I should start by saying that I really enjoy my job. Working in politics is fast-paced and exciting. It’s such a cliché, but every day really is different and it’s that variety and pressure which keeps me going.
To be truthful, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do whilst at University. I studied history so there was no set career path; no obvious job to go to. I moved to Edinburgh on a bit of a whim and was lucky enough to get a temporary job at the then Scottish Executive. That really sparked my interest in working in politics but after that I worked for a couple of years in the private sector undertaking research to get a bit of private sector experience.
My first ‘real job’ in politics was working for an MSP. I started as a caseworker dealing with constituents’ queries and then progressed to be my MSP’s researcher. It was during that time that I really came to realise that politics was the place for me. I liked the pressure of working quickly and accurately; I enjoyed the mix of work – anything from writing Parliamentary questions to liaising with the press; and I found that I love speech-writing.
As head of office to an MP I got to build on my experience as a researcher but added in some more responsibility – things like managing a team and of course it also allowed me to gain Westminster experience whilst still being based in Edinburgh.
I really enjoy my current role as head of policy and research. It’s a challenging job which pushes me every day. I get to work on policy development as well as undertaking research for MSPs and dealing with the day to day business at the Scottish Parliament.
You need to have good communication skills to work in politics. A lot of the work is written and in most roles there is some liaison with the press. It’s also essential that you’re organised with your work and that you’re enthusiastic about it (I think that applies to all jobs!).
The thing about politics is that it’s infectious: people are pushing for change, they are passionate about what they believe in and that is motivating. But it isn’t a job for everyone. You have to be committed to working long hours; be prepared to watch Newsnight and Question Time and to keep up with a general level of knowledge about what is going on in the world.
If, like me, you’re a bit of a news geek and would be doing that anyway then politics may just be the career for you!
Sarah Atherton is head of policy and research for the Scottish Liberal Democrats. She has worked with the Liberal Democrats, in one role or another, since 2009.