I Spy: How to Land a Job with MI5, MI6 or GCHQ

By November 17, 2015Jobs

The placid, but intimidating glass building that seems to hover above the banks of the Thames is set to welcome some new faces. The UK government responded swiftly to the attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015: Britain is set to recruit 2,000 new spies into its security agencies.

Whether you’re a University graduate or a more seasoned professional, the effort to identify the right people to defend the United Kingdom from cyber (and other threats, including terrorism) is now underway.

Our advice here will focus primarily on graduate preparation for a future career in intelligence services (and we also delve closely into IT skill sets here). For those who are a bit further along in their professions, be sure to consult job postings on agency sites for a relevant position that utilises your previous technical expertise.

But first, how do we tell these agencies apart — and how does the work differ?


Sorting through the letters: MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.

The acronyms sound similar, so the specific roles of these agencies are oft-confused. So what differentiates them? To start, “MI” refers to Military Intelligence.

MI5 is the UK’s domestic counterintelligence and security agency.
MI6, however, focuses on providing foreign intelligence information.
GCHQ is a specialised agency that focuses on cyber defense, including cryptanalysis.

GCHQ, fascinatingly, was established during World War I and perhaps is best-known (historically) for its work at Bletchley Park, where it was renowned for its role in breaking German enigma codes.

There is no doubt much controversy around the ethical practices of these organisations in the present-day, but they’re beyond the scope of this particular article.


The ultimate preparation guide.

Prerequisites: In many cases — if not all — these agencies will require you to be a British national who has lived in the United Kingdom for several years prior to applying. Exact requirements vary between agencies, but ensure that you are eligible to work before continuing.


1. Pick an agency and a programme.

Each agency has a relevant recruitment page which breaks down the roles that are available, and how you might be suited to each. The first step involves making a decision: which of these agencies and career tracks are you most drawn to?

MI5: There are three listed development programmes: Intelligence Officer Development Programme (IODP); Intelligence and Data Analyst Development Programme (I&DADP) and the Technology Graduate Development Programme (TGDP).

They even have a helpful flow-chart that helps you decide what to choose. In addition, they also have a technical apprenticeship programme for school leavers.

MI6: From becoming a field agent to translating sensitive documents, MI6 provides graduates from varied backgrounds and courses with several potential career options. These are listed here.

GCHQ: As this agency focuses on analysing electronic communications, graduates should ideally have work experience or complete a relevant degree within computer science or a related discipline. As an aside, future foreign language analysts may also apply.


2. Keep your head down: what to study.

MI5 and GCHQ’s websites appear to emphasise technology-focused recruitment. Cybersecurity issues have never been more prominent, and it appears that a large proportion of the funding that has been allocated are for roles that prioritise analysing and protecting digital infrastructure.

However, as is demonstrated on MI6’s website, candidates may have studied various subjects. Pursuing a career as a language specialist, for instance, would necessitate fluency that might be facilitated by language-specific or related humanities degree.

It is critical that you thoroughly research the nature of each role: become familiar with the descriptions provided for each role (from administration to corporate roles), and determine what degree might be a good fit. If you’ve already started your degree, consider adding classes that are relevant to the profession you eventually aim to pursue.

Tip: Fascinated by the cybersecurity game? It’s time to start learning how to code. Several online resources can get you started, but you’ll have to go considerably far beyond these to make yourself truly worthy of selection!




3. Patience and perception: developing your superpowers.

Over the years, these agencies have tended to release entertaining puzzles and brainteasers for the general public to unravel. These are expertly designed to select for people who are patient and inquisitive: two qualities essential to any position within these environments. To properly prep yourself for the role, adopting a Sudoku, Cryptic Crossword or jigsaw puzzle addiction might pay dividends.

Tip: Need some practice getting started? Have a look at these.


4. Leaf through the right pages.

These agencies require candidates who have their finger on the pulse of global issues. It’s beneficial to be aware of situations that are relevant to UK security — and the simplest way to get up to speed is to develop a solid reading habit. We’d recommend perusing one of the following publications on a regular basis — and making it essential part of your morning commute or your evening wind-down routine.


The Economist
The Wall Street Journal
The Financial Times
Foreign Policy


5. Make your move.

Eventually, after all of the intense exam study periods and all-nighters, you’ll have to make your move. Remember our final tips as you work through the process:

– Expect the unexpected.
– Demonstrate your patience, perception and political knowledge (the 3 Ps).
– Emphasise your ability to work as part of a team.

Your Turn: Are there any suggestions or tips for entering these careers that we haven’t mentioned here? What other careers within are you interested in discovering more about? Contribute to the discussion in the comments — we’d love to hear from you.




  • Russell Bultitude says:

    I am searching the possibilities of a job in Britain’s security on behalf of my daughter. She has finished her degree in modern art at London Slade ( the first person to be offered a place at all five major art schools in London).
    Her mother is Swedish. I am British. I grew up in many RAF bases all over the world. My father worked with intelligence within the RAF and had a high security level. After returning from Singapore in 1971 my father worked in London in civvies until retiring from the RAF after 28 yrs to pursue a career in insurance. My daughter has become very attached to the UK and does not want to work in Sweden. Myself I worked in Sweden for nearly 20yrs and do not like their history or politics after learning how they were during WWII. I just want to know what chances and options there are for my daughter. She is currently working in Sweden but is not happy. I have read a lot concerning the long process of application but she asked if I could find some information for her as she is busy and doesn’t want anyone to know what she is thinking job wise.

    • The Forensic Outreach Team says:

      Hi Russell,

      Apologies for the delayed reply — we receive many comments and emails, so it takes a while to sift through them. Thanks for reading this article.

      We hope that you find what you’re looking for here — we’ve endeavoured to provide as many resources (links) where possible. All the best to your daughter. Do let us know if there are further topics you’d like explored in future posts.

  • Daniel says:

    Hi there, two questions really.
    Having just graduated, I’m currently searching for work to save for travelling and/or a Masters. Is there any specific short term work (one year) that would give relevant experience or transferable skills to pursue a intelligence role?

    Secondly, the aforementioned MA programme I am considering is in Security Studies. In your experience, how highly is this valued in the market for entry level jobs and how useful is this in regards to a career in security intelligence?


  • Liam brown says:

    Unfortunately I could not finish university but I was with in my last year and predicted a 2:1 degree and on the MI6 and MI5 Intelligence officer recruitment page says at least a 2:2 degree, is this on its own good enough ground to apply or what would be classified as relevant work experience

  • Hello there. I’m organising a Free-Learning Day at Dulwich College, London in March. Our theme is ‘Who Killed Christopher Marlowe?’ It was claimed that Marlowe was a spy for Queen Elizabeth. I’m wondering whether you might be interested in joining us for part of the day, to give a talk to our Year 10 boys re. studying forensics, the qualities needed to be a spy, what a career might entail…? Or basically anything that we could tailor to link in with the day. Our boys would love it! Many thanks.

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