Tom’s UEA Story: COP26, the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Office
Tom Sellars completed a BA in History and Politics and an MA in Public Policy and Public Management at UEA. After graduating, he went straight into a policy advisor role at the Foreign Office. After taking on various civil service roles, he’s now working on the UK’s relationships with the Middle East.
My degree was transformational in giving me confidence. I started as a very shy and quiet person; I don’t think anybody would describe me in such terms by the time I left. I gained confidence in my own abilities and my own voice.
When did you graduate and what have you been up to since you graduated?
I studied BA History and Politics and graduated in 2017. I stayed at UEA and completed an MA in Public Policy and Public Management. After graduation, I took up a job at the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a Policy Adviser, working on Europe. In 2020 I moved to the Cabinet Office to first work on EU Exit negotiations. In early 2021 I moved to the COP26 Unit within the Cabinet Office, working on international engagement for COP26 and supporting the UK’s COP Presidency. Then in June 2022 I moved back into the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to work on the UK’s relationships in the Middle East.
What was your ambition for your career when you started at UEA? Did you have a specific career path in mind?
When I first joined UEA, I was unclear on what career I wanted to pursue after graduation. I chose History and Politics because I enjoyed these subjects and thought they were sufficiently broad enough to give me a range of career options after graduation. After taking modules in foreign policy run by Geoff Hicks and Thomas Otte, I started to gain an interest in the area. In particular, Thomas Otte’s third year module Road to WWI was a crash course in the workings of the British Foreign Office and international relations. This piqued my interest and was something I carried forward into my MA, where I wrote my MA thesis on UK foreign policy and the decision to intervene in Libya in 2011. This gave me the opportunity to read and speak to experts in the area, including some who worked on the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, who had written a report on the Libya intervention. Through doing this I looked into opportunities to work in foreign policy and found openings to join the FCO on Civil Service Jobs.
Tell me about your experiences studying at UEA.
UEA was the first university that I visited while doing my applications. I was enthralled by the open day and the lecturers’ passion from speaking to the History Department. I also fell in love with Norwich. I knew immediately that I wanted to go there so I didn’t bother looking at other universities. I chose History as the subject I was most passionate about but was keen to have some variety; I hadn’t studied politics before and was eager to learn more. Joint honours were therefore a good way of pursuing my passion while also diversifying my academic studies.
I thoroughly enjoyed my three years on this course. In particular, the deep passion and expertise from all my lecturers made the course engaging and, dare I say it, fun? A Wednesday 9am lecture with Geoff Hicks on British foreign policy under Lord Palmerston was never dull. Nor was a Thursday 5pm lecture with Joel Halcomb on the early printing press. I always found tutorials with my lecturers incredibly insightful, whether discussing my hypothesis for an essay or debating whether Edward VI was the best Tudor monarch and the true Erasmian King (hint: he was).
But the knowledge I learned was not the most important thing that I took away from my course; instead, it was the skills, confidence, and the curiosity to understand complex things that I took with me. This stood me in good stead when I began my career – and still does!
Did you participate in any of the following while studying at UEA: Societies, Student work, Clubs?
In fresher’s week, I joined the History Society, and, on the same day I signed up for the History Society trip to Budapest. My involvement in the society was a real highlight of my time at UEA. I was an active member and got involved in the (many!) society activities, including the socials, quizzes, and the annual History Ball. In my second year I went on the trip to Berlin. In my third year, I was elected Treasurer of the Society where I got the opportunity to really shape the activities and run the annual trip – this time to Prague – and organise arguably the greatest History Ball at Carrow Road. The Society was a great place to meet people who I perhaps hadn’t come across during my course, and to make lasting friendships. But most importantly, it was a great opportunity to have fun!
In my second year, I also got a job at the Student Union bar. This was a great way to make money and to make new friends. The bar was incredibly sociable. A particular highlight was getting on stage in the LCR during a club night in a rabbit costume (UEA mascot represent!) to dance and throw t-shirts into the crowd. It was a job like no other… During my Masters, I worked in the SU office for the bar on ways to improve the running of the bar. Through my work, we received national accreditation for Best Bar None – a Gold award, nonetheless. The plaque still hangs in the SU bar.
Did this influence your outlook, give you skills that made you more employable, or expand your network?
Through the History Society I learned a critical skill that I took with me into my job interviews: leadership. I learned to take responsibility, to listen to people - e.g., our members - on what they wanted out of their society, and to set the direction for the society. This included planning events and making the Society a valuable and exciting group. But it also meant working hard to deliver in the interests of everyone, such as applying for student union funding for some of our activities or bartering with venues to get affordable actives for our members.
My role in the bar – and later in the office – gave me my first real taste for working life. I thoroughly enjoyed working alongside people as a team. I got the opportunity to review the way the SU venues worked, analyse operating policies, and identify ways that these could be improved. This was the best experience to prepare me for a career in the Civil Service. During my interview, I spoke at length about my experience in this role as part of my ‘competencies’.
In your career what key tasks & skills are involved on a day-to-day basis, and what are/have been the most rewarding/challenging aspects?
My role in the Civil Service has involved advising ministers on policies and engagement with other countries and carrying out ministers’ directions. This ranges from strengthening the UK’s bilateral relationships in Europe, supporting negotiations with the EU on behalf of the Crown Dependencies, working with international partners to deliver stronger climate action ahead of the largest international summit the UK has ever hosted, COP26. Working on big international events such as the 2019 Media Freedom Conference, the 2019 NATO Leaders’ Summit, and COP26 have all been career highlights that gave me the opportunity to work with so many international partners to deliver high profile and high ambition outcomes. At the start of the pandemic, I worked as part of the FCO COVID-19 crisis response, where I supported the repatriation of British Nationals to the UK.
These were all challenging and through working on each of them I became more resilient. It has been incredibly rewarding to work on issues that have a direct impact to people’s lives, even in a small way.
Has your degree influenced your career?
My degree was transformational in giving me confidence. I started as a very shy and quiet person; I don’t think anybody would describe me in such terms by the time I left. I gained confidence in my own abilities and my own voice. This is the main thing I took with me into my career, where I regularly have to make the case for things and to persuade others with conviction and authority.
Through the study of history, I sharped my analytical skills. The ability to look at information, to understand its meaning and implications, and to use this to build an argument is a skill that I use every day in my career. I also learned how to take complicated information and communicate this in a simple and clear way. This is a critical skill when working on influencing or persuading people, which most jobs require in some form.
The knowledge I gained about British foreign policy stood me in good stead for working on foreign policy, particularly understanding the deep and complicated relationships between countries over centuries and the UK’s role in the world since 1815.
What personal or professional achievement are you most proud of?
Working as part of the UK Presidency team on COP26 was the highlight of my career so far. This was the most significant COP since Paris and made real progress on climate action to keep the 1.5C goal within reach. I had the great fortune to work with many talented and dedicated Civil Servants, international partners, and climate experts to deliver this mammoth event. While I played a small role, it was a great opportunity to be part of the effort to tackle the global climate crisis. I will take the experience, skills, and relationships that I built during this role with me in my career.
What were your experiences of Norwich as a city? Is there anything in particular that you miss or have fond memories of?
Norwich is a fine city. I thoroughly enjoyed it – from the bars and cafes to the history(!) and the greenery. I enjoyed the opportunities to rent a boat and sail around the broads with friends.
Would you recommend studying at UEA? Why?
Absolutely. Aside from the fact that UEA offers great courses, it offers the opportunity to really shape who you are as a person. From the inspiring lecturers to the opportunities on offer such as societies and student jobs, you can learn things that you will take with you long after you graduate. You can really grow as a person and you will make friends for life. UEA will always feel like a home for me.
Is there any advice you would give to current students, wishing to follow a similar career path to you?
The Civil Service is incredibly diverse; it is full of exciting and interesting opportunities. It’s also a way of thinking: solving problems, thinking creatively, making the most of the experiences and expertise of those around you. For those wanting to pursue a career in the Civil Service, I would recommend finding opportunities that will help build this mind set. That could mean running a society or working in the SU like me, or volunteering at a local charity, or undertaking an internship. What you do is not important: you don’t need experience writing policy documents or advising ministers. It is how you do it that matters: these skills and experiences are transferable. That will stand you in good stead for working in the Civil Service or similar fields.
What is next for you?
I have recently returned to the FCDO. I hope to continue my career in international affairs and foreign policy and, in the not-too-distant future, move overseas to work as a diplomat representing the UK.
Tom studied BA History and Politics and MA Public Policy and Public Management at UEA.