the interview and also did it relate or help you with any of the exercises that you had to do?

Absolutely. I would say it definitely; I mean it came up I think in the general interview of 'what have you done and how do you think that will help you in this job?' and sort of 'why did you do it?', just general information that they wanted to find out about what you'd done before joining and it was seen very positively I think.

Can you remember what kind of comments they made or how they responded to the PhD?

I think they asked me 'why did I want to do it?' and 'how did I think it was relevant to this job?'. 'How might I use it?' and so for me I was able to refer to the skills as well as the subject matter. Obviously I was aware of, you know I'd studied language, I was aware of the wider cultural issues of history and literature as well as politics and how they affected issues. I'd lived abroad and had learnt from that experience and the actual skills of finishing a project, attention to detail, analysing texts. This is very much the sort of thing we do and whilst it's not literary analysis, it's political analysis, it's still very much looking at words and nuances you know especially when you have say in Brussels or the UN you're agreeing a text amongst lots of different countries you know everyone feels one word means something slightly different and something else and so you are often in quite a semantic discussion to get a number of countries to agree to a joint statement on something. And you'd probably be horrified at the detailed hours of discussion even about commas and phrasing and in fact the UK plays a very strong role because a lot of these statements are often in English so you have to come up with a compromise if somebody doesn't like this word because they think it means this even if to you as a UK person you don't necessarily interpret it like that, you know you have to come up with an alternative to break again this sort of log jam. Of course you can also try and use that opportunity to have a solution that's slightly towards what the UK wants as well or more than slightly OK but it gives you an extra influencing tool if you like. So that kind of analysis of detail, attention to detail was very relevant between the two [the PhD and civil service work] and has been borne out since.

So you got into a smaller and smaller shortlist?

Yeah. Yeah basically you sort of then go to another similar thing, slightly more intense and less people and then a final board interview I think.