It’s 2am and you’re on someone’s kitchen floor. “Spying sounds cool”, you say, “but it’s not like the movies. You’d probably end up doing admin”. People nod. “The stuff they do is really unethical anyway”. People murmur in agreement. You nod. You’ve fooled them. Why are you taking Persian? You laugh: “I just love the literature”. IR? “I’m thinking about NGO work”. “Intelligence work isn’t for me”, you repeat.
Well, gaslight your nearest and dearest, but I don’t buy it. You’ll never admit it, but you want to be James Bond. And who doesn’t? You want to be Rory Stewart and get your own Sunday Times profile where, with a knowing wink from the interviewer, you insist that your time in Montenegro was just ‘diplomatic work’. It’s OK. You aren’t alone. Read on, take notes, and I’ll even tell you how to get the job.
For full disclosure, I have absolutely no idea how to get into intel. My knowledge of spies comes from bi-annual schlepps to Cineworld to watch Daniel Craig vault about someplace exotic whereupon I, fistful of chocolate buttons halfway to my mouth, say: “I could do that”.
Then again, that’s exactly what I would tell you. I’d be a shoddy spy if I admitted, for instance, that my paternal aunt spent the late ‘80s in British overseas intelligence. She didn’t do that. But, again, that is what I would say. Whether I do or don’t have familial history in covert operations (I don’t), if you’re an aspiring spook, here are my tips.
First, get a head start on the snooping. Start wearing a wire in your own time. Ask leading questions about the bin rota at the next flat chat. Go to Sinners and quiz smashed international students on what it is, exactly, that their dad does in Doha. Get a gig bussing tables at a dinner club and, lapel mic attached, make strategically timed Pimm’s top-up rounds when tongues start wagging. If you really get into it, you could even take a field trip to the army barracks in Leuchars and lead a military intervention at the next Socialist Society AGM.
Network. You might have noticed the spy agencies’ rebrands: they’re no longer toffs in smoky back rooms; getting recruited isn’t about who you know anymore. Working for MI6 lets you “see things differently, it’s exploring the world beyond your own”, as one calmingly vacuous Channel 4 ad goes. And after all, the embodiment of the old boys’ club spy, Bond, got quite literally killed off.
But networking still matters. You think intelligence agencies have moved with the times? Agencies that can legally tell any watchdog where to put it, who can spend the equivalent of the defence budget on redacting every document they release, isn’t truly calmingly vacuous. So put yourself out there. You never know who might be on the lookout for recruits. Pen gushing op-eds on how much the CIA’s latest Instagram rebrand really captures what it means to be Gen Z. Skip your assigned readings to grind Duolingo, then skip your seminars to walk up and down Market Street conspicuously reciting Russian declensions. Spend every party complaining how you just can’t find time to keep up the Krav Maga and the jiu-jitsu. Go to the next Coffee Connect with a bandaged forehead and a limp, and refuse to explain why.
Have faith in yourself. GCHQ doesn’t recruit anyone and everyone. But St Andrews is exactly the kind of place the spooks will look at. It’s top of the rankings, and it’s got a long history of recruits. Two deputy-directors and one director of MI6 went here. Don’t stress if your degree doesn’t involve coding or exciting foreign languages — at least one St Andrews alumnus who — allegedly — works in intelligence graduated with a History degree.
Finally, if you do get hired, do your research. Are expenses covered? What’s work/life like? Most importantly: who, exactly, are hiring you? The St Andrean History graduate might have taken that last tip a bit more to heart. Like Rory Stewart, he managed to get his face in the Times last month, but in a somewhat less fawning piece — he’d just been arrested on suspicion of spying for the Chinese Communist Party.
Illustration by: Calum Mayor