Dan Northam Jones now works as Director of Strategy at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and is a Visiting Fellow at the University’s Engineering Department. He studied Theology and Religion at Durham, where he focused on the Old Testament and Study of Religion. He also completed a Harkness Fellowship at the health policy research department at Harvard Medical School, looking at how parts of the ‘Obamacare’ reforms were being implemented and what the NHS could learn.
Tell us about your current role and the challenges you face.
I started working at Cambridge University Hospitals in April 2019. Normally my job is to set our strategy and plan how to deliver it as well as working on projects with others in the hospital and our partner organisations. Less than a year in, the hospital had to respond to the biggest challenge in its history: the COVID-19 pandemic. I was part of the senior team of nurses, doctors, and support staff developing and implementing a plan to care for patients and protect staff in a high-pressure and dangerous situation.
Everyone had to work very differently because nobody knew how to run a hospital during a pandemic, so we adapted the whole of the hospital to respond including creating segregated spaces for Covid patients, trebling critical care capacity, retraining and redeploying staff, and setting up a large testing facility.
The pandemic was tiring and scary, but the most fulfilling professional experience of my life. It was a privilege to be part of a team in the hospital, the NHS and our country at large – with everyone pulling together in difficult circumstances.
How do you think the study of Theology prepared you for this experience?
Theology and religious studies are inherently interdisciplinary. I studied ancient languages; examined historical documents and events; researched political, cultural, socioeconomic context; explored theological, philosophical and moral debates; and applied sociology, psychology and anthropology to understand religious groups.
This broad exposure requires you to learn quickly, identify good data sources and apply the right research methods. This is good grounding for working life, where practical problems don’t fit into neatly defined categories and so require broad input and a creative mindset to find effective solutions. It is also a good complement to the specialist knowledge brought by others, such as clinicians and academics who I work with: while they have highly specific expertise, and generalists like me help to span different specialist disciplines and see the bigger picture.
Research and Analysis
The analytical nature of theology and religious studies provided me with a broad range of primary and secondary research skills: reading academic literature; conducting interviews, focus groups and participant observation; designing, distributing, and analysing qualitative and quantitative surveys; and interpreting source documents. The big gap was advanced quantitative skills, but I could pick these up quickly through work experience.
Problem solving and creativity
Theology, much like a social science, exposes you to the complexity of real life. Real-world problems are complex and finding solutions often required a diversity of approaches and perspectives. Many of the tasks we face at work aren’t well defined at the outset. It takes time and skill to scope out the problem and come up with the right approach given constraints on time and resources. The ability to understand the situation, break complex problems into manageable parts, and then find a practical way forward was a key part of my education that has served me well at work. Management and strategy roles in healthcare — and indeed all sectors — suit open-minded and creative thinkers who can make connections, drawing flexibly on their own knowledge and recognising the expertise of others.
Has your degree choice had an impact on your life outside of work?
A subject like theology and religion nurtures curiosity about how different people find meaning in the world. I think that this helped me to feel proud of my own culture, and to understand and respect the culture of others. I hope this helps me to empathise with people even when I might disagree with them.
What would you say to anyone considering studying for a Theology degree at Durham?
Durham’s Theology department was a wonderful place to study. It is a hospitable department where everyone is made to feel welcome, and a safe place to be curious. The breadth of academic study was extraordinary, and the opportunity to learn alongside world-leading scholars was an immense privilege. Fifteen years on, I am still in touch with some of the academic staff who taught me and several of my class-mates, particularly my buddy for twice-weekly Hebrew homework!
Find out more
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Daniel Northam Jones recently took part in SHAPE, a project run by the British Academy, a collective name for the social sciences, humanities and the arts, which promotes the way these subjects help us make sense of the human world
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