Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Neil Gordon – Scottish Government

What degree course did you study and when did you graduate?

I started studying History at Warwick in 2014, and I stayed on after my BA to do a Master’s in Global and Comparative History, which I completed in 2018.

Why did you choose that particular degree course?

I had no specific career path in mind when I chose either of those courses, and was simply pursuing the subject I love.

However, knowing that history graduates ended up in a wide range of sectors gave me the peace of mind necessary to let me make the most out of my studies.

Tell us about your employer and the position you were recruited for

I started working for the Scottish Government in summer 2019, and I entered through their Graduate Development Programme.

This is a separate graduate programme to the Civil Service Fast Stream (you can apply for both) aimed at producing the next generation of Civil Service leaders.

I’m currently in the second year out of four. For the first 2 years of the scheme you move roles every 6 months, with the second 2 years being made up of 2 one-year postings. This combination of quick rotations and longer placements is designed to give you a broad experience across the organisation, whilst giving you opportunities to stretch and develop your skills more during the longer postings.

So far, I have worked in the Community Justice Division, looking at alternatives to custodial sentences, and I am currently in the First Minister’s Policy and Delivery Unit. This role has let me get involved in a really broad range of policy areas – from health, to transport, to housing, and everything in between – and I have been able to learn about, and influence, Scotland’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March 2021, I will be moving to Mission Clyde, a regional economic development programme aimed at bringing inclusive, low-carbon growth to the Clyde estuary region.

What attracted you to this position?

I was drawn to the Scottish Government because I realised that I wanted my work to have an impact whilst allowing me to live outside of London.

When I applied, I was halfway through a grad programme with HSBC, and was living in London. Although I learnt some useful skills in that role, I used the time to figure out that I wanted to do more impactful work, with tangible benefits to ordinary people.

‘Arts grad wants to change the world’ might sound a bit clichéd, but I felt that a career in government would also allow me to make the best use of the skills I developed at university. As I didn’t particularly enjoy living in London, I was particularly drawn to the Scottish Government, as it would give me strong career opportunities whilst letting me live up in Edinburgh.

This is one of the strengths of working in a devolved administration or a regional government, as more senior roles in the ‘core’ UK Civil Service are currently concentrated largely in London.

What are the key skills you learnt at Warwick that have helped you with your career to date?

One of the strengths of History as a degree is the transferability of its core skills: researching for exams and essays teaches you to analyse large quantities of information and consider different perspectives, whilst writing up makes you distil all that information into snappy, powerful arguments. I use these skills on a daily basis at work. So much of government work is assessing the evidence and deciding what to do with it, and I feel better able to do this with the skills I learnt at university.

There’s been times at work where I’ve felt unqualified or not knowledgeable enough to have an opinion on a topic, and this has had knock-on effects on my confidence. However, I find it helps to remind myself that it’s a similar position to sitting on floor 3 of the library wondering how to pull a dissertation together. Then as now, placing trust in my analytical skills and working through the evidence has stood me in good stead and got me the results I needed.

Warwick as an institution taught me other key skills. The university campus is Warwick’s greatest asset, and – besides being heaps of fun – its vibrant scene of sports clubs and societies is a great way to pick up skills that employers are looking for. Holding exec positions in the Athletics and Cross Country Club and the History Society taught me teamwork, foundational leadership skills, and how to communicate with stakeholders. These were skills which I just wouldn’t have been able to pick up as part of my degree, especially as History is quite a solitary discipline.

What top tips would you give to students looking for a career in your market sector?

My advice to prospective applicants to the Civil Service would be to really think about your analytical, communication, and leadership skills, as well as why you want to work in government.

Having a History degree covered off the analysis side of things for me, but I knew I couldn’t lean on my degree for examples of working in a team or communicating effectively with stakeholders – having experiences in these areas from part-time work, and clubs and societies stood me in good stead when I got to the assessment centre.

Other degree subjects will similarly present different areas of relative strength and weakness when applying for the Civil Service. There’s a range of more specialised roles, such as economists, statisticians, and lawyers, if you want to use your degree directly, but the skills you develop during any degree can make for a strong application to more general roles in the Civil Service.

As a sector, government and politics has many different parts and organisations other than the Civil Service – political parties, think tanks, local government, to name but a few – so you’ll want to think about why you’ve picked the Civil Service especially.

For me, it was that I got to be close to the action whilst also having the security and development opportunities afforded by a large organisation. Other parts of the sector have different strengths and weaknesses compared to this, so you’ll want to think about what you’re looking to get from work and what working conditions you’re happy with; political parties, for instance, can offer fast-paced, ideals-driven work, but the job security can be variable.

At Warwick there’s a few different branches to the Career Service offering, and each can help you in different ways.

For me, the various careers fairs helped develop a sense of what was out there. I didn’t find out about my current employer through careers events, but the careers fairs did help get the cogs in my head whirring about which areas I should start searching in. Even if you don’t actually talk to any of the organisations at the fair (I don’t think I did) a walk-around of the various stands is a really good way of raising your awareness about the job market.

I knew that I was interested in government, so I attended a Government and Politics sector-specific careers event featuring speakers from think tanks, the Civil Service, and other government organisations. This was a smaller-scale event, with each guest pitching their area and taking questions – I really enjoyed this format, and found it helped me get a useful sense of what working in government might be like. The variety of speakers and the fact that they all had an equal opportunity to make their case got me thinking about opportunities other than the obvious ones (i.e. the Fast Stream). I learnt about the Local Government Association grad scheme and, although I was unsuccessful, I only knew it existed because of one this event. Highly recommend.

The sessions I had with my department’s careers consultant once I was ready to start applying to places where invaluable. I found that these helped me improve my technical skills (CV writing, interview technique), as well as talking through the inevitable crises of confidence which come with applying for competitive grad programmes. The careers consultants can’t necessarily find your dream job for you, but they absolutely can help you land it once you’ve found it.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were applying for jobs?

On reflection, I wish that I’d spent more time thinking about which aspects of my degree I enjoyed the most and where I could get something equivalent to those in the world of work. Framing it in terms of skills was particularly useful for a not-very-vocational degree like History – I didn’t want to be a history teacher, but there were still plenty of sectors where I could directly use and develop the History skillset.

Not doing this thinking ahead of time meant that I got to a point in 4th year where I suddenly realised I had nothing lined up, and ended up applying for jobs in a quite scattergun way as a result. The result was a job in the financial sector which really wasn’t for me – doing work which interests you is not overrated!

The careers service can help you find opportunities and potential employers, but it’s on you to do the work of considering what you want from a job (that might be money, job fulfilment, or any manner of things), what you want to be doing day-to-day, and which sector could potentially give you those things.