One PhD’s decision-making and success story, continued

Update from my last blog post in May of this year:


As I said in my last post I got through to the first Civil Service Fast Stream Statistician Assessment Centre.  This was pretty tough but they were purely testing your ability to analyse, collect data and disseminate information.  It consisted of about a day’s worth of tasks.  In between each task you sit with the rest of the candidates in the common room where everyone is in the same boat as you.  There are quite a few people so I found I ended up talking with the same 3-4 people throughout the day.  The detail that they provide in advance is pretty comprehensive, and I wouldn’t really have much more to add since I would imagine the tasks change, but here’s an example of a tough question from the interview:


Question: Write a regression equation (not difficult for maths student maybe but definitely for some whose background is psychology – I just know which buttons to press on the computer!).


My approach: I knew they were going to ask about regression because I indicated in advance that I knew about it.   I had more revised the rationale for using it and what it does rather than the underlying maths.  I just gave it my best guess and instead of writing the mathematical symbols just wrote words instead.  They seemed OK with that, and said to me, in quite a friendly tone, “Is it safe to say your background is social science?”


It can be a bit daunting sitting in the common room with people who have done Master’s degrees in statistics etc. but you have to comfortable with what you don’t know or what you can’t be expected to know, as much as what you do know.  They are very happy to accept applicants from social science backgrounds so I went into it thinking, “I’m not a mathematician, I can’t be expected to know these things” and I found this really kept me relaxed.  Moreover, don’t forget that people with maths backgrounds may be as strong on the data collection questions as those from the social science.


The day is pretty intense (10.30am-5pm and I never had more than 15 minutes of break but I think that may be because they were running behind).  You just have to keep going: I got a good night of sleep before had a good breakfast and a couple of cups of tea/coffee when I could!  In terms of task preparation, the day is all about statistics (with exception of one written task for which you can’t really prepare) so revise your basic stats, maths and data collection knowledge – especially the things you indicated you knew about in advance!


I was successful at this stage and was selected to attend the final assessment centre.  Personally, I found this day harder than the first, not least because it’s more like 8am-5pm.  The other reason I found it more difficult is that the first assessment centre tested your technical knowledge, whereas this one tests soft skills such as creative thinking and influencing people so it’s really difficult to gauge how you’re doing.


The second one is structured into a series of tasks testing different competencies and it’s best to approach it as though you’re at work.  There’s lots of writing, a group task, a presentation and an interview.  They give ample information about these and are really transparent about what they are testing and when.  All the assessors were really nice and there’s not an awful lot you can do to prepare, except brush up on the competencies being assessed in the interview (I found attending the Careers Service really helpful for this as they can run through a practice interview with you; the consultants have attended Fast Stream Assessment Centres so are very knowledgeable about the sort of questions that come up).


Unfortunately I wasn’t successful at this last assessment centre but one good outcome is that they are going to send me feedback.  I have my established ways of working and I just approached the whole thing event with my normal approach. If I were to do it again I wouldn’t change that, so I suspect it was just a lack of organisational ‘fit’, rather than a terrible performance on my part.


I had written off working for the Civil Service for the time being, when a couple of weeks ago they sent me an email offering me a position at the Home Office.  They have a system whereby if you are successful at the Statistician Assessment Centre but ultimately not offered a Fast Stream position you may be offered a Statistical Officer position (depending on your assessment centre mark), with no further assessment required.


I went to meet them recently at the Home Office and was really impressed.  Although the starting pay is a bit lower than the Fast Stream, your opportunities for progression are not impaired.  They say it might take a year or so longer to reach the grade 7 level (which is a grade everyone keeps talking about where your salary is about £40-45k).  Having said that, they acknowledged I have a PhD and were keen to stress that I should tell them if I get bored and that it may be possible to progress at the same rate as the Fast Stream.


The day job didn’t seem that different to what a Fast Streamer would do.  On the Fast Stream you’d be expected to move every 18 months or so and although there’s no imperative to do so in the position I’ve been offered it is still perfectly possible.  Indeed, they were very open about it.  The good thing about the Government Statistical Service (GSS) is that all the statistical staff in every department work for the GSS.  So you can move government departments (Home Office to Ministry of Defence for example) without moving from the organisation you work for and that means you can be quite open with your manager about your wishes.  So all in all, the main difference seemed to be the pay and that I suspect the Fast Streamers get a little more resource to develop themselves.  Also if you do get to this stage and you are very set on the Fast Stream you can always apply again from within the Civil Service; the people I spoke to were very happy to support that.


On an unrelated note, I have also been offered a position to stay at King’s to continue with research at a post-doctoral level for one year.  I’ve had some good results come out of my PhD and I’m lucky enough that my supervisor has some big projects on the go.  I’m just weighing up the pros and cons of each of my options now and trying to make a decision.

Byron Creese