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  • Writer's pictureAnnie Maciver

Impactful government career guide - part 1

Updated: Jun 14, 2022


  1. Your dream job is something that:

    • You’re good at

    • Helps others

    • Has good work conditions

2. You can find this dream job by exploring your options, investing in what looks good to an employer and focusing on the most urgent social problems.

3. Working in the civil service could be a dream job for high performers and/or specialists who are able to tolerate bureaucracy in return for the potential to impact the most important social issues.

It’s easy to think that the real power lies elsewhere.

But everyone has huge potential to change the country – and the world – for the better. We can help save lives, increase prosperity and safeguard the planet for future generations.

You have 80,000 hours in your career. Spend ten minutes reading this career guide to find out how to secure your dream job, progress in your career and have a positive social impact working in the Civil Service.

What a dream job is (and isn’t)

Our friends at 80,000 Hours reviewed over 60 studies about what made a dream job. They found three things that had a bigger impact on life satisfaction than pay. We’ve summarised the three key factors below but you can also read their article or full evidence review.

First, you should be good at your work. When we do things we’re good at, we achieve more and feel happier as a result. We’re also in a stronger position to negotiate better working conditions.

Second, your work should help others. When we help others, we feel purpose and feel happier as a result.

Third, the conditions in which you work should make it more enjoyable, or at least not unpleasant. A dream job has more positives (engaging work and supportive colleagues) than negatives (unfair pay, a lengthy commute or unsocial hours).

Does this sound good to you?

Whether you think this is life-changing advice or just plain common sense – you’re probably thinking that the difficult part is finding a dream job rather than knowing the components. Read on!

How to find a cure for cancer, a soulmate and a dream job

Take a minute to think about the decisions you make in your life. They range from buying milk to choosing someone to spend the rest of your life with. Or to buy pineapple juice, not milk, and subscribe to a less conventional lifestyle… Now think about how often you make those decisions.

The more important the decision, the fewer times we’ll have to make it. As a result, we don’t practise making big decisions. We’re better at knowing which milk to buy than who we will make us happy in marriage.

When we don’t know the answer to big questions, we do experiments. So treat finding your dream job like an experiment. Or if you’d rather – like how we should approach dating using apps like Tinder, Bumble, Hinge etc.

Again our friends at 80,000 Hours have done the leg work for us. We’ve condensed their research on how to find your dream job into five stages below:

First, explore to find the work you could be really good at. Even through self-reflection, it’s hard to work out what you’re going to be good at before you’ve done it. Explore careers by speaking to people working in an area, shadowing on the side of what you’re doing already or completing work placements if you’re early on in your career.

You wouldn’t marry the first person you matched with on Tinder – explore rather than commit to early career choices.

Second, focus on the most urgent social problems to help others effectively. You can have more impact by finding a job which tackles a problem big in scale, neglected and solvable. Problems of this type in government could for example be found by looking at cross-departmental issues like social care, long term issues like bio risk and structural questions like improving policy decision-making.

We can have impact in any job – but we’re more likely to a greater impact in some over others. Similarly, we can fall in love with someone who doesn’t speak the same language as us. We may be more likely to fall for someone who shares our values and interests, and who is looking for similar things in life.

Third, invest in your career capital. Career capital puts you in a better position to secure and transition between your dream jobs in the future. Career capital includes skills, connections, credentials and your portfolio.

Traditional ways of gaining career capital in the civil service include:

  • getting promoted;

  • working for private office, or departments or teams with a reputation for high performance;

  • gaining qualifications or experience of a valuable transferable skill such as data science or procurement.

Less traditional activities include:

  • Volunteering outside of work;

  • Getting experience in the private sector;

  • Starting a corporate project;

  • Maintaining a popular blog.

Developing career capital is like having a flawless first date outfit, good Whatsapp chat and sufficient relationship experience to overcome common pitfalls. It’s how we show we want something and are reliable enough to be a good bet.

Fourth, adapt your plan to find what makes sense for you. Create a strong feedback loop. Review your progress, using the strengths you discover you have, what career capital would be useful for your plans, and which opportunities would suit you over others. Find ways to practise and get better at career decisions. Make careful decisions, adapt your plan as you learn more and find a better career over time.

Challenge yourself to consider the real you, not an idealised version of yourself. Are you overly attached to prestige, recognition or proving yourself to that teacher who always thought you wouldn’t amount to anything? What is most important to you?

Every argument or breakup – be it yours or someone else’s – helps you understand how to be happy in a relationship. Feedback loops help us transition into better and better jobs – and develop meaningful partnerships.

Fifth, work with a community to be more successful. Communities can help us find jobs, get up to date information and become more motivated. We can also work with people with different skills sets to achieve more than we can do individually. Looking for a relationship on your own isn’t much fun. Being part of a group where you can share up to date information, wing man each other and keep us motivated is much more fun. To engage with the Impactful Government Careers community join our email list here.

Career stages

How you focus on these stages changes as your career progresses.

Towards the start of your career you will mostly be exploring: building an understanding of what you want, what your skills are, what career choices look best for you and what social issues you can have the biggest social impact by working on, based on your values.

Never stop exploring, but as you gain an understanding of your needs you can start progressing towards the jobs you know you can do well in, building up the relevant skills and other career capital.

You can make a difference at every stage but, most likely, your ability to have a social impact will rise towards the end of your career, e.g. when you are working at a senior level in a job you can do well in an area you care about.

Is the Civil Service your dream job?

If you’re reading this, you’re probably already in the Civil Service or thinking about joining.

Jobs in Government offer opportunities for huge social impact and job satisfaction – particularly if you are successful enough to secure an influential role tackling the world’s most pressing problems and you have a clear ‘edge’ that helps you have more impact in that role than others.

You are more likely to enjoy working in Government if you enjoy building career capital through knowledge and connections. And if working in a supportive environment with reasonable hours is important to you.

However, you’re likely to be frustrated by working in government if you want to see the direct impact of your work, if you struggle in conformist, bureaucratic cultures or want to work in the private sector in future.

How does that sound? Happy you ‘swiped right’ on Government? Part 2 explores how to build a socially impactful career in government.

Read more

If you want to read more on the topics above you can also read articles by 80,000 Hours on choosing an area to focus on, which jobs help people the most, finding the right career, making your career plan and joining a community.

(This post was originally published on the HIPE website in 2019)

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