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Public Sector & Defence careers

Intelligence Services

Who are the intelligence services?

Britain’s intelligence service is comprised of three main organisations:

These three different public sector organisations have different functions, but one common aim: to protect the security and well-being of the United Kingdom.

What does intelligence work involve?

You might think that to work for the British intelligence services you will need to be able to pull off a tuxedo, like a good Martini and be pretty handy at using guns and gadgets.

However, careers in these departments are almost never about being a suave secret agent. In fact, if James Bond had applied for a job with MI6, MI5, or GCHQ when he left university, he might have begun pursuing a career as an intelligence officer, an administrator, an intelligence analyst, an I.T. professional, a language specialist, or working in corporate services, such as finance, HR and procurement.

Generally speaking, careers with the British intelligence services involve carrying out and supporting top secret work to counteract threats of terrorism, cyber-attacks (i.e. hacking and internet fraud), foreign espionage, and the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

MI6, MI5 and GCHQ often collaborate on certain activities, working alongside each other to combat menaces from abroad and from within the UK.

Career opportunities are available for both graduates and non-graduates. However,  some roles will require you to be highly intelligent and have a strong academic background (i.e. for some positions you will need a degree).

The three departments don’t tend to run specific graduate training programmes, as they primarily recruit people through ‘direct entry’ routes. Consequently, beginning your career at an entry-level with MI6, MI5 or GCHQ will be very different to working on a conventional grad scheme. These career opportunities will give you real responsibility from the very start.

Understandably, if you’re working for one of these organisations, you will be working in a highly secure environment and you may have access to sensitive information. Consequently, certain eligibility restrictions apply. You must be a British citizen, and at least one of your parents must be a British citizen (or have substantial ties with the UK).

You must have lived in the UK for the last ten years. However, if you have not been here the entire time, exceptions may be made in certain circumstances (N.B. references will be needed to cover these periods).

People with dual nationality may apply but they may have to renounce their other nationality if successful with their application.

All candidates will have to go through a Developed Vetting (DV) security clearance procedure. This is the highest level of security clearance in the UK and can thus be intrusive and extensive, often taking three months to process.

You must be over the age of 21 at the time of entry (18 for GCHQ).  Furthermore, your application will fail if you have used Class A drugs in the last 12 months, if you have used Class B/C drugs in the last 6 months, if you are currently being treated for addiction (including alcohol), or if you have ever suffered from schizophrenia or manic depression.

There are a huge range of jobs available within these departments and they each require people with different skills and competencies. So keep reading to get a more detailed taste of the work you could be doing for the MI6, MI5 or GCHQ.

What jobs are available in MI6?

The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) is responsible for collecting secret foreign intelligence through its various worldwide covert operations. Careers within this area are all about obtaining and processing the information that the government needs to deal with threats to national security.

The MI6 headquarters is based in Vauxhall, London, and many people are posted in many different countries throughout the world. You can support this top secret information gathering in a variety of different roles.

Operational officers are at the forefront of the intelligence collection activity and will spend a major chunk of their careers posted abroad. If you pursue this route, you might hold a variety of different positions throughout your career.

You might be working as a case officer, who actively gathers secret intelligence, plans covert missions and is responsible for recruiting and running secret agents. You might be working as a targeting officer, who accumulates intelligence pictures of ‘target areas’, identifies potential sources of intelligence and assists with the planning of specific covert operations.

Alternatively, you might be working as a reports officer, who develops knowledge on certain geographical areas or threats and provides detailed reports for Whitehall customers, including the Foreign Secretary.

Operational officers need to be intellectually strong, adaptable and clued-up on global politics. You need a minimum 2:2 level degree. However, a higher classification will  improve your chances of success.

You will also need to be dynamic, motivated and resilient. Language skills would also be a great bonus; MI6 are currently looking for people that have excellent spoken and written skills in Mandarin and Arabic.

You can also pursue a career in administration with MI6. These guys provide top class administrative support in functions such as HR, finance and record management.

A large number of these roles involve data input and data retrieval. It is less likely that you will get the opportunity to travel in these positions and you will most likely be employed in London.

These positions are open to graduates and non-graduates as the minimum requirements are 5 GCSEs at Grade A-C, or equivalent (e.g. vocational qualifications). You will need great organisational skills, communication skills, computer literacy and attention to detail.

I.T. and telecommunications careers with MI6 are integral to gathering, processing, communicating and storing information. The very best computer systems, databases and telecommunications equipment needs to be developed, installed and maintained by a team of consummate technological professionals.

The whole spectrum of I.T. and telecoms expertise is needed within the organisation, so you could be working on technical support, software development, information security management, network engineering, enterprise architecture or I.T. project management. You will need very good I.T. skills and the ability to work as part of a team.

Alternatively, you might be able to develop your career in the corporate services arm of the organisation and provide managerial direction for finance, HR, procurement and estate management functions.

Without these guys the department would not be able to operate effectively. Here, managerial and strategic decisions on resources and business processes are more important than in any other kind of organisation, as they will have an impact on the entirety of the UK’s safety and security.

The SIS also needs languages specialists to translate written and spoken information that has been recorded by operational officers. You will work alongside other professionals and use your language skills to help them work more efficiently.

The recruitment for language specialists varies all the time, depending on which languages are currently important to their operations. They often look for people with more niche language knowledge. For instance, they may require people who can speak languages such as Somali, Arabic, Mandarin, Korean, Persian, Spanish, Russian, Swahili, Pashto or Urdu. These guys will also get the chance to learn additional languages throughout their career.

Last but not least, you can even pursue a career with the SIS in their trades and services departments, as a security officer, facilities and maintenance assistant, driver, telephonist, or as part of the onsite restaurant staff. All of these people also need to be fully security cleared.

What jobs are available in MI5?

The Security Service is responsible for actively countering threats to national security and offering advice to other organisations to help them reduce their susceptibility to security breaches.

The organisation currently employs around 3,800 people, who play an integral role in supporting and delivering investigative work, policy development and covert operational delivery. These valuable employees gather intelligence, distribute it accordingly, actively investigate threats and work out strategies and manoeuvres to thwart them.                                     

A range of careers are open to graduates and non-graduates, ranging from intelligence officers, intelligence analysts, and foreign language analysts, to I.T. security professionals, mobile surveillance officers, business support administrators, procurement managers and caterers.

Intelligence officers might be responsible for assessing potential threats, making vital decisions and actively coordinating investigation activities. These guys work alongside intelligence analysts, who analyse and manipulate data that has been gathered from a variety of sources. These guys spot patterns, piece information together and then provide recommendations on how, where and when investigative procedures should be instigated.

People who pursue these careers must be highly-intelligent, have outstanding communication skills, logic and analytical expertise. They will be highly organised, confident and ready to make vital decisions and recommendations when they are needed. A 2:1 degree is an absolute minimum for these positions.

As with the SIS, MI5 needs the services of foreign language specialists. However, here these professionals might put their skills to use in different ways. For instance, they may be listening to phone calls in foreign languages that have been intercepted under warrant and will use their language skills to discover hints of potential threats.

They are currently looking for people that can speak languages such as Mandarin and Russian. However, language specialist requirements change on a frequent basis.

MI5 is also highly dependent on the work of I.T. and telecommunications specialists, such as I.T. security exploitation officers, who use their expert information security knowledge to help investigators identify weaknesses in other organisations’ systems and manipulate them to obtain vital information.

Alternatively, I.T. experts are needed to develop, implement and maintain technological solutions that facilitate the analysis and processing of information for the department.

What jobs are available at GCHQ?

GCHQ is the only intelligence services department with headquarters outside of London. Based in Cheltenham, in a giant doughnut shaped building, this department employs 5,300 staff (some of whom work in other offices in Yorkshire and Cornwall).

Its intelligence objectives are more specific than that of the SIS and MI5, in that GCHQ are specifically dedicated to Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Information Assurance (IA).

SIGINT is all about gathering information through intercepting electronic and digital signals. IA is all about protecting data from hackers and other technological disruptions. These functions help to support national security initiatives, prevent terrorist attacks and provide valuable information to the UK’s armed forces around the world.

Understandably, the GCHQ needs to stay at the forefront of technological advances. The very best I.T. and telecommunications professionals are absolutely integral to maintaining the security of their computer systems. They employ I.T. and telecommunication engineers in all disciplines, from infrastructure engineers, software engineers and telecommunications engineers, to information assurance experts, I.T. project managers, web developers and mechanical engineers.

The GCHQ also employs foreign language analysts, who provide essential translation of intercepted data. These guys will provide transcription and ‘gisting’ services, where they will summarise lengthy texts and transcriptions for easier use.

The linguists employed by GCHQ will often need to speak key languages such as Russian, Arabic and Mandarin etc. Furthermore, it is vital for them to have a broad understanding of the social, religious and cultural contexts of the areas of the world in which their specialist languages are spoken.

This department also employs professional mathematicians. This is one of the only places where you can use your advanced mathematical research skills outside of an academic environment. These guys will be working on the deciphering of incredibly complex cryptographic problems.

Similarly to the SIS and MI5, the department also provides career opportunities for a wealth of people in administrative, corporate services, HR, finance, intelligence analyst and document and records management positions.

GCHQ is listed as one of the ‘Times Top 100 Graduate Employers’ and offers a great working environment in which to develop your career in intelligence services. However, the organisation does also offer many opportunities for non-graduates, who tend to work in administrative and clerical positions.

One final thing to remember before you apply for any job with the SIS, MI5, or GCHQ is that you must not discuss your application with anybody else, except for your parents or partner/spouse. Otherwise, your application may be jeopardised. After all, careers in this area are all about discretion…