Each Friday we post a new v i s t a profile, a career beyond the academy story (use the tags at the bottom of the post to find the entire list). These posts accompany our curated events to support post-PhD career transitions, v i s t a mentoring, and also #sheffvista on Twitter.
Job title and company: National Fuel Quality Manager, Stobart Biomass Products Limited
Around 6 months before I finished my PhD, I knew that I wanted to do something different once I had finished. I wanted a faster pace of work, more defined targets with timescales, more structure to my work. I had also spent a long time at University and I just wanted to experience something else. I hadn’t had the best supervision experience towards the end of my PhD and I probably let this cloud my judgement more than I should have – I really thought “life would be greener on the other side”, I specifically remember thinking that all the machines in all the laboratories in industry wouldn’t need fixing the whole time!
I started applying for various graduate schemes to start in the September, which marked my 3-year point in my PhD. I went through an assessment centre and accepted a job offer from RWE npower, working in their Central Chemistry Laboratories. The department I joined supported the company’s range of power stations in the UK. The graduate scheme was 2 years long, and a good mix of classroom learning, on the job projects and fitting into my home team. After this, a vacancy arose for someone to support one of the gas fired power stations in both environmental and chemistry disciplines. I was working 3 days/week at the station and 2 days/week at home.
I had been with RWE for nearly 4 years when a recruiter sent me a message on LinkedIn asking if I would be interested in a Plant Chemist job at a new Energy from Waste plant starting to be built right next to RWE Central Chemistry. This was a great move from me, in addition to being closer to home; I was the sole chemist in the business, no support network and therefore a good challenge. The plant, being new, had a high staff turnover and since I was involved in the business very early on, I had a really good knowledge of a range of things. As a result, when the Fuels Contract Manager and the Environmental Manager left, I picked up these responsibilities. I ended up with a huge job title, Plant Chemist, Environmental Officer and Fuels Liaison! The job was about as busy as it sounds, and it frustrated my inner perfectionist that I didn’t have chance to do any of the 3 roles well.
I kept in touch with the ex-Fuels Contract Manager and we met at an industry event in September 2016. He had just moved to a new company and we discussed the potential of a job for me. After interviewing with the CEO and the COO of the business, I started my current role in December.
Stobart Group (that grew out of the Eddie Stobart haulage business) have a focus on their Energy division at the moment and are expanding to supply over 2m tonnes of wood fuel to biomass burning power stations over the next year. My role ensures that the material that we send out meets the detailed specification of the power station. I manage a team of quality control managers and technicians who test the fuels in house and send them out for analysis. At the moment, the majority of my job entails putting the data into order and publicising it to the wider business and the customers. I currently mostly interact internally with a wide range of staff in operations and commercial departments, but as the power stations get up and running I will be dealing more with customers as well.
A typical week in my job does involve a lot of driving, but it means that every week is different. I am currently getting everything set up, so I visit the new labs, the new processing sites, and the customers sites. I also spend time visiting my team, who are also spread out across the country, to ensure they are supported. I am currently learning about the ways that the material differs, and what processing leads to different analysis results. It is very similar data analysis and understanding the consequence of the results as I was using during my PhD, but I am now also learning about the commercials and how my analysis impacts the business.
The main difference I see between academia and my work environment is that my job is driven more by business need. It will change sometimes from one day to the next depending on what is happening in the wider business. Most people I interact with daily (outside my team) have different goals within the business, there isn’t that group focus towards knowledge and understanding that academia has. We all have different knowledge and experience, which can be seen as both a pro and a con.
It has never been a requirement of a job I’ve had to have a PhD, but I have always found it impresses. I have always worked in science roles and it seems to carry a weight with it that has been beneficial to me. People assume I am intelligent before they even meet me!
My biggest tip for progressing your career is to put yourself out there. I’ve found LinkedIn to be a great resource; don’t be afraid to ask to connect with people even if you have only met them briefly. Keep up with relationships you make with people. You may have the perfect set of skills for a job so you need to find out about it and showcase your skills.
Where can researchers look for jobs like yours? I started off with The Times’ list of The Top 100 Graduate Employers and applied to some whose engineering roles interested me. A graduate scheme is a really good way to get an introduction into a new industry. For current roles like mine, any company who make a product will have a Quality Control department so it is worth checking out companies in an industry that interests you.
What professional/accrediting bodies, or qualifications are relevant to where you work? I am a Chartered Chemist with the Royal Society of Chemistry from my days working in power stations. Chartership started out primarily as a measure of professional development in engineering, but other disciplines have included it to ensure they are represented in engineering type careers.