Looking to combine a civil service career with further study? Here's what you should consider

Higher education courses are almost always enriching and valuable, but what if you want to work in the civil service at the same time?
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By Tim Gibson

22 Mar 2024

“The civil service is a learning environment. It’s a place where intellectual growth is valued, and staff are given time to pursue it.”

These are the words of Patrick Keenan, a senior policy adviser in the Treasury who recently completed a postgraduate course at King’s College London about the UK’s economic policymaking. His place was funded, with time given to attend weekly seminars as well as study leave to produce his final essay. Keenan says the support was empowering, bringing advantages for him, his colleagues and his employer. 

This speaks of a culture of learning that is embedded across Whitehall. Civil servants are encouraged to deepen their knowledge, enhance their skills and engage in critical enquiry. As Keenan says: “It’s a context where you can circulate a research paper or think tank report and know colleagues will appreciate it and read it. Particularly in departments like the Treasury, it feels as if we’re in close contact with the academic world.”

A result of this culture is that civil servants have plenty of opportunity to pursue further study. For many, it’s an important part of their career development, helping them grow professionally and retain interest in their role. So how do you make the most of the opportunities available, balancing work, study and life in a way that is sustainable and energising? 

Choose wisely

“People pursue further study for different reasons,” says Dr Myra Evans, a director in the School of Social Sciences at UWE Bristol and an expert in adult learning. “For some, it is closely tied to career advancement: they need further qualifications to achieve their goals. For others, it’s about the sheer joy of study. They simply love learning and relish any opportunity to do so.”

The important thing, says Evans, is to understand your motivation. That is what will sustain you during the early mornings or late nights when you’re trying to squeeze in coursework around your other commitments. “If you don’t have a sense of purpose, you’ll definitely struggle to lean in when the going gets tough. It is important to understand why you’re signing up for further study – then choose a course that’s right for you.”

In the context of the civil service, the latter deliberation is usually straightforward. You’re most likely to secure funding for a programme that benefits your employer. So unless you intend to self-fund, your range of options probably won’t include that PhD in Medieval Witchcraft you always fancied after your undergraduate degree. 

“You have to be realistic about the funding set-up,” explains Rushabh Haria, another Treasury policy adviser and KCL alumnus. “You’ll need to build a business case that demonstrates the value of your intended course. If you can do that, you’ll find managers to be very supportive of your plans.”

Applied learning

It is with this in mind that civil servants like Keenan and Haria looked to KCL, which offers a suite of programmes aimed squarely at those responsible for running the country. Through the Strand Group, the university has long leveraged its central London location to bring politicians and policymakers together for extended critical conversations. Such encounters form the basis of its postgraduate provision, which includes discrete modules in topics including the history of HM Treasury, the history of the civil service, and the inner workings of No.10 Downing Street. 

KCL has now launched an MA in Government Studies, which brings together the relevant elements of its provision in a single programme. The course offers students an opportunity to learn from experienced academics, as well as people like Ed Balls, Alastair Campbell and Clare Lombardelli: those who have been at the centre of government and can speak from first-hand experience about the challenges of making and implementing policy.

“Our focus is threefold,” explains Dr Michelle Clement, a lecturer on the programme who is also researcher in residence at No.10. “We consider policy, process and the personalities involved: the three elements that civil servants juggle as they try to improve citizens’ lives.”

Martin Stolliday, manager of the Strand Group, says that feedback suggests the course helps students to appreciate the impact they can have as civil servants. “We’ve developed a blended approach to study, which combines the academic rigour of history with a real-world element. Students love the opportunity to learn from big hitters in their world,” he says. 

Five questions to ask before signing up for further study

1. Do you have time? 
Your managers may give you some study leave, but you’ll probably need to work in the evenings or at weekends to get the most from your experience. If that feels unsustainable, could you reduce your hours to make time for study? 
2. Who’s paying? 
If you can’t secure funding from your employer, you’ll need to find another source. Some institutions like KCL offer studentships for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to undertake postgraduate study, or you could use savings or a loan. You need to be sure you can afford your course – especially if you intend to reduce your working hours to make time for it.
3. What do you want to achieve? 
A full masters programme is a big commitment. If you want to develop your knowledge or enjoy some intellectual stimulation, but don’t have capacity for one or two years of full-or part-time study, a shorter course may be a good place to start. Many universities offer their masters modules as standalone short courses – something KCL does with its MA modules to facilitate professional development. This gives participants more flexibility.
4. Who else is affected?
Your decision to pursue further study will have an impact on other people. Your family and friends will see less of you, and your colleagues may have to take up some slack if you reduce your hours or take study leave. Consider the wider effect of your decision and make sure everyone’s on board. It’ll save difficult conversations further down the line.
5. Is it time for a change?
Sometimes, a desire for further study is a sign you want to change direction in your career. If that sounds like you, it may be worth considering a more fundamental lifestyle shift. Could you work part-time while you retrain, or quit and join a course full-time? Who knows? You may end up with that PhD in Medieval Witchcraft, after all.

A lasting impression

It seems likely that job satisfaction and productivity is enhanced when staff have developed their knowledge, skills and expertise through further study. In the case of Sydney Joyce, from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, that entailed a full MA in History and Politics, also from KCL. She self-funded but says her managers were accommodating when it came to balancing the pressures of work and study, because they saw the utility of her qualification.

“My experience of part-time study was that it helped me see the bigger picture in policymaking, and the work of government more generally,” says Joyce. “I learned from amazing guest speakers and talented academics who broadened my knowledge and helped me think in fresh ways. That was a big gain from the experience, alongside the stimulation of returning to an academic environment.”

For Dr Evans, undertaking further study was a clear step in establishing her professional identity. As a successful broadcast journalist, she was invited to deliver some occasional teaching at UWE Bristol. “I soon realised I wanted to do more of it and would need a postgraduate qualification to secure a permanent post,” she explains. “I returned to the classroom and graduated with a masters at the age of 40. It started a whole new chapter in my career: I’ve worked at the university ever since, and recently completed my doctorate.”

Whatever the end goal, a common theme emerges from those who join a course: it’s a life-giving experience, in which you make connections with your fellow students that last beyond the programme itself. Keenan says his course helped him establish a network in the Treasury after he joined mid-career. Joyce makes a similar point: “I found my people on my MA, and have a strong network of alumni from the programme. This is helpful professionally, but it was also great support when assignments weren’t going well, or I lacked motivation.”

In fact, motivation doesn’t seem to have been in short supply for Joyce any more than it was for Keenan and Haria. And while they’re not unaware of the potential positive impact of their studies on their career, they all agree this wasn’t their main reason for enrolling. “I was interested in learning for learning’s sake,” says Joyce. “I genuinely enjoyed writing my assignments, even though doing them meant having a quieter social life for a couple of years.”

Making connections

Besides, study can itself have a social element, as Keenan points out. “We’d quite often grab coffee or drinks after a seminar, and continue the conversation,” he says. “It was nice to be with like-minded people, talking about stuff we all found genuinely fascinating.”

That sense of connection has endured, with the Strand Group offering plenty of events to keep current, former and prospective students engaged. “It does feel like we’re part of a community,” says Haria. “And it’s always nice when people thinking of signing up for a course ask about my experience. I tell them to go for it!”

Such is the reality of working for an organisation that values intellectual endeavour. Choose the right course, and it’s clear civil servants can expect to be supported in pursuing further study. “Make your case and get stuck in,” concludes Haria. “It’s a win-win for you and your department.” 




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