Experiences Work

Article by John Wilson AMIChemE

John Wilson explains why undergraduate placements are so important

TOWARDS the end of 2004, I had pretty much decided that chemical engineering was potentially one of the biggest mistakes I had made. I was half-way through my third year of university, finding the course very hard and not looking forward to what it offered me in terms of a future.

At this point, several of my course-mates had found placements and most of the others were well into the process of applications. I had made a few applications but struggled with motivation when the jobs just didn’t appeal.

Fast forward nearly 16 years and I find myself having graduated with a 2:1, working in the water treatment sector, a sizeable list of countries visited on business, and having had a reasonably successful career so far. Sometimes I am asked what were the defining moments in my career and my answer is always the same: my industrial placement.

It is because of this that I have become so passionate about the topic of industrial years and driving the message of what benefits they can have for people in the very early stages in their chemical engineering journey. In this article I aim to explore the one-year industrial placements, sometimes called “sandwich years”, and the benefits that they can offer.

It’s important to note that, while I won’t be discussing shorter placements, all types of placement are invaluable, whether it be two weeks or three months during the summer.

Whilst many UK universities actively encourage students to take industrial years, not many make it a mandatory part of the course. I attended, perhaps luckily, Aston University in Birmingham, UK, where the placements were strongly promoted.

Carolina Salinas, Head of Placements at Aston informed me that today, 74% of the student body does placements and such is their belief in the value of these years that they have a goal to get that number to 100% by 2023. 

Class of

To present a wider view of the benefits of placements, I spoke with graduates who had done a year in industry and are currently at various stages of their careers:

  • Pasha Khan finished her Bachelor’s with a placement in 2016 and went on to do a Master’s in Advanced Chemical Engineering at Birmingham University, UK. 
  • Jack Muirhead graduated from the University of Chester, UK in 2019, and was one of the first through its new chemical engineering programme. At the time, the university did not offer placements as part of its courses but, realising the importance, Jack took a year out and organised one himself.
  • Emma Markwell is a 2020 graduate who is taking her first steps of her post-university chemical engineering journey in the Covid era.

I asked them why they thought it was important to do an industrial placement.

Jack said: “In engineering, gaining experience at an early stage of your career is vital. Through (summer) placements I gained knowledge in both process engineering, and design and build. I was able to take this knowledge I gained from these roles back into my degree during my second and third year, which helped me greatly with my industrial-based modules, such as my design projects. During my third year I felt I had a gap in my knowledge within project management and knew I would be completing modules in this within my Master’s. Having had such positive experiences with industrial placements I decided to look for a year in industry where I could develop skills in project management and become a more rounded engineer.”

For Emma the advantage it could give her upon graduating was a key factor: “I thought doing a placement was really important in order to get a real feel for what working in the industry was like, and would give me an edge when it came to applying at a graduate level. I also wasn’t entirely sure which direction I wanted to take my degree and was hoping a placement year would allow me time away from study to see different paths that I might not have considered otherwise.”

For Pasha, her career path has been less clear so far: “As a pharmacy drop-out, I was unsure of the exact career route I wanted to pursue but engineering appealed to me due to the industrial experience and variety of career streams it offered. I understood that the industrial placement will provide good means of attaining experience and open up career prospects which I may not have considered.”

Pasha Khan: Expectations can be different to the reality of working

Today, when I interview prospective placement candidates for the company I work at, I always find it interesting to explore their hopes and expectations of a year in industry. Years ago I went into my placement without a real concept of what life in a working, industrial environment would be like, but with a knowledge that I was there to learn as much as possible.

When questioned on this point, Pasha noted that expectations can be different to the reality of working: “Going into the industrial placement year I expected all my focus would be on the technicalities of engineering, which in all honesty is the push from most universities. However, if anything, that is one element in an array of experiences you attain. I found having a good dialogue with my manager allowed me to steer my industrial experience in multiple directions for example commercial, projects and manufacturing [with] hands-on experience.”

Emma reflected: “I think I was expecting to have very little responsibility, maybe some desk-work shadowing people. I was mostly looking to gain interpersonal skills, as I lacked confidence in communicating and working within teams and was hoping a placement would push me to be more confident in a work place environment.”

Similarly, Jack said: “I went into each of my industrial experiences in order to gain first-hand experience of engineering problems and the process of solving and overcoming them. Not only did I want to challenge my engineering principles I had previously learnt, I wanted to gain exposure to new fields. This led me to apply for my role within my placement company.” 

All the interviewees said that they went into placements to gain experience and use it in their final years, and then after graduating.

I asked them to tell me how it directly benefited them in their final years of their course. Jack said: “Within my third year I was required to complete two design-based projects and having hands-on experience on sites made these a great deal easier. 

“Having worked in a professional environment for over a year I learnt to structure my workload more efficiently; this taught me to work more productively during my Master’s. As part of my course  I had another two design projects along with a thesis to complete. I found the structuring processes I had learnt were instrumental to me achieving a first-class degree. I feel through industrial placements you are able to learn and gain experiences that cannot be taught in lectures and seminars. These soft skills and knowledge that I gained were the foundations to allow me to reach my full potential at university.”

Pasha highlighted a new ability to be able make practical links between theory and application: “In the university bubble, the practicalities of executing theory or more academic principles were always blurry for me. Through my placement experience I was able to better understand theory by application. For example, the module “Separation Processes” at university introduced the principles of separation by filtration, which only started to make sense through membrane technologies and filtration methods I was exposed to on placement. The principles of fluidised beds, gas absorption and relevance of operating parameters/conditions suddenly become more comprehendible.”

For Emma, the benefits were both in soft as well as hard skills, which could be used in her final year. “I had definitely gained confidence and was more efficient working within a team. This was really apparent when it came to my design project group where I took on more leadership roles, whereas before I would have definitely taken a back seat. I also had a well-needed improvement in my overall organisation and ability to keep up with my workload.”

Jack Muirhead: Organised his own placement

Employability factor

The aim of the vast majority of chemical engineering undergraduates is to enter the workplace as soon as possible. One of the common stated benefits of doing a year in industry is that it makes you more employable. I wanted to see if this statement held up for the interviewees.

When asked whether she thought her placement directly benefited her after graduating, Emma couldn’t be more positive: “100% yes. Going into my first interview for a graduate position I was unrecognisable to the person attending placement interviews. I am a more confident and well-rounded person, with an extra year of experience to draw upon and I was able to accept a really exciting opportunity because of it.” 

Jack was equally sure: “Yes, having hands-on experience in both project management and engineering has helped me in securing a role working on some of the largest UK infrastructure projects and again with my day-to-day responsibilities. From the get-go I was able to settle into the company and quickly grasp my projects thanks to my previous experience. Being able to draw from similar scenarios I am able to understand new concepts around project management and when being exposed to new fields of engineering and I am able to approach them confidently.” 

Reinforcing that aspect of being able to hit the ground running, Pasha commented: “Industrial experience most definitely directly benefitted me as a fresh graduate. From understanding of basic industrial jargon to technical plant design, report writing, operations manual writing and reporting key findings. The experience allowed me to anchor basic pillars, general work ethics and more importantly problem solving, as well as increasing my confidence in handling technical data.”

Research from the Aston placement team shows that students who do a placement perform better in their final year, achieve better graduate outcomes, and earn a higher salary after graduation. For engineering disciplines this be can up to £8,000/y  (US$10,250/y) more in the UK.

Emma Markwell: Gained confidence in working in teams

In fact, for engineering disciplines the benefits to students in their final year and as graduates are particularly accentuated.

Reflecting back on the conversations with the interviewees, it’s clear to see common threads emerging when it comes to the benefits that they saw in doing their placements:

  • gaining soft and hard skills which would directly improve their chances of doing better in their final year(s);
  • experience in an industrial setting which allowed them to stand out from the crowd when it came to graduate recruitment at a time when competition for roles is high; 
  • a chance to get some direction and perspective on what their future paths might be and enable them to shape it.

For me personally, it is this last point that actually kept me in chemical engineering. I saw that there were indeed countless paths that I could take and a much wider spectrum of industries that would be open to me. I found myself excited to be a chemical engineer, and thrived in my final year.

In the last ten years, I have either directly hired, or been involved in hiring, two placement students every year and have interviewed countless undergraduates. It always astonishes me to see how the placement students develop over the year and know first-hand how it can benefit them in their final year, as well as giving them the advantage when it comes to job searching.

Over a further two articles, I will be exploring placements in terms of benefits to the employers, as well as looking into how candidates can best go about the application process.

Article by John Wilson AMIChemE

Operations Manager (Mobile), SUEZ Water Technologies & Solutions

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