The Army life for me? Fast Track

Stereotypes and misconceptions shouldn't put you off a career in the forces.
Imagine yourself a year from now in a job that entails you having 30 people under your command for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Not only are you responsible for their discipline, but also for their career development, welfare, training and even their lives. As if that's not enough, you may be asked to do this in a war zone.

No wonder a career in the Army isn't for everyone. Graduates are rarely required to perform such a complex, difficult and dangerous job and to top it all, it involves entering an environment that is riddled with stereotypes. "A lot of people think the Army is all physical work and no brain work," explains Major Alisdair Goulden, Director of Officer Marketing. "In addition, many women still won't consider an Army career because they perceive it as a man's world, and most people also think that getting accepted by the Army means you have to have a public-school background and a parent who has had an Army career."

In truth, however, just about every profession and management role you can think of are now available in the Army and since April last year, 70 per cent of these vacancies have been open to women. Indeed, although it is widely known that women progress through the lower ranks slowly, if at all, because the most direct avenues to promotion are closed to them, radical steps are being taken to change this. Army fitness tests, for instance, have recently changed to become identical for both sexes. Likewise, well over half of officers now have a state-school background and fewer than ever come from military families.

"All we have to do now is get this message across," explains Goulden. But he admits it will be no mean feat. The Army has not been good at publicising stories of career successes beginning at graduate level, and with the rise in the number of people entering - or becoming sponsored by - the Army at school level, graduates wrongly assume that once they've finished university, it's too late to think about signing up.

Erica Burley, 26, decided to pursue an Army career just before she completed her French and Spanish degree. "I discovered as much as I could about the Army and began to realise that the excitement and adventure of it was definitely for me," she says. Like all graduates, Burley began her Army career by seeking advice from an Army Careers Advisor.

The next stage is applying to be sponsored by a particular regiment or corps, which usually incorporates a familiarisation visit lasting one or two days. Finally, stage three involves a Regular Commissions Board (RCB) briefing after which you are advised whether you are a suitable candidate or whether you would benefit from further preparation - such as travelling or working - prior to attempting the Board.

If you're accepted, you begin training as an officer almost immediately. This incorporates completing a rigorous 44-week Commissioning Course at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. "You will be asked to contribute a great deal physically, mentally and emotionally," says Goulden. "But you are a soldier first and foremost. So if your background is in IT, don't expect to be doing programming full-time. Rather, you will use your IT skills to help lead soldiers. It is for this reason that you will rarely spot an Army representative at an IT fair where graduates are searching for careers that involve nothing else."

"The result is that the variety is unmatchable," says Burley, who has had a staff job in Northern Ireland, an operational job in Bosnia and is now in an artillery regiment. "I never know what part of the world I'm going to get posted to, particularly since the Army now works in more than 30 countries world-wide. So if you're after structure and going as far as is possible within your specialism, this definitely isn't for you."

But it isn't only incorrect assumptions and lack of an organised career path that can put graduates off the Army. Danger also prevents some people from giving it a second thought. Major Allison Savage, who is in the Royal Logistic Corps, joined the Army in 1991 with a degree in Biology from Exeter University. Following Sandhurst and the Royal Logistic Corps Troop Commanders' Course, her first posting took her to Germany from where she embarked on an operation tour to Bosnia: "Being out in open country and knowing that we could come under fire at any time was nerve-racking, but it's at times like these you have to keep your cool and deal with the problem at hand."

Freaked out yet? Lieutenant Alex Osborn, who joined the Army in 1995 from Liverpool John Moores University, where he read Business Studies, certainly has been in the past. During a recent expedition to Nepal, he was one of only four to reach the summit of the Mera Peak. "At the time, the climb seemed like the hardest and most dangerous physical thing I had ever done, but the expedition helped me realise my own capabilities as an individual and as an officer. It's a big responsibility, but having been involved in one major climb, I'm hooked and would like to be the prime organiser for another expedition."

Your demonstrable leadership qualities mean that you have a good chance of being ahead of your peers when it comes to management. Major Tyrone Urch, 32, of the Royal Engineers, explains: "Immediately after my in-service degree, I was posted to Northern Ireland as an operations officer where I represented the project manager on a pounds 1m construction project. I certainly wouldn't have been given this amount of responsibility in my first job in civvy street."

There's no such thing as a typical officer, insists Goulden. "But what they do all have in common is an appetite for responsibility and the ability to do one of the toughest jobs there is. Your role as a team leader and manager in the Army will literally shape the lives of the people you touch. Few jobs in industry can promise that."

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