In this Career Insights blog, YAIA’s Careers Officer Kate Purcell outlines the graduate recruitment process for the public service and explores strategies for success.
As we near the end of our academic career, we naturally turn our minds to jobs. The Australian Public Service is the largest and most diverse employer in Australia. A career as a public servant or working closely with the public sector can open opportunities to have a diverse career and make a real impact on the lives of Australians and the world. This article outlines graduate programs, in particular those in the Commonwealth Government, and breaks down what is often considered a daunting application process.
Values of a Public Servant in the Westminster system
The Australian Public Service (APS), as governed by the Public Service Act 1999, is an
'apolitical public service that is efficient and effective in serving the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public'.
While specific values vary across Departments, public servants are obliged to serve the government of the day with integrity, impartiality and provide ‘frank and fearless advice’ to the government on some of the most significant questions facing Australia: social welfare, foreign affairs, public health, fiscal policy to name a few. The Australian Public Service Commission articulates the expectations of public services: Commitment to service, impartiality, accountability, respect, ethics and integrity. Ultimately, the public service is a driver of Australia’s thriving democracy. As an officer of the service, you can make a critical impact, be it great or small, to Australia’s current and future prosperity. When applying for graduate opportunities, it is important to try to demonstrate your commitment to these fundamental values.
What are Graduate programs in the Australian Public Service?
Most Departments and Agencies of the Australian Public Service offer entry-level programs to recruit talented people to their workforce. Programs vary in length, size of cohort, immersion opportunities and by type of work. Many offer ‘streams’ of specialisation, which can be generalist (mainly policy), law, economics, corporate and management (including human resources), technical and specialist streams. A key feature and benefit of graduate programs are the rotations throughout the year into different divisions and teams across the Department. This gives a breadth of experience in a range of roles and can often help broaden the understanding bureaucracy, the Department and your personal skills and interests.
Generally APS graduate programs take place in Canberra, where Departments have their central offices. Many programs support their new recruits financially to relocate to the territory if arriving from interstate. The roles are paid, and many offer ongoing roles upon successful completion of the graduate program.
Benefits of Graduate Programs
An APS graduate program offers many privileges and opportunities. These include a guided introduction to work life and the APS, a cohort of peers to meet and learn with (often for those who have moved to Canberra, this is a key way to meet people), and dedicated training and development opportunities to acclimatise to professional life and extend skills critical for success as a public servant.
Eligibility for graduate programs are largely similar - usually they require Australian Citizenship or Permanent Residency, the ability to attain and hold a security clearance, and have at least a Bachelor level qualification with a minimum credit average. However, graduate programs are generally open to all ages and qualifications.
Graduate programs recruit once per year, usually between March and October for commencement the following year (January/February). Applications can take up to nine months and involve progressing through several rounds that narrow down the applicant pool (explained below). The process is competitive, and many applicants apply across multiple years to be successful. But that’s no reason to not apply. The process is valuable in and of itself, testing a spectrum of skill sets and capabilities. In 2021, there are three ways to apply:
Directly to departments and agencies offering their graduate programs;
Once for the Australian Government Graduate Recruitment combined application, nominating a specific stream: generalist, economics, data, digital, human resources or STEM; or
Through the Indigenous Graduate Pathway for all programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander applicants.
Rounds of Applications
Graduate program recruitment is characterised by rounds. Usually, the first step is to submit an initial application, which may include a personal statement or a pitch, response to a question such as why you would like to be part of the program, CV and/or cover letter. Subsequent rounds vary between programs, but generally involve a combination of:
Cognitive ability tests, usually conducted remotely, online;
Work-based tasks or interactive programs that test professional working ability, often gamified;
Online interview, sometimes with a panel but mostly “one-way” interviews of recorded answers to questions asked virtually;
Writing tasks; and
Shortlisted applicants are often invited to travel to Canberra or their nearest capital city (expenses paid) to attend an assessment centre, which involves a combination of group tasks, in-person panel interviews, writing and sample work tasks.
Successful applicants will then need to complete the process of obtaining a security clearance prior to commencing at the Department.
Disability Pathways and Reasonable Adjustments
Disability pathways and reasonable adjustments help to improve equity during the recruitment process and support employees to thrive while in the APS. Graduate programs will consider requests for reasonable adjustments, which can include:
Providing accessible or alternative formats to recruitment materials and stages;
Adjustments to psychometric testing and online interviews, including additional time; or
Ensuring the assessment centre caters to your needs.
This is best done by contacting the relevant graduate recruitment team to discuss your specific needs.
Tips for Thriving During the Graduate Application Process
#1 Be selective: Select and apply for the programs that fit your skills, interests and ambitions. Try not to apply for every program. Instead, stick with those you can see yourself in to give you the best chance at success.
#2 Read up: It’s important to thoroughly research the Department/s you are applying for. Read White Papers, annual reports and commentary from the Departments so you understand and can speak to the organisation's priorities, work programme and challenges. This may be particularly useful when preparing for interviews.
For APS graduate programs, you can also check out Cracking the Code to understand the skills graduates need. Graduate Australia helpfully profiles the best organisations for graduates and has must-read articles with further tips to support your applications.
#3 Prepare and practice: Each stage of graduate applications tests different skills. Try to get familiar with the types of questions and time-pressures of psychometric testing, the awkwardness of one-way interviews and the pressure of in-person interviews, the process may still be uncertain but you can approach it with greater confidence.
#4 Reach out: If you’re not sure whether the APS is for you or what Department/s to apply for, reach out to public servants in your network, including people you know, find on LinkedIn or come across at your university or workplace. They can offer insights on the culture, lifestyle and work of a public servant and may help you find your best fit!
#5 Take care of yourself and keep perspective: For those still studying, graduate applications tend to coincide with university semesters - adding pressure to the process. Maintaining good mental health and a healthy perspective on the process is essential.
Please, please, please stay away from online forums (you know what I’m talking about)! From my own experience, more often than not the information is inaccurate, and propels negative feedback loops and anxiety. You have these articles, you don’t need those forums! And if you have any more specific questions, see Tip #4 or chat to the YAIA Careers Team!
#6 Perseverance and resilience: When applying for competitive graduate programs, it’s important to know some techniques for dealing with competition and rejection. Thankfully YAIA’s Career Officer Bayan Yazdani recently published Rejection, or Retrospection? The Blessing We Fear that is sure to have useful tips to keep the process in perspective.
The Wrap Up
Graduate programs are great introductions to the public service - but don’t be disheartened if you’re unsuccessful. Approach the application as a learning experience, reflect on the process and take away key insights about yourself for future applications.
There are many pathways and careers you can take. Public service graduate programs are just one. The APS has many opportunities for entry, such as:
Internships, placements, and paid vacation opportunities, for example at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet; and
Direct entry through roles advertised on APS Jobs.
State and territory governments also provide graduate and entry level programs, including with career opportunities working on international relations and robust policymaking. It’s worth also checking out the private sector (including consulting firms that work with the government), academic and think tank sectors, and civil society organisations that offer diverse opportunities to work in and with the public service.
Keep aiming high and look broadly for jobs and opportunities after graduating (tip: many can be found on YAIA’s JIO Board). You can also check out YAIA’s accompanying blog on Graduate Programs in the Realm of International Affairs for specific details on the graduate programs in international affairs available across the public and private sectors.
Finally, if you want to have a chat with our YAIA’s Career Team about any aspect of this article and beyond, don’t hesitate to reach out! Good luck and just keep applying!