Graduate story: from QMUL to the Civil Service

fullsizerenderNiva Thiruchelvam, Law graduate

Niva Thiruchelvam (NT), graduated from QMUL with a law degree in 2003 and began her career with the Civil Service Fast Stream in 2007. Since then she’s had a variety of interesting and exciting jobs, from running Oliver Letwin’s office in the Cabinet Office to negotiating EU-level changes to Free Movement policy.

She spoke to Yasmine Hafiz (YH) about her career journey.

YH: How did you become interested in the Civil Service?

NT: I fell into a career in the Civil Service. I’d read law at QMUL, and the natural next step would have been to go to law school, and then to become a barrister or a solicitor, but that didn’t hit the spot for me.

While I thought about what I wanted to do, I took various jobs, including one in the then Department for Constitutional Affairs. It was an excellent introduction to the world of policy in the Civil Service, and I loved it. I’d never really thought about the huge amount of work that went on behind the scenes to make things happen – from the conception of an idea, through to legislation in Parliament, and so on.

I discovered that the Civil Service offered a wide range of roles within each department, and that really appealed to someone like me. It’s an ideal path for someone who’s interested in everything, so I applied for the Fast Stream and my Civil Service career began there.

YH: What kind of jobs have you had within the Fast Stream?

NT: My first Fast Stream role was in the Department for Constitutional Affairs (now Ministry of Justice), getting stuck into Scottish devolution and how Scotland’sconstitutional arrangements might be strengthened.  I helped to set up and support a cross-party, independent Commission reviewing Scotland’s devolution settlement.  As part of this, I led work on communications – this ranged from running town hall events in the most remote parts of Scotland to developing a media strategy that encompassed print, broadcast and social media and involved liaising with the political editors of the major Scottish newspapers.

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QInsight: Civil Service Fast Stream

Read on to hear about an exciting new opportunity for QMUL students (studying any degree discipline) interested in working with a Top 5 Graduate employer…


QMUL are teaming up with the Civil Service Fast Stream this autumn to deliver a unique programme designed to increase your employability and commercial awareness.  You will learn decision making, collaborating and partnering skills which will help with your future career prospects.  Participants will:

  • Gain an inside knowledge and understanding of recruitment processes of one of the largest graduate employers
  • Benefit from practice assessment centres and insight sessions with recruitment professionals
  • Experience the environment and culture of the Civil Service. Participants will also have the opportunity to network with senior professionals and existing Fast Streamers

The programme consists of 5 sessions over the autumn term, lasting between 2-5 hours each, all led by the Civil Service.

QMUL_Careers_048If you’re thinking about a career with a large organisation with a variety of roles, this is an opportunity not to be missed. You will gain great inside knowledge of the Civil Service Fast Stream and assessment centres in general. 

For more information and to apply, see our application form.

Application deadline: 5th September at 10am. Email with any questions.

Please note this opportunity is only open to current undergraduate students at Queen Mary who have the right to work in the UK. 

 “The Civil Service aspires to be the most inclusive employer in the UK.  It is vital that we harness the talents of the widest possible range of people who can bring diversity of thinking and perspective to solve some of the most challenging problems the UK faces today”

How to Smash the Fast Stream Assessment Centre

You’ve sailed through the online tests, you’ve done the e-tray, you’ve passed the video interview- and now it’s on to the Fast Stream Assessment Centre. Well done for making it so far! Read on to find out how to give the FSAC your very best shot, and don’t forget to read the FSAC Guide (*updated 2018 version) for practice exercises.


  • Get to know the competencies (Fast Stream ones are Level 3). Each exercise will highlight different ones. See the competency framework below.
  • Take a look at the practice scenarios in the FSAC guide – they’re very similar to the actual exercises you’ll get on the day.
  • Make sure to unwind and get a good night’s sleep- you can do it.

fsacOn the day:

  • Eat breakfast and stay hydrated.
  • Dress professionally, but prioritise comfort.
  • A digital watch is useful for keeping track of time in the exercises.
  • Remember that you aren’t directly competing with the other candidates- if all of you perform well, you could all get through. Be friendly and collaborative, and don’t get intimidated.
  • Keep your spirits up- every exercise is scored individually. If you feel like you weren’t at your best in one, regroup before the next challenge.
  • Don’t neglect the self-assessment that they’ll ask you to complete after each task. Take time to correctly identify the competencies you demonstrated effectively and which ones you need to develop- it’s important to show your own awareness of your strengths.
  • Enjoy it! It really helps if you pretend that you’re already a civil servant during the exercises. The day is tiring but it can be a lot of fun if you get into it.

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From University to the Fast Stream


Ruth Kennedy joined the Civil Service Fast Stream just over a year ago, and is part of a team of Fast Streamers currently promoting opportunities to QMUL students.

‘California redwoods,’ said my colleague, as I looked up at the massive, reddish-brown tree looming over me. ‘They’re only about 60, so they’re just babies – a typical lifespan can be thousands of years.’ This is a normal Monday morning in my current job at the Forestry Commission, on a secondment from the Civil Service Fast Stream.

The Civil Service is the group of organisations that carry out the work of Government – from collecting taxes to spending them on schools, the NHS and transport, from issuing passports to sending diplomatic envoys abroad, and from making new laws to enforcing them on the ground. Over 420,000 people currently work for the Civil Service, and it recruits around 800 graduates each year onto its prestigious Fast Stream leadership programme.

I joined the scheme just over a year ago, straight out of university, and in my first few months the thing I found hardest was having confidence in myself: believing that I was capable of taking on the responsibilities of the job. So I did my best, asked for feedback from colleagues, told myself firmly that I wouldn’t be in the job if I wasn’t able to do it, and quickly got better and better at my work. It’s so satisfying to realise that you’re capable of more than you thought.

It was the same before I applied to the Fast Stream, when I really wasn’t sure that I had much chance of getting in. The marketing language can make it sound intimidating, but I told myself that it was worth a serious application, even if only to learn from my mistakes.

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Civil Service Fast Stream

The Civil Service Fast Stream is now open for candidates hoping to start in 2017. The scheme is aimed at final year students and recent graduates who want a career in the civil service and it is one of the largest graduate schemes in the UK.

This year, the Fast Stream is offering no fewer than 15 different schemes, including the popular Generalist scheme, as well as more specific schemes which cater for almost all subjects studied at university. In other words, if you’re a final-year student, and are expected to achieve a 2.1, there’s almost certainly something you can apply for.

What’s more, this year the online application process has been changed in an attempt to support applicants from more diverse backgrounds (currently only 4% of Fast Stream applicants come from disadvantaged backgrounds compared to 24% of the graduate population.) Consequently, the verbal and numerical reasoning tests which have been used in previous years have been replaced with situational judgement tests which are intended to provide a more accurate assessment of candidates’ ability levels.

Nonetheless, the Fast Stream is still extremely competitive: in past years, only around 5% of candidates who applied were offered a position, and it can be a dispiriting experience for able candidates who make it a fair way through the process only to be told that they are ‘unsuccessful’ at a late stage.

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So you want to work in politics

Here are some of our top tips:

–         Every local MP has too much work to handle and will be grateful of an extra pair of hands.  If you don’t get a favourable response from yours, there are still a good number of others in London so you can try them.

–         Around the time of local and national election campaigns get involved with your local political party, there’s always plenty of work to do!

–         Whilst getting a job in local government and the civil service doesn’t rely on networking, breaking into think tanks, political party roles and public affairs certainly does.  Make sure you attend talks and events where you get to meet people in the industry.  Right on your doorstep is the prestigious Mile End Institute so why not start there?


–         Make inquiries at your local council. You may be able to apply for a placement, do some volunteering on a community programme or simply work shadow someone.

–         If you can’t get anything in the field of government and politics itself, think laterally about areas of work related to it. Try and get a few weeks work experience in a local newspaper. You can use the experience to learn to debate and express opinions on news items, or look at a government relations department in a big business, where they employ the equivalent of lobbyists.

–         Be flexible with your career plans. You could start your career working for a few years in the policy unit of a charity or NGO, for example, and then move into government, a think tank or a political party.  Equally you could work in any sector where the job itself intersects with government, such as the government relations department mentioned above.

So what’s the take-away message?

Think creatively, be persistent and flexible and get networking.


Public knowledge. Introducing….. the public sector (hold on to your seats)

Starter for 10

Fingers on buzzers. Who employs 5.7 million people and offers 19.1% of jobs throughout the UK?

Give up?

Surprise, surprise, it’s the public sector.–2012/sty-uk-public-sector-employment.html  – facts courtesy of the Office for National Statistics, itself part of that same sector, wouldn’t you just know it?

Er, what exactly is the public sector?

Clue’s in the name.  Any organisations funded through local or national taxes by the general population and existing for the public’s benefit. As opposed to the private sector which is financed and run by individuals or corporations to make a profit for themselves.  (Basically.)

Recently there has sprung up a hitherto unknown Third Sector – charities and not-for- profit bodies which are neither publicly funded nor privately owned.  But don’t let’s even go there.  Confusing, complicated. Instead take yourself to Prospects for a rundown, lowdown and breakdown of what the public sector covers.  To give you a teensy taster, it includes the civil service (government departments), local government (a civic centre near you), schools, colleges, universities, NHS hospital trusts… There’s more, much more, but you get the picture.

Which means what, jobswise?

How long have we got?  Opportunities range from cartographer to country ranger, human resources officer to heritage manager, patent examiner to probation officer, social worker to spy. Yep: even when he’s emerging from the surf in his skivvies Bond, James Bond works for the public sector.  As does nasty Malcolm Tucker and that nice Inspector Barnaby.

So pretty much any job you can think of and some you can’t (rights of way officer, anyone?) is in the public domain – even roles such as accountant, lawyer, software developer,  traditionally considered the preserve of private companies.

What’s the catch? (1)

Ah, so young, yet so cynical.  And so right.  The elephant in the room is money.  Salaries in the public sector are much lower than in the corporate world.

But then again (1)

Holidays are longer, the working day is shorter and sweeter, early starts and late nights  the exception not the rule.  So the actual hourly rate = probably not that much different.

What’s the catch? (2)

For grads, getting in can be gruelling: the selection process for both the NHS Management Scheme and the Civil Service Fast Stream is notoriously fiendish – tougher than  a hippo’s hide, in fact.

But then again (2)

There are other ways in: one-off graduate level vacancies abound and there’s always the option of going in at a slightly lower level and working your way up.  Happens all the time.

Want to know more?

Part-time and temporary jobs are another good way of sneaking in under the wire, but a word to the wise:  they may be advertised only on the relevant organisations’ websites, Facebook or Twitter links.

Go public. Go places.

Gill Sharp
Senior Careers Consultant
QM Careers & Enterprise Centre