So you want to be a spy?

How to get a job with the intelligence services

Updated: 


When the next James Bond film, Spectre, hits cinema screens in November, millions of people will be daydreaming about becoming a spy.

But you don't have to hang about draughty Cambridge colleges in a trenchcoat to be in with a chance of the job. In fact, the intelligence services are in the middle of a determined recruitment drive aimed at getting a broader range of new talent.

A report released recently by Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee calls for targeting middle-aged women in particular, in an effort to counter the "permafrost" in the security services, which are dominated by an overwhelmingly male outlook.

"If all intelligence professionals are cut from the same cloth – sharing similar backgrounds and similar characteristics - then they are likely to share 'unacknowledged biases' which will circumscribe both the definition of problems and the search for solutions," says committee member Hazel Blears.

"Diversity will therefore result in better intelligence analysis and a better response to the range of threats that we face to our national security."

Women currently make up just 37% of staff in the UK's three intelligence agencies - and are working disproportionately at junior levels. So those agencies are now being urged to make more of an effort to hire women - with the report even suggesting a recruitment drive via Mumsnet.

It's an idea that's met with some scepticism: "Yes, people who can't help but type their every passing thought into an online forum would make great spies," commented one Mumsnet user.

Certainly, being an intelligence officer does require some discretion. But it's not necessarily the glamorous, high-octane lifestyle that the movies might suggest. Indeed, as MI6 spy Somerset Maugham observed in his novel Ashenden, "The work of the agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless."

But if that doesn't put you off, how do you become a spy? Well, generally through a rather mundane application process.

The Security Service (MI5)
MI5 doesn't actually employ agents as staff, so you can't apply to become one. You can, though, apply for vacancies as they come up that can lead on to other roles. There are usually vacancies for language specialists, for example, that initially involve straightforward translation work but that can later develop into investigative roles.

"Many graduates join us as intelligence officers, moving postings every few years to take on new challenges, gain different experience and expand their understanding of our work," says MI5.
"Intelligence officers fulfil a range of investigative and corporate functions across the service and this route will offer you a varied career path."

There's a list of current vacancies here.

The Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)
MI6 does still recruit through the time-honoured method of discreetly approaching promising undergraduates. But it's also possible to apply to be an agent though the agency's website, here.
https://www.sis.gov.uk/careers/roles/intelligence-officers.html

"Whether working with government departments to identify the intelligence requirements, overseeing a targeting effort to develop an operation to gather the intelligence, meeting the agents overseas with access to the intelligence, or reporting the intelligence back to senior government Ministers you will be at the forefront of keeping this country safe and secure," it explains.

Successful applicants go through an induction course before being allocated to a specific role.

The agency says it doesn't necessarily want the obvious candidates, but instead is looking for people with a range of backgrounds and experience. You will, though, need to be very intelligent, with excellent interpersonal skills.

GCHQ
This is the place for the techies, although GCHQ also regularly needs analysts and corporate support staff and is the UK's biggest employer of language analysts. Some jobs need a specific technical degree, but for others any degree is fine, and there's even an apprenticeship scheme.

For some time now, GCHQ has been finding it a bit of a challenge to find suitable technical experts, and has had a number of high-profile recruitment drives.

Right now, it's looking for Mandarin and Russian speakers embedded systems developers, technical analysts and project managers. You'll need to be a British citizen and over 18.

"You'll go through a rigorous, but fair, vetting process that will look into your character, family history and personal circumstances," GCHQ explains.

"As part of the vetting process we'll look into your background to assess your risk of being put in a compromising position due to conscience or undue influence. This is designed to protect both our security – and yours."

There's more information here.

None of these jobs, unfortunately, will give you an exploding pen, a supercar or a bevy of beautiful women. It seems working for the intelligence services isn't necessarily all that glamorous - although that might just be what they want us to believe...

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