GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) is a Government security agency focused on gaining intelligence about threats through communication, especially online.
The history of the modern GCHQ began in naval and military signals during World War One, and the organisation started as the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) in 1919. With the threat of another war in 1939, GC&CS moved to Bletchley Park, and was instrumental in saving the lives of countless troops and civilians through intercepting transmissions and codebreaking. In 1945, after World War Two, the organisation changed its name to GCHQ and continued to be at the forefront of intelligence development, including Public Key Cryptography in the '70s, which is the basis of secure online transactions today.
GCHQ is on a mission to keep Britain safe, by protecting our forces, preventing terrorism and crime, and shielding against cyber attacks.
Careers At GCHQ
GCHQ is a secret service, much like MI5 and MI6, and this means that there are not many details about what to expect from a career in this particular branch of Civil Service, but the GCHQ careers website does have a good selection of information as well as basic details about what it is like to work there, and the available roles.
GCHQ employees work across seven sites, with the majority in the headquarters at Cheltenham. Other locations include Bude, Harrogate, Scarborough, Manchester, London, and Lincolnshire.
Although most people believe that GCHQ only employs mathematicians and analysts, there are a wide range of opportunities available for candidates from several educational and employment backgrounds. These include:
- Computer Network Operations
- Corporate Services
- Applied Research
- Project Management
- IT Services
- Technology and Engineer
- Information Assurance
- Knowledge and Information
- Language Analysts
There are a number of opportunities for early careers in GCHQ, including early careers and experienced professionals. The organisation is dedicated to finding, supporting and developing the brightest minds in STEM for their available roles, which is great for students and graduates who can get involved in summer schools, degree-level apprenticeships, and graduate positions throughout the organisation. There are bursaries available for students who meet the criteria, too.
How To Get Hired At GCHQ
There are a few basic requirements that must be met before you can be considered for a position at GCHQ. Every applicant must be resident in the UK and a UK citizen, and there are extensive vetting procedures that will include criminal history, financial background and drug use.
For most roles, a 2:2 degree or higher is needed; for specific analyst, language, or technology roles a 2:1 or the equivalent is needed in a relevant subject.
GCHQ looks for people from diverse backgrounds in their collaborative environment, and as an organisation the belief is that great minds don't think alike. This means that individual strengths are recognised and sharing of ideas is encouraged.
GCHQ Application Process Stages
There are several stages to the application process at GCHQ, and the details of these are only given to applicants when they reach each milestone. This means that although we know the basic details of what to expect, there will be some information that remains a secret.
GCHQ has a robust candidate screening process because of the nature of the work, which means that it can take a while between stages before you will find out whether you have been successful or not.
The first stage is to register your details in the candidate profile. Basic contact information should be included here, as well as details about your qualifications and experience.
Some vetting information is also taken at this stage, such as details of your immediate family.
There are some motivational questions here too, and according to GCHQ you can expect it to take around 60 minutes to complete this first stage.
If you are successful, you will be invited to take several psychometric tests. The tests you will face will depend entirely on the role you have applied for, but you can expect to take these either online at home and in your own time, or in person at a specified test centre.
GCHQ Verbal Reasoning Test
Verbal reasoning tests assess your ability to quickly read, understand and analyse the information given in text form.
Usually, you will be presented with a paragraph of text, usually, in formal or business-speak, and are asked a question based on that information. You need to pick the right answer from a multiple-choice selection.
While the language content of the text might be complicated, there is no need to 'guess' or use previous knowledge to answer, the information is provided in the paragraph. The time pressure and test conditions are what makes questions like this difficult, but with practice you can improve your performance.
GCHQ Numerical Reasoning Test
Despite the name, numerical reasoning tests are not as much a test of your mathematical ability, but an assessment of the way you can manipulate data provided in different formats.
In a numerical reasoning assessment, you will be provided with figures in a chart, table, or graph. There will be a question about this data, which will need some form of mathematical operation to work out - although this is usually basic maths like multiplication, addition, subtraction or division. You will need to have a working knowledge of percentages, ratios and fractions, but in most cases, you won't need a maths degree to be successful.
The answers are presented as multiple choice and the test is likely to have strict time limits for extra pressure.
GCHQ Logical Reasoning Test
Logical reasoning assessments are a test of the way you can solve a problem using logic. They can be presented in several ways, but are usually presented as two related sentences, with a conclusion based on the information in the sentences. You have to decide if this conclusion follows, or does not follow.
This assessment needs no prior knowledge, as the information is provided in the question.
GCHQ Diagrammatic Reasoning Test
The diagrammatic reasoning assessment is testing your ability to make decisions based on limited and unfamiliar information.
Presented with a series of images, you will need to select the missing image in the sequence from the multiple-choice answers. To be successful, you will need to quickly and accurately assess the sequence to discover the pattern that links the images, and then use that information to choose the right answer.
GCHQ Personality Test
Personality tests are designed to measure an individual in terms of their work behaviour and personality traits.
As pre-screening tests for employment, personality tests are used to determine whether you match an 'ideal candidate' persona for the role you have applied for. This is determined by the organisation that you have applied for and means that in these assessments there are no right or wrong answers.
Most personality tests need you to be self-aware, as you will be presented with a number of statements and have to decide if they describe you - or not. They are usually untimed, but should be answered as honestly as possible, which means you need to give the first answer that comes to you rather than trying to answer in the way you think GCHQ would want you to answer.
Depending on the role that you have applied for, you might have more than one face-to-face or phone interview - and it might be with just one recruiter or an entire panel.
In the interview, you will be asked questions about your qualifications, experience, and skills as presented in your initial application.
You will be asked some competency-based questions too, where you will be expected to provide examples that demonstrate your competency. These are based on the competencies that GCHQ look for in their employees, which are:
- Working With and Leading Others.
- Contribution to Delivery
- Managing Customer Relationships
- Corporate Vision and Efficiency
- Change and Innovation
- Analysis and Decision Making
- Communication and Knowledge Sharing.
An important part of the application process is to pass a strict vetting process. This means you will need to fill out an extensive questionnaire about your family, friends, and interests so they can be checked. You will need to pass a drug test, your health and wellness will be assessed, and you will need to have a financial background check.
Vetting can take a long time, so this is where applicants need to be patient. These checks are essential to maintaining the security and integrity of the organisation, so it is important to be completely honest as any false information could lead to issues including loss of job.
Tips To Get Hired At GCHQ
Demonstrate Interest And Willingness
GCHQ wants to hire the brightest and best people who really want to make a difference in protecting our forces, and Britain as a whole.
Throughout the interview process, make sure that you have done the research, know what is expected of you, and be willing to take on the challenges set.
Be Prepared for Vetting
Vetting is an essential part of the application process, and you need to make sure that you have all the information to hand that is needed for filling out the questionnaire. This includes personal details about family and friends, as well as your medical history and financial background.
Practice Aptitude Tests
Aptitude tests are difficult because they are unfamiliar, timed, and put candidates under pressure. To help you achieve your best in the psychometric and aptitude tests, practice makes perfect. When you are told what tests you will face, you can find online tests to practice so that you know what to expect when it comes to the real thing.
Working at GCHQ is fast-paced and challenges arise every day. What this means is that you need to be adaptable to be successful - and this might come up in the assessments and in the interviews.
Be prepared for anything by doing adequate research, and have examples of key competencies and skills ready for the interview.
Demonstrate Team Work In Public Service
If you are an experienced hire, you may already work in the Civil Service and can easily demonstrate this, but for those who have just graduated, it could be difficult.
Try and volunteer in a role where you need to work as part of a team in some public service position, whether that is arranging a charity event or getting an internship in a Civil Service position.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I Visit GCHQ?
Public tours of GCHQ are prohibited for security purposes, but there are videos and photographs of the headquarters and other offices that you can see.
You might be invited to GCHQ for interviews, however.
Why Does GCHQ Need To Be So Secretive?
As GCHQ deals with communication intelligence, the threats that are faced are usually devised in secret - so the way they are nullified also needs to be secret. GCHQ does not publicise much information about what is done in the building because it might give too much intelligence to enemies and put the public in harm's way.
GCHQ shares some of the information that it can through its website and on social media.
How Much Do You Earn At GCHQ?
Salaries start at about £30,000 with additional perks and benefits on top, including on-site restaurants and gyms as well as a pension scheme, holiday, paid time off for volunteering, and flexible work schedules.
What Qualifications Do You Need To Work At GCHQ?
The exact qualification that is needed will be mentioned on the job advert, but for some roles, a 2:2 or equivalent in any subject is the basic requirement.
For tech roles, analysts, and language roles, a 2:1 in a relevant degree is needed.
What Is The Difference Between All Of The Intelligence Services; MI5, MI6 And GCHQ?
Although the intelligence services of the UK (and overseas) do work together, they have some distinct differences in their focus.
MI5 deals with threats that come from inside the UK, MI6 deals with threats from outside the UK, and GCHQ gets intelligence through communications, especially online.