What do you do as a new entrant economist at the FCO?
My first role in the FCO has been in the Economics Unit, where I am the South Asia & Security Economist. I will change roles after my first year, and after two years in London I can start to apply for overseas postings.
Describe a “typical work day”.
There really is no “typical work day” and that is one of the greatest things about my job! Work in the Economics Unit is mainly reactive, fast-paced and subject to change at any point. Our work revolves around global events, so it’s difficult even to say what will be the next week’s priorities. This is exciting and keeps things dynamic across the FCO. We also get plenty of chances to travel which means that some weeks take on a very different shape – I recently spent time working in British High Commissions in India, Bangladesh as well as Ghana. In terms of the structure of working life in the FCO, the organisation is extremely supportive in encouraging flexible working – both in terms of hours and working from home/remotely. It has made really solid progress in allowing people to fit their jobs around family life. There is also the chance to take career breaks to pursue other paths, whether that’s work in the private or third sectors, or even a return to study.
How did you get to your current job?
I joined the FCO last November with about 35 others, including one other economist. We are the 2013 Fast Stream Diplomatic Service cohort. We applied through the general Civil Service Fast Stream programme, which opens for applications in September. The process is multi-staged and takes several months, but there are great opportunities to work across government in key policy, or economics, roles. There is then a Final Selection Board for those hoping to enter the Foreign Office in the Diplomatic Stream. I applied for the Fast Stream during my Masters year but many of my colleagues joined after working elsewhere in government or the private sector.
You studied economics at university. How is it useful to what you do?
To enter the Civil Service or Diplomatic Service Fast Stream as an economist, you have to have studied economics as at least 50% of your undergraduate degree. A lot of people tend also to have Masters in related fields but it isn’t essential. Just before I started at the FCO, I completed my MSc in Health Economics which usually leads to the question of how this relates to my role in the FCO. It doesn’t – well not directly like it would in the Department of Health for example. But it does help to have an area of relative expertise and the FCO is always keen to exploit the existing skills and knowledge of our diverse workforce. Economists in the FCO are a fairly new concept, so it’s great to be part of a small group of analysts who produce economic analysis and models that are used to inform and shape our foreign policy-making.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your job?
I always wanted a career in the public sector and I find it thrilling to be a part of the FCO – an organisation at the heart of Whitehall that both protects Brits and British interests abroad and works towards promoting security and prosperity around the world. It’s personally rewarding when you see your own efforts produce a tangible output – whether it’s raising senior management’s awareness of the potential impact of economics on a given situation or working with colleagues overseas to create projects and programmes that lead to change where needed. Sometimes, though, it’s easy to feel removed from the impact your work is having in foreign policy but I always try to remember that I am a part of something bigger and something that is so integral to the UK’s place on the world stage.
What advice would you give to somebody who would like to do a similar job?
First and foremost, I would encourage anyone interested in a career in the Foreign Office to apply through the Fast Stream. There is nothing to lose, and a fantastic career awaits those who make it through the process. I think there are lots of urban myths and rumours about the “type” of person who works in the FCO or gets hired by the FCO – the reality is that the Foreign Office is an increasingly diverse place where anyone can succeed. There are lots of things to consider about pursuing a career in the Diplomatic Service – which is really more of a vocation than a job. A job here will shape your life – and that of your family’s. But it’s always worth remembering that it does not need to be seen as a “job for life” and can fit around your other, changing ambitions.
What are the key skills that you use in your job? What new skills have you learned? How did you gain them?
Diplomacy is really all about building good working relationships (and a lot of friendships!) with wide networks of contacts, colleagues and fellow diplomats in London, overseas (including locally employed staff) and other foreign services. This makes the FCO a really sociable place to work and interpersonal skills are vital – and usually found to be highly honed amongst diplomats. I think I’ve learned a lot in the past year about investing in working relationships – picking up the phone or visiting someone’s office instead of always emailing. During my trips to South Asia and Ghana it was a brilliant part of the experience to work with local staff who are always keen to show you their own culture and view of the UK. Communication skills are obviously vital too – we handle and relay a lot of information to colleagues and ministers and it’s so important that those with very little time are briefed on complex issues in a digestible way.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
I think any graduate’s first job is bound to present tough lessons, challenges and opportunities on a regular basis – even the concept of working a 9-5, 5 days a week was a major shock to my system after five years of studenthood. In saying that, I do sometimes think that having a first job at the FCO means really being thrown in at the deep end but certainly not in a bad way! The toughest lesson I’ve learned has probably been about the double-edged sword that is responsibility – especially the responsibility I have in being an “office expert” in economics. But this is also empowering and we have loads of support from our peers and managers, as well as lots of opportunities to continually hone our economic and diplomacy skills via courses, lectures and job-swaps. I’ve found that it’s much better to admit when you don’t know something and promise to find it out than to try to bluff your way through a difficult situation.
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
I try to seek out role models from across lots of different contexts in the FCO and beyond. There are diplomats who I admire for their astute policy skills; there are others that I admire for their strong leadership abilities – I would include the former Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in this category. From amongst my fellow Fast Stream colleagues I continue to learn a lot – we all do such diverse jobs and have completely different backgrounds and experiences that it makes for an interesting grouping. Everyone in the FCO has something to offer – expertise and experiences that I try to learn from. I also learn a great deal from working with my colleagues in overseas posts – both UK and non-UK nationals – who are immersed in cultures usually completely different from my own. It always amazes me how easily you can break any accent, geographical or cultural barrier by simply finding common ground and things to mutually laugh about (sometimes frustration with bureaucracy can really bring people together)! I relish the opportunity the FCO has given me to meet such fascinating people with wonderful stories to tell from home and abroad.
Heather Purdie - South Asia & Security Economist at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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