On the job with a Graduate Trainee at DFAT

GradAustralia met with Elspeth Toop to learn about life as a Graduate Trainee at DFAT
Erin Delaney
Team GradAustralia
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Elspeth studied a Bachelor of Laws (Hons); Bachelor of Management (Human Resource Management) at the University of South Australia and graduated in 2014

What do you do day-to-day?

DFAT is a department that provides foreign, trade and development policy advice to the government. I have worked in a number of corporate areas that support the department in pursuit of its global, regional and bilateral interests.

I am in the second year of the DFAT Management Graduate Program and am completing the last of seven rotations working in the Financial Services branch. I’m involved in delivering finance training to officers who are about to commence on an overseas posting. Previously, I’ve rotated through Human Resources, Legal, Consular and also helped out in the Queensland State Office. I could never say that my time at DFAT has been dull!

I will be commencing a posting to New Delhi, India in 2017 as Third Secretary and Vice-Consul – a great honour.  

What's your background?

I grew up in Adelaide, and studied a double degree in law and management at the University of South Australia. During this time, I also spent a semester at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. In my final year I completed the Law Honours program.

My vocational experience is quite unconventional, having had eight jobs from the time I was 15, right through university. Each was completely different to the next, with experience in hospitality, property, retail and the public sector. I have been a barista, a function coordinator and a specialist medical textbook seller amongst other things.

Throughout my five years at university I also coordinated a volunteer program in South Africa (as well as travelling there three times myself). I didn’t know it at the time, but this experience taught me invaluable skills in budget management, logistics, coordination and working with others, which have been invaluable.

Personally, I think vocational and extracurricular backgrounds have equal, if not more, impact on your success in graduate recruitment. In many of my roles at DFAT so far, I’ve been able to draw on skills learned from volunteering and previous employment.

Could someone with a different background do your job?

Yes. All graduates in my year have different backgrounds. Some have music degrees, others have a background in science and of course, there are many with law and international relations qualifications. While we all have different skills and specialisations — that’s what makes it interesting! One person could approach a task completely differently to someone else, yet be equally effective. This job is more about your initiative, the ability to work with others and having an interest in the world around you!

Many of the corporate skills can be learned on the job. Therefore, a passion for business and the corporate agenda is in some ways more important than an individual’s academic background.  

I was fortunate to study a bachelor’s degree, which was fairly holistic. I studied basic-level accounting, economics, marketing, HR, information systems, statistics and international business (to name a few).

The Management Graduate Program at DFAT exposes you to many corporate areas, so this varied academic background has been invaluable.

Ultimately, you should have: attention to detail, organisational skills, flexibility, strong analytical skills, communication skills and an ability to think strategically.

What's the coolest thing about your job?

For me, the coolest thing about this job is the unknown. The ever-changing political, economic and social context means that a task you are working on this week may be completely different the next. Likewise, opportunities to travel and to work for other areas of the department as requirements change are out there if you are flexible and open to trying new things.

What are the limitations of your job?

While the changing nature of the work is exciting, moving to Canberra (and potentially overseas) can put a strain on personal and family relationships. As a result, it’s important to make time for these relationships outside of work. However, the job itself truly makes up for it.

Three pieces of advice for keen students...

  • Don’t underestimate the value of extracurricular and volunteering activities.
  • Get involved at uni — say ‘yes’ to opportunities that come your way.
  • Don’t take life too seriously.