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Case Study: James Shield

Personal details
Degree:MA (Hons) International Relations Profile picture
School(s): School of International Relations
Year of Graduation:Jun-2011
National of: United Kingdom
Employment details
Organisation: Macmillan Cancer Support
Job title: Projects Manager, Cancer Population Evidence
Occupational Sector: Project Management
What has been your route to getting your current position?
My first job out of university was the NHS Management Training Scheme. As part of the scheme I worked for the strategy director at Hampshire Hospitals for a year, then spent two months outside the NHS working in Macmillan Cancer Support’s intelligence and research department. My final placement was as operations manager of the National Spinal Injuries Centre. I then joined Macmillan permanently to help set up their Cancer Population Evidence Programme.
What does your job involve ?
My job is to manage projects aiming to improve the use of population evidence in the NHS. There are two million people in the UK today living with a cancer diagnosis, doubling to four million by 2030. We think that through research and better use of population evidence we can help the NHS do better for people affected by cancer, and my background in the NHS means I can provide our researchers with advice on how to make that happen. I’m also heavily involved in our flagship Routes from Diagnosis research programme, which is about understanding what happens to people after a cancer diagnosis over the long term.
What are the best bits of your job ?
I do a lot of writing and talks to help translate research into language that non-researchers can understand and use, and this means I work with our policy analysts, media team, public affairs and senior doctors. I love explaining our research and seeing someone’s eyes light up as they realise how they could use it in their work. I co-wrote our Routes from Diagnosis report which was picked up by the BBC and the British Medical Journal, which was really rewarding to see. Macmillan is really leading the way in several areas of population health research. And I work with an incredibly bright team of young, ambitious, fun people who are all working towards a common goal of improving the lives of everyone affected by cancer.
Why were you successful?
I was very active in the Students’ Association – I was Director of Representation for a year, then Rector’s Assessor to Kevin Dunion – and I think that gave me a level of maturity and insight into how big organisations make decisions that very few other 21 year olds were able to get. By the time I started applying for jobs I’d already spent two years on University Court. I have no idea whether I was any good in those jobs, but they certainly helped me get some stupid mistakes out of my system before I entered the real world! I also interned at a radio production company and 38 Degrees, but more importantly I got to know the Press Office at St Andrews and spent a summer as their in-house audio/video journalist. The skills I developed there – translating complex research for a lay audience – are ones I still use today.
What skills/ knowledge from your degree have you found particularly helpful in this role?
Your degree is absolutely not the most important thing about your time in St Andrews, and getting a degree certainly doesn’t mean anyone owes you a job. That’s worth saying up front. I will say though that while I work in a very different area of policy than international relations, spending four years thinking about strategy and how people influence each other is still very valuable to me. It helps you establish an awareness of the context you work in, and the ability to ‘think strategically’ is a barrier to many people’s career progression that I don’t think IR graduates face. Being literate, able to do your own research and form a compelling argument are useful skills in any field too.
What advice would you give to students wishing to follow the same path?
The charity sector is huge and there are all sorts of jobs you could do. The clearer your focus, the more successful you'll be, and this may be more about aligning your applications with your experience. Focus on where your main interest and is where your experience so far has been. Charities can be tough to get into but by no means impossible. It's worth keeping your options open. I applied for the big charity graduate schemes in my final year, but also public sector ones, and my first job out of university with the NHS was what ultimately gave me exposure to Macmillan. So even though your preference is for charities, apply for other things too and you never know where you'll end up.

I recently reviewed 23 applications for an entry-level role. These had already been cut down from a long list of 125, but still about half of them didn't mention why they wanted to work for our charity and many didn't describe how their experience matched to the particular job description we'd set out. In other words they didn't seem to have been tailored to the role. Charities in particular want to see that you share their aims and have thought about what your contribution will be.

There are a lot of new graduates out there making some basic mistakes in their applications, so if you take advice from the Careers Centre you could quickly set yourself apart. The best advice I can give you is to get as much as you can from the unsuccessful applications you've already made. It can be uncomfortable reviewing past applications, and the schemes you've applied for are very competitive, but there may be answers in there that can improve your next application. I once received very detailed written feedback following an interview, and although I was disappointed not to get the job, the advice helped me get the next one I applied for. I recommend asking for feedback wherever possible and taking a copy of your unsuccessful applications to the Careers Centre for them to review.