Graduate schemes: 'We can attract talent and invest in it early'

Cancer Research UK's graduate scheme is one of the few in the sector. Annette Rawstrone talks to one entrant who went through it, and one still in it

Cancer Research UK
Cancer Research UK

Cancer Research UK is proud of its popular graduate scheme, which it has been running for 10 years. Its role in encouraging university leavers to join the charity sector has been recognised by inclusion in The Times league table of the top 100 graduate employers.

Garcia Williamson, the charity's head of learning and development, says the scheme is an excellent succession pipeline for the organisation. "It enables us to attract great talent and invest early in the development of graduates' careers," she says.

Since 2005, more than three-quarters (41 out of 53) of those finishing the two-year scheme have gone on to get permanent jobs in the charity. Many have progressed through it and now hold senior positions; one of them is a director.

Graduate schemes are less common in the charity sector than in the private sector. The Wellcome Trust and the learning centre provider IntoUniversity both run schemes similar to that of CRUK, and CharityWorks helps graduates find roles in other charities.

In 2014 CRUK received 3,000 applications for eight £24,000-a-year graduate training posts in the areas of fundraising and marketing, scientific strategy and funding, policy, information and communications, and finance and technology. Williamson says the charity looks for evidence of ability outside academic achievements, personal drive and a willingness to think commercially.

She advises people who are interested in applying for graduate traineeships to research them thoroughly. "Think about the charity's cause and whether you feel connected to it, because this shines through at interview," she says.

Anne Coleman

She was a communications graduate and is now executive project manager in the policy and information team

I felt strongly about CRUK's cause and the scheme appealed to me because I was unsure what area of comms I wanted to work in. This scheme provided the opportunity to explore different avenues on the four placements. There is additional training and development, and you're encouraged to take on challenging projects – so I felt I'd have the opportunity to learn and progress.

I found the courses, such as project management and influencing and persuading, had practical implications that have proved particularly helpful in my job. It was also good to get together in my graduate peer group to talk through challenging situations. I found advice from the other graduates and their experiences helped me to develop my skills.

I'd definitely recommend this route if you're looking for a challenge, opportunities to try things outside your comfort zone and the chance to develop your skills in a supportive and motivating workplace. But it's not the easy route - you need to be prepared to work hard.

It's important to be articulate about why you want a place on the scheme, what you can bring to the role and what you hope to gain from the experience. Think about what separates you from the crowd. Throughout the interview process I had to talk about times when I'd demonstrated competencies such as problem-solving, leadership and building relationships. I made sure I could cite examples from my academic, professional and personal life that reflected my abilities. It's also good to let your passion for the cause and enthusiasm for the role shine through.

Emily Stewart

She is in her second year of the graduate scheme, currently in the innovation team

I feel incredibly privileged to be here. Not only do I get to work in a sector and for a cause that I feel passionate about, but the development opportunities and training are excellent. I applied for the scheme because I wanted to develop commercial awareness and transferable skills, and gain an understanding of how an organisation of this size works, while contributing to a cause I care about.

I studied philosophy and psychology, so my first role, as business improvement manager for the treasury department, was a baptism of fire. But learning about finance was just the kind of new experience I wanted to gain, and I've always felt supported. Getting onto a graduate scheme is great when you're not 100 per cent certain where your skills might be suitable.

I'd advise anyone interested in a similar scheme to consider their true motivations and be ready for a challenge. If you can demonstrate your enthusiasm for the cause and are open to learning, then you'll already be in with a good chance. Schemes such as this one push you in every way because you're constantly proving your contribution and value to new teams in a short space of time. But that's a great lesson in itself.

If you're still studying, then make the most of the various opportunities to develop while at university. Then you'll have something to share and to talk about when it comes to applying for graduate schemes.

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