What is a traineeship?
Twice a year, the European Commission in Brussels takes on around 600 trainees (also called ‘stagiaires’) to work for a 5-month stint at its Directorates-General and Agencies. Trainees are generally in their mid-20s-to-early-30s, have completed a Master’s degree, have spent time living and working abroad, speak a few languages, and have a largely positive opinion of the European Union. After all, the main intention of many of them is to gain a job at the EU Institutions.
The traineeship or stage is thus often seen as a foot in the door. The work you will do as a trainee is not necessarily that relevant for what you might go on to do afterwards (unless, by a stroke of luck, you are working in the precise Unit of your DG or Agency in which you want to remain). It varies between departments, but largely the work you will have to do as a trainee will not seem overly taxing, especially if you have had a full-time job before.
No, the main reason for doing the traineeship, other than the clout it adds to your CV, is to gain contacts, both social and professional, and to find out more about how the Commission works. If you are looking for career fulfilment only in the work in and of itself, then you may be disappointed (much like any other job, really). This is not intended as a criticism of the traineeship system; far from it. It is simply important to know what to expect and where to focus your efforts.
For a more quick and dirty account of life as a trainee, it is a good idea to read this article from VICE.
The application process is long and time-consuming. For a traineeship that begins in October, it is necessary to apply by the end of January. Applicants must fill out statements of motivation, describe in detail everything they did at their previous jobs, explain where they acquired the languages they claim to speak, and account for their technical and computer skills. This is the first step. Once the Commission has looked through the applications, around 1300 candidates are pre-selected to be placed in the ‘Blue Book’. If this happens, you will be asked to provide copies of language certificates, letters of reference and university diplomas to cover everything you mentioned in your application form.
The Blue Book is the pool of candidates from which the DGs and Agencies pick their trainees. Each application is scored against a ‘points’ system: you receive points related to the relevancy of your work experience, studies and languages. For example, you will receive more points if you have a Master’s with Distinction than if you only have a Bachelor’s. If your application receives enough points, you get into the Blue Book.
Simply being in the Blue Book is not a guarantee that you have been accepted to the traineeship. Commission staff may contact you to ask if you wish to work for their department. (The correct answer, as the astute applicant will realise, is always ‘yes’.) This, again, is still not a guarantee. You may also have to undergo a phone interview before receiving an offer.
There are conflicting opinions on whether lobbying is necessary to obtain a traineeship. Should you contact the departments you would like to work for once you have been placed on the Blue Book? The answer seems to be: sometimes yes, sometimes no. Some of my fellow trainees found it useful to spray out numerous emails explaining why such-and-such a department is perfect for them. Strangely, however, it appears that the department the applicant writes to is rarely the same department that subsequently makes them an offer.
Personally, a chronic case of British reservedness, and an abhorrence for trumpeting one’s own achievements meant that I could not bring myself to lobby. I heard apocryphal stories of applicants who sent deliveries of cupcakes to the units they wanted to work for. This always sent a shiver of revulsion down my spine. Surely my well-crafted application form would speak for itself? I don’t know if these industrious bakers got a place in the end. All I know is that I finally received a traineeship offer without having lobbied; then again, this was also not my first attempt.
But take heart at that, because even if you don’t receive an offer the first time, you are always free to apply to the Commission again at the next round. And no doubt by the next time you apply, your CV will have been enriched by further languages, university qualifications or work experience, all of which add up to those all-essential points on the mysterious Blue Book.
You can apply for a traineeship here.