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Public sector and civil service: career FAQs

Graduate careers in the public sector and civil service: getting a job, applications, working life and salaries.

How can I get a job in the public sector and civil service?

There are set procedures for the selection process for civil service and public sector jobs. All public sector jobs have to be advertised in the public domain. This includes newspapers as well as government websites such as the Public Appointments Service and the the Northern Ireland Civil Service recruitment website.

Bear in mind that not all roles will be advertised as graduate positions, but that doesn’t mean they’re not suitable for graduates.

For those who are interested in traineeships, the European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO) organises competitions for roles within EU institutions. These include jobs as administrators, economists, conference interpreters, translators and lawyers with EU institutions. For example, you can apply for a traineeship at the European Commission. These traineeships are offered twice a year and competition is fierce.

What are the different areas of work?

Each area in the public and civil service concentrates on a specific area of policy or service, such as education, transport, pensions or fraud investigation, and employs people for their specialist knowledge.

In the civil service, you may work in a Government Department. Departments are headed by a minister or, in the case of non-ministerial departments, by a senior civil servant. These departments are responsible for devising policies and ensuring that they are implemented.

Another area where you may find yourself working is in a government agency: an independent organisation that carries out the policies decided upon by government. You may also find yourself working in non-departmental public bodies, such as a regional development agency and national authority. These are not part of government departments and are not staffed by civil servants.

What’s involved in the application process?

Most public sector jobs use application forms as the first part of the selection process. Some employers will accept applications electronically but be careful, as some will only accept your application by post.

You may be required to undertake an assessment test (verbal and numerical) and also an interview. Assessment tests are not a requirement for all job roles, but if you do have one you can find help on the Public Appointments Service website, which has hints and tips on how to prepare for an assessment centre and interview in the civil service and public sector.

When should I apply?

This sector practises continuous recruitment so there are no specific closing dates. Employers will ask you to submit your application by 5.00 pm, close of the business on the deadline dates. For European civil service traineeships, there are a number of intakes throughout the year with closing dates and you will find details on their websites.

What qualifications and skills do I need to work in the public sector and civil service?

You may need a first or second class honours degree. For European traineeships, you will need fluency in an additional European language. The specific skills needed will depend on the area you are working in, but general skills you will find useful are problem solving skills, communication (written and verbal), teamwork and an ability to work on your own initiative and take ownership of projects. For some jobs, you may also need research and analytical skills and a strong numerical ability.

What are the opportunities for professional development?

The public sector and civil service jobs have set grades which you move up, based on your length of service. There are also opportunities to move internally within the public service, gaining more responsibility and money along the way.

There is no typical career path, however, because of the diverse nature of the profession and the range of jobs, roles and departments. People will tend to pursue different routes, depending on their own strengths and interests. Movement between internal departments and between different local councils/authorities is quite common and can be a good way of gaining broader experience and advancing your career. It is possible to work your way up into senior management positions, although promotion depends not only on your ability, but also the size of the organisation and the frequency of vacancies.

What are the salaries in the public sector and civil service?

Salaries are dependent on your entry level and normally increase depending on your length of service. Grade titles and scales vary depending on where you work in the public sector.

What is working life like?

Some jobs may involve spending days in an office, mainly in front of a computer; some will include lots of meetings with clients; others might be spent outdoors with a group of visitors. If you like variety in your work, you can choose a position that encompasses a range of tasks. Depending on your role you may need to work after hours, but the normal working time is 9.00–5.00.

Public sector workplaces are usually unionised and you can expect good conditions of employment with opportunities for flexible working arrangements, career breaks and job sharing. There are often good training opportunities and encouragement for furthering your education, including study and exam leave. There is generally better job security than in the private sector.

Where can I find further information?

Public Affairs Ireland Member organisation promoting lifelong learning in the public service.
Government of Ireland Government information online.
The Northern Ireland Executive
Local Government Talent UK jobs in local government (includes Northern Ireland)
List of government departments and agencies on the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment website