On the job as a policy officer at DFAT

Henry Norris studied studied Arts/Law at Bond University and is now a Policy Officer at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
Jaymes Carr
Jaymes Carr
Team GradAustralia
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Can you tell us what you do and give us a sense of your background?

My name’s Henry Norris and I’m a Policy Officer at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and a former corporate lawyer. I grew up in the country before moving to Sydney for high school. I studied Arts/Law at Bond University and graduated in 2013. I chose to study Arts/Law because English and history were always my favourite subjects at school and I wanted to learn about how the world worked. To be honest, I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career, but the idea of studying on the Gold Coast sounded pretty good.

Coming out of university, I was fairly set on the corporate law track. I did a summer clerkship in my penultimate year and accepted a gradate position at a law firm in Sydney. I deferred my offer by a year to take a Chinese course in Beijing and do some travel. During the year I spontaneously put in an application to intern with DFAT at the UN in Geneva – I had heard from a friend it was a fantastic experience. I somehow got the position and soon after my Chinese course wrapped up I found myself shadowing Australian diplomats at the UN in Geneva. At the time I thought it was a once in a lifetime experience.

I returned to Sydney to take up my graduate role at a law firm and was admitted as a lawyer. But after some time I found myself daydreaming of becoming one of those Australian diplomats I had met in Geneva. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy legal practice, but I was hugely attracted to the idea of a career in diplomacy. And I knew my legal skills would serve me well. So I applied for the DFAT graduate program.

What does your employer do? 

DFAT is responsible for managing Australia’s international interests. These span from deciding how Australia interacts with different countries, what role we play at the UN and other international organisations, the assistance we provide to Australians in need overseas, and how we assist developing countries around the world. DFAT personnel are split between Canberra and our 102 embassies and consulates around the world. 

Can you describe your experience of DFAT so far?

I started the two-year graduate program in 2015. As a graduate you get on-the-job training in areas like bilateral relations, international organisations, international trade and development. I worked on trade negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, including as part of the team representing Australia at a round of negotiations in the US, and spent 9 months at the Australian Embassy in Baghdad on a short term mission. I represented Australia diplomatically in Iraq and wrote reports on the military campaign against ISIS, Iraqi political developments, and the humanitarian situation. Some highlights included meeting the President of Iraq and visiting Australian troops at our training base in Iraq.

Could someone with a different background do your job?

Absolutely. DFAT attracts graduates from a wide range of academic backgrounds. There is no one type of graduate DFAT hires – the main thing is that you can demonstrate your interest in international relations and show you have the skills to be a policy maker and diplomat. In my graduate cohort we had graduates of law, science, linguistics, advertising, music, the list goes on. DFAT looks for people with strong research and analytical skills, good judgement, and who will represent Australia with pride and professionalism. 

What do you love most about your job?

If you are curious about the world and want to spend a portion of your career overseas, then DFAT offers unparalleled opportunities. The world is a big and complex place and your job as a DFAT officer is to advance our national interests and navigate Australia through difficult world events. And if like me, you’re proud of your country and want to ensure our future is bright, working at DFAT is a real privilege.

What’s the downside of your job?

As a DFAT officer you’ll be given lots of responsibility while also being supported by experienced colleagues. You’re given all of the usual public service benefits like ‘flex time’ and extra superannuation. You’ll also be given assistance to relocate to Canberra.

The main consideration when deciding if DFAT is the right fit for you is whether or not you’re prepared to spend significant periods of your career overseas, in addition to working in Canberra. Some postings can be challenging due to language or cultural differences, pollution, or crime, and you might need to put yourself (and your family) outside of your comfort zone. This is also a really exciting part of the job, but it’s not for everyone! You’ll always get to have a say where you get posted but don’t think you’ll be spending your whole career in Paris or New York.

Which three pieces of advice would you give your university-age self?

  • Keep pursuing your personal interests – they are what give you personality and make you an interesting applicant. DFAT looks for well-rounded people and your passion for music, astronomy or scuba diving makes you the person you are, so don’t sacrifice your personality (and interests) for that extra percentage point on an assignment.  
  • Try to gain some practical experience to demonstrate your interest in international relations. It’s easy to say you’re interested in international relations but harder to prove. Consider doing a special research project, university exchange or international internship so you can point to real examples in your application.
  • Your first job is important but it might only be a stepping stone. Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. While some DFAT graduates come straight from university, many others have done other jobs before starting the graduate program. So think about your career as a journey – your first job is the start not the end of that journey.

 Learn more about working in this field, jump to career path in government sector or the International law overview.