Sofia Ferreira Santos is a Brazilian journalist and content creator based in East London, currently working for BBC News UK and BBC News World. You can always find her in front of a computer writing about Brazilian politics and culture or talking about race.
December 20, 2022 (Updated )
The Financial Times’ Paul McClean Graduate Trainee Programme is currently open for applications until Saturday, January 13, 2024. If you’re thinking of applying (which we guess you are, as you’re here) then we’ve gathered a few things to help you make your application the best it can possibly be.
As well as speaking to the hiring managers who run the scheme, we’ve also got tips and guidance from trainees who were successful in their application. We’ve pulled it all together to create this guide of everything you need to know — from how the application process works and what questions you might be asked, to how you should craft your initial application and what to expect if you’re successful.
If you do end up snagging a space on the scheme, we’d love to hear from you to help add to this guide — we’re always looking to update, improve, and encourage more applications.
The FT Paul McClean Graduate Trainee Programme
There’s just one journalism trainee scheme at The Financial Times — the Paul McClean Graduate Trainee Programme. The scheme, which has been running for almost 40 years, is now named after one of their trainees who produced ground-breaking work but sadly passed away in 2017.
The current programme lasts for three years, with trainees receiving a starting salary of £30,000pa, rising to £34,000pa in the second year, and £38,000pa if you are offered a permanent job in the third year. In addition, successful applicants will receive a one-off welcome payment of £750.
Upon starting in September, you’ll take part in an initial seven weeks of intensive in-house training at their London newsroom, followed by four six-month stints on different news desks. “One of those is always on the markets desk,” explains Adele Jones, the publication’s editorial early careers and development manager.
“One of them tends to be an industry beat and one of them is also a foreign posting as well, which is really exciting and we’re really excited to be able to offer that again. And the fourth one is a discussion you would have with us about how your future is going and what your next placement would be.”
Adele Jones and Scheherazade Daneshkhu run a live Q&A about the scheme with Journo Resources
The job advert is keen to stress that the scheme is not an internship or fellowship, but a full-time contract with the publication as a trainee reporter and that they are looking for people who would like a long-term career with the Financial Times.
Adele continues: “The idea is then that in your third year, you would apply for one of our jobs that you think looks quite exciting. You’d have discussions about whether that could be made into a trainee role, so you have that one final year with a little bit of guidance.”
In practice, the guidance and support include mentoring, feedback, and further training — all while working on real stories and projects. The team are also proud to point out that many alumni are still at the Financial Times in a range of senior positions, as well as taking up roles at news organisations across the world.
The Application Process
To apply, you’ll need to have an undergraduate degree but, unlike other graduate programmes, the FT doesn’t specify what kind of degree you need or the level of final classification.
“We love the NCTJ, but no, you don’t need one to apply for our graduate trainee programme,” stresses Adele. “Nor do you need an economics degree. I think a lot of people worry about that, but no! As long as you can show that you are really passionate about being a journalist and that you’ve tried it out, [maybe] you’ve done student journalism [for example, then] we don’t mind what your degree is in.”
The scheme is also only open to recent graduates — not professional journalists with significant working experience, or those who have already enrolled on another similar programme. However, the team is keen to stress this is assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Adele advises: “Looking at your own CV and your own experience, just have a think about if you were to employ yourself, would you consider yourself a recent graduate?” In some cases, this could stretch as far as three or four years. In others, it could be shortly after your first job.
Fluent spoken and written English is also a requirement pre-application and you’ll also need the right to work in the UK for at least three years.
The application process itself consists of several stages. In the first instance, you’ll need to complete an online application, including a CV, Cover Letter, and an unpublished news story with a focus on original reporting.
The Cover Letter
Nikou Asgari, who started at the Financial Times as a trainee journalist in September 2019, advises using the cover letter to “demonstrate your interest in global affairs, whether that’s through your journalism or hobbies, such as university societies or books that you’ve read. Definitely highlight any extra skills such as languages or data handling and, crucially, get to know the FT and the types of stories we publish that differentiate us from other UK newspapers.”
Ian Johnston, who previously spoke to Journo Resources with tips on leaping from student media to a full-time job, says in an FT promotional video: “I’d say big up what you’re good at, your skills, whether that’s data, language skills, experience in local news, or whatever it is you’ve done before, and make that a central part of your application process.”
At our live Q&A about applications, the FT team are keen to stress the cover letter is also a great place to talk about experiences you might have outside of journalism and how they could be relevant to the role. “Really use it as a chance to sell yourself,” says Adele. “Tell us about you rather than it just being [that you’d] ‘relish the opportunity’. And use [it] to tell us what you’d like to do with your career at the FT.”
In total, this should be no longer than one page.
Nikou Asgari (L) and Stephanie Stacey (R) were both successful applicants.
The application also requires you to upload a recent CV, which must include the name and city of your secondary school, university and subject details, and any other qualifications and skills such as data journalism or additional languages spoken (including level of competency). We’d also recommend including any relevant work experience you’ve undertaken — you can see some of our top tips here.
Again, this should be kept to a maximum of one page, and the team describe it as a “point of reference” so they can gauge your experiences.
When asked for tips around this area of the application, Scheherazade Daneshkhu, the director of editorial talent, explains: “I think the thing to do would be to show some interests that are specifically your interests. Maybe you’ve set up a blog, maybe you did something at university — something that can show that sort of initiative, that would be interesting.” She points to an applicant who’d previously set up a blog about financial advice for women as something that “would catch our eye”.
“Don’t underestimate some of the stuff you’ve done, it may well be of interest to us,” she continues. But, she stresses, you should “go for something that’s true to you”.
A 500-Word News Story
Finally, you’ll also need to submit an unpublished news story. This should focus on original reporting and be on a topic of interest to FT readers. In addition, you’ll need to write 250 words explaining why you chose the subject, who you interviewed, and why.
“I wrote about the environmental impact of Japan’s plastic umbrella obsession, something I noticed during a holiday in Tokyo,” says Nikou. It’s also a piece Scheherazade highlights as a great example that follows through on curiosity. In the piece, Nikou spoke to various interviewees and organisations about the cultural significance, waste, and what happens to the umbrellas after use.
Another example Scheherazade highlights is a story about Argentinian farmers monetising their cows into a type of Bitcoin called Bitcow. “It was just so fascinating to read about,” she continues. “Try to be a bit ambitious. It should show something that’s really caught your eye and that you want to explain and explore.”
Scheherazade is also keen to stress that the piece doesn’t have to be finance-related: “We say ‘something of interest to an FT reader’, which in itself is quite broad. It’s a news story you would expect to see in the FT. The Japanese umbrella story wasn’t about finance. It’s thinking about the reader [which is key].”
Other good sources of ideas can come from looking at data and thinking about how you’d move the story on or who you might speak with about it. It’s also worth checking that the paper hasn’t covered your idea already.
The use of artificial intelligence tools is strictly prohibited for the task and all submissions will be run through both AI and plagiarism detector tools. You’ll also need to keep recordings of any interviews, as well as communication exchanges from which you draw quotes and materials, as you’ll be asked for these if you make it through to the next round. They may also contact your interviewees.
Ian Johnston (L) and Akila Quinio (R)
According to Adele, one of the most frequent mistakes in this section is submitting an opinion piece instead of a news story. “One of the biggest pitfalls [people fall into] is when people submit an opinion piece instead of a news article,” she stresses. “The whole idea is that you’re coming to us as a news reporter. It’s great to have opinions, but we’ve got plenty of people who can write those.”
Instead, the team are looking for original news copy that features plenty of quotes — while you need to be upfront about the fact the piece won’t be published, you may be surprised at who is willing to talk to you if ask. For example, councillors, MPs, institutes, or consultancies have all featured in previous pieces. As well, of course, as people affected by the story.
For Akila Quinio, who’s previously given reporting tips to Journo Resources, it’s also about thinking what you can bring. “Try to think about what makes you best placed to report on something when you do your original reporting piece. So, try to think of a situation or area where you have privileged access and tailor your application around that,” she says in The Financial Times’ latest video about the scheme.
The Interview Stage
After submitting your application, you’ll be informed whether or not the team would like to take you to the interview stage. However, as each application is individually read by a real person, it can take several months to hear a decision — so don’t be disheartened. This means if you apply in January, interviews will usually be held in late March or early April.
While the process can change each year, the applicants we spoke to said they had two sets of interviews, the first with a panel of senior journalists at The Financial Times. Then, about a month later, this was followed by an interview with the editor and deputy editor.
Nikou adds: “I was obviously nervous but the interviews were actually interesting conversations about which business and political topics I find interesting and how I’d approach and structure certain news stories.”
It was a similar experience for Stephanie Stacey, a former Journo Resources fellow. Speaking about her first interview, she says: “That was definitely the scariest part for me. They asked about my experience and my ideas, and also how I’d react in certain specific scenarios, as well as the areas that most interested me.
“I studied foreign languages, so I talked a lot about how I’d like to use those in the future, and how they’ve helped me access different news media from around the world and compare to English-language journalism like the FT.”
Stephanie also recalls being asked about specific news stories she was interested in, as well as how she’d go about moving the story forward or find a new angle.
Speaking about the second (and final) interview round, she adds: “I really enjoyed these — it was exciting to get the chance to speak directly with journalists I really admire. These were more conversational than the panel interviews, but focused on similar themes like my interests, my experience, things I like about the FT and its coverage, and my long-term goals in journalism.”
“If you’ve got to the interview stage, you’ve already done phenomenally well,” stresses Scheherazade. “So I would say just take a deep breath. I know these interviews can be really nerve-wracking and I remember the series of interviews I had when I joined the FT.
“But try and relax and be yourself. Explain how you got the idea for the story, what you did for it, why you want to be a reporter, why you want to be at the FT. I think really being genuine is the most important thing. If this is really what you want to do, it will just show itself.”
Adele adds that while it’s normal to be nervous”also remember that the panel aren’t there to make you slip up.” “They want to hear from you, they’re curious about you, so don’t be nervous of them — we’re looking for people who are going to come in here and work alongside them.”
To prepare, Stephanie recommends reading the newspaper regularly, as well as some of its main competitors. She also wrote notes on stories she particularly liked and any ideas she had to follow up.
What Are They Looking For In Applicants?
But, with all that in mind, what are they actually looking for from applicants? Nikou sums up: “The FT looks for someone who’s truly interested in the business and political world. FT journalists really want to understand and explain the reasons behind, and implications of, politicians’ or companies’ actions, so genuine interest is so important.
“Being proactive is another key quality, especially when we’re all working from home and there’s less chance for spontaneous conversations. You have to be more active in setting up calls and meetings and getting to know what’s happening in your patch and why.”
For Stephanie, it’s all about being open to new things: “You don’t have to have any business or finance background, but they’re interested in people who show keenness to learn and who keep up with current events. They want people who are eager to learn and try out different things, so don’t be closed off to any areas of coverage — you can find interesting things everywhere!”
And, for Ian, it’s about being able to bring ideas: “They’re going to want someone who could come in and find interesting stories from day one, and that’s going to be really valuable for you throughout the programme.”
At our Q&A, Adele and Scheherazade touch on a variety of key qualities such as curiosity, having an open mind, and being able to listen to different points of view and distil down the essence of the argument. “We’re looking for people who are excited by the news and who want to be reporters. We’re looking for people who are curious about the world and want to join an international news organisation like ours,” summarises Scheherazade.
“You should be able to write reasonably well, and we’re also looking for some other key skills like data skills or languages are all very useful as well.”
Reviews From Successful Applicants
And, if you do make it through, is it worth it? For Nikou, the answer is a definite yes.”It has given me a great opportunity to write about everything from global stock markets to UK companies, and to interview lots of interesting people including chief executives and MPs.
“The FT gives you a lot of responsibility in terms of covering a beat and managing your time, but everyone is incredibly friendly and always helpful when you need guidance.”
As for her one key tip to future applicants, she says, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Pitching a story can be nerve-wracking, especially at the beginning and when (like me) you had no national or regional journalism experience before, but it gets easier and I’ve learned that discussing stories with colleagues or editors is the best way to shape your ideas.
“The FT is also very good at working collaboratively and sharing bylines, so asking colleagues whether they’ve heard similar tidbits of information or have spotted a similar trend can lead to a bigger and better story.”