How to Become a Civil Servant

Illustration of four people in a public service office

Civil service is the ideal career path for anyone who wants to use their expertise to serve their community. Civil servants enjoy interacting with the public and work hard to keep all levels of government operating smoothly. Whether you’re an accounting clerk for your local village or a federal intelligence analyst, it is your duty to uphold all laws and follow a strict code of conduct.

There are a wide variety of civil service jobs available, including legal counsel, translation services, information technology management, human resources, and foreign affairs. While the UK has a narrower classification of civil service roles, many countries like the US include a wide variety of government jobs including the police, educators and health services.

If you’d like to learn more about this popular career choice, read on for our step-by-step guide on how to become a civil servant.

1. Consider the pros and cons of civil service

Understanding your personality, goals, skills and weaknesses are important aspects of finding the right career. However, it’s also vital to understand the duties, environment, as well as the pros and cons of the job you’re interested in. Civil service jobs are highly coveted, for a good reason, but you need to make sure that some of the drawbacks aren’t a dealbreaker for you. Here are some pros and cons for your consideration:

Pros

  • Serving the community, upholding the law and contributing to peaceful foreign relations
  • Excellent benefits, including healthcare, paid time off and retirement funding. Many departments offer additional benefits similar to the private sector, like subsidized meals and childcare options
  • Better work-life balance opportunities with normal office hours or flexible scheduling, telecommuting options and several paid holidays
  • Job security, including transfers to different roles or civil servant offices if the current sector is underfunded
  • Opportunities to advance, or lateral moves to increase your skillset, depending on the department

Cons

  • Lower salary with limited growth compared to the private sector
  • Complicated bureaucracy and politics, which can make your job difficult and frustrating at times
  • Little room for promotion in some civil servant offices, especially because employee retention is so high

2. Do your research

Since there is such a wide array of civil service jobs available, initial steps to become a civil servant will depend on your areas of interest. Visit your country’s federal or local public service websites to research the general requirements for federal employment, as well as specific requirements per department.

Look for education, testing, certification and licensing prerequisites. Those working in the legal sector will need a paralegal or law degree, for instance, and licensure. Police and fire services have health and training requirements as well as physical skill tests.

Search official job postings, like those at of the UK and the US governments. Browse your subject of interest and see what types of roles you might take in a governmental position. This can help you choose your ideal career path as well as see what skills and qualifications each department is seeking.

3. Select a course of study

In most cases, you can select or continue a standard education course toward a bachelor’s or advanced degree. Law, marketing, business, accounting, information technology and other common education credentials will qualify you for many different roles as a civil servant.

Whatever subject area you choose, consider including relevant coursework in law and government. A language major could potentially pursue classes in immigration law or foreign affairs, for instance, to help open the door to federal jobs as an interpreter.

Internship and apprenticeship opportunities are also available for students, graduates, veterans and other groups. Both the US and the UK offer paid programmes that can fast track students into jobs and even promotions. If you’re looking for a career change, you don’t necessarily have to start at entry-level. The US government, for instance, allows those with private sector experience to transition directly into senior management roles within government if they meet the core qualifications.

4. Develop your skills

Aside from your education, you’ll want to cultivate the valuable job skills that every employer seeks. These include good oral and written communication, attention to detail and problem-solving. As a civil servant, you’ll be interacting with people of all different ages, ethnicities, cultures, abilities, and more. Consider coursework and training to hone your skills in customer service, teamwork, cultural awareness, negotiation and adaptability.

Civil servants serve the community and uphold the laws, so prospective candidates must value honesty, empathy and integrity in the workplace. The UK’s Civil Service code of conduct also asks for objectivity and impartiality. Research and study real-world scenarios that can test your ability to make fair and just decisions. Enlist a friend’s help to role-play and practice responding to these situations.

5. Search for job openings

Those in internship and apprenticeship programmes will typically be placed in or offered roles within relevant civil servant offices. Others interested in civil service can visit the online job boards for their local and federal governments. The different departments within the government typically have their own job postings as well.

Search the major job search websites for a broader cross-section of available jobs in your area of expertise. You can narrow it down to a certain region or search for opportunities throughout the country. You could also use our very own CareerAddict Jobs, to search for ‘civil service’ jobs and pinpoint available openings.

6. Prepare for civil service testing

To become a civil servant, you’ll need to pass the required tests. These can include subject aptitude, personality, and work simulations. Look for print and online practice guides to help you prepare. Community colleges and test prep centres offer courses to help you pass the commonly required tests, like the police exam or the CPA exam for accountants.

Prospective civil servants in the US must take the USA Hire exam, which includes questions on mathematics, reasoning skills, and reading comprehension. It is tailored to the job area you’re applying for and will also assess your work style and how you respond to certain scenarios. You can see a sample of questions included in the exam at USAHire’s website.

7. Be proactive about your background check

Civil servants are subject to a thorough background check, and in some cases, an even more stringent security clearance. You will be asked for documentation during various stages of the application, interview and hiring process. Get all your important paperwork together ahead of time, including identification documents, proof of residence, name change records, academic transcripts, previous employment details and references.

The department will perform a credit and criminal history check. If you have any issues, like a previous bankruptcy or a DUI, prepare an explanation. It’s better to be upfront about any problems before they are discovered via the background check. If possible, however, wait until you’ve had a positive interview before mentioning potential negatives.

Do your own background check so there won’t be any surprises. Get a copy of your credit report, driving record and any criminal record. Clear your social media profiles of anything that may seem unprofessional or inflammatory, or set them to private. Let your references know that they’ll be contacted, so they’re not caught unprepared.

8. Submit the application

Once you’ve found a job you’re interested in, see if you can apply online. Some federal civil service sites may require you to create an account. This way, you can easily store your information and apply to multiple listings. The applications will take you through several steps, and might include procedures to upload your identification documents, CV and other materials.

Fill in each section carefully and review your work. Enlist the help of a family member or friend to make sure you haven’t made errors or overlooked anything. The application may include instructions to take or schedule testing for your desired role. For example, the federal civil service in the UK also requires a personal statement to showcase your relevant skills and give examples of how you’ve utilised them in previous work.

9. Prepare for the interviews

For many civil service jobs, you’ll be scheduled for an interview with the supervisor for your department. Be prepared for specific job-related questions along with many of the standard interview queries about your background and work style. Higher-level roles may require a series of interviews and aptitude tests, including a situational judgement test or assessment centre.

Practice going over your resume and answering questions in a mock interview with a friend or family member. Consider recording the practice interview so you can evaluate any problems, like too many pauses in your answers or poor posture.

Another important element of interview preparation is to get everything ready ahead of time. This includes any ID, documentation and even the outfit you plan to wear. If you’re doing an in-person interview, make sure you have all the details on how to get to the appropriate civil servant office, where to park, etc.

For phone or video interviews, test your equipment and make sure you have the necessary software and logins. If possible, have a backup device ready in case of any technical issues.

10. Follow up

At the end of the interview, one of your last questions should be about the timeframe of the department’s job search. You should be prepared for a long wait, particularly if there will be a security clearance, which can take months to complete.

As an immediate follow-up to the interview, send a thank you email to your interviewer within 24 hours. Keep it simple, thanking them for the opportunity to speak with them and reinforcing your interest in the position. Be mindful of government regulations, however. Some departments may restrict contact with your interviewer during the hiring process.

Stick to the timeline and wait a week after the deadline if you haven’t heard back. Send a professional and concise message, focusing on your continued interest in the job. Stay polite; you don’t want to come across as demanding or pushy.

Competition can be fierce for civil servant jobs, so preparation and paying attention to every step of the process is vital. Do your research, gather all your important documents, and get ready to begin your career journey!

What area of civil service are you considering? Join the discussion at the comments section below and let us know!