Kate Hilpern finds that the Royal Mail is no easy option for graduate recruits
Mention that you're applying for a career with Royal Mail and it's unlikely to be perceived as the sexiest of choices. "I had a very commonly-held perception of The Post Office as a sort of auntie: you know a nice sort of comfy armchair of an organisation," admits Katherine Leedham, 24, applications manager in relationship marketing. Yet within three months of gaining her BA in business studies, she was working on a new product launch with huge responsibility for making it successful. So high is the level of responsibility for graduates at Royal Mail, in fact, that if you lack strong resilience, stamina and the ability to work inflexible hours, forget it.

Alison Porter, also 24 and a graduate recruit, agrees. She believes the Royal Mail is wrongly assumed by many as a being not only a staid British institution but also as existing as a monopoly - basically spelling "boring". However, "from day one of your training, you realise that we have direct competitors and that we're at the cutting edge of technology," she says.

Royal Mail is the largest of the four businesses belonging to The Post Office, employing 160,000 people and accounting for 80 per cent of group turnover. Responsible for the collection, sorting and delivery of mail all over the UK and also overseas, it handles some 76 million letters every day. Enter as a graduate and you're most likely to go through the Management Access Programme (MAP) or the Operational Management Development Programme (OMDP).

Alison Porter completed her MAP training - which provides early opportunities in marketing and sales, and operations - 18 months ago. "The first six months of the two-year programme were mostly taken up by training at one of the residential management centres," she says. "But, as soon as we'd said goodbye to the classroom, we were thrown in at the deep end."

It was unique and fulfilling, she says, in terms of forcing you to learn quickly, have instant challenges and be constantly stimulated. "But it's scary too. You've got to establish your own leadership style with your team immediately and stick by it - all this at the same time as remaining enthusiastic, being fair and revealing positive interpersonal skills. It's also pretty much left up to you what career path you take. So if - like so many young people - your need is to tread water first and you prefer long-term, structured posts, you won't survive."

Indeed, since her training, Alison has been a product manager at Royal Mail International as well as portfolio manager for The Post Office Training and Development Group.

"OMDP, on the other hand, prepares graduates specifically for careers in operations which basically means the key parts of the business such as sorting offices, distribution centres, transportation and delivery," explains Helen Bartolome, head of management development. "Managers need to work with highly experienced employees and the latest machinery and technology to make sure the mail is processed to meet crucial daily deadlines."

So, for the first 15 weeks, graduates receive intensive training in Royal Mail operations. The next two-and-a-half years are spent on six-month placements, leading teams of up to 50 in a variety of areas, and managing two projects where it is your responsibility to find a solution to a real issue.

"I had the chance to make decisions and challenge the way things are done almost immediately, and found that people do listen to my ideas," stresses Ian Lumley, one recent graduate - to his initial surprise.

There are also more limited opportunities in disciplines such as finance, human resources, security and investment, surveying and engineering.

In most cases, your degree subject won't matter as much as your grade, but starting salaries are not very competitive, hovering around pounds 16,250. Potential increases, though, are high, but difficult to gauge as promotion is not automatic and staff must compete for job vacancies.

Despite the emphasis on rigorous work and inflexible hours, Royal Mail does pride itself on insisting employees have a strong home-work balance. "I don't believe that working very long days is necessarily effective," says Graham Cater, group personnel and management development director. `Our focus is on quality, not quantity.'

Recruitment takes place all through the year and vacancies are increasing as Royal Mail's business grows. But competition is fierce with around 16,000 graduates applying annually for some 250 places in The Post Office.

Tracey Summerill considers herself one of the lucky ones. "I don't mind hard work, but wanted to be recognised for my efforts. I wanted to work for a company with a good reputation for investing in its people that would give me the opportunity to establish a good career. Everything I have seen so far has made me think I have made the right choice," she says.