What I Wish I knew as an Undergraduate

Article by Laura Grindey AMIChemE, Sameen Barabhuiya AMIChemE and Paul Jenkinson

Laura Grindey, Paul Jenkinson and Sameen Barabhuiya of IChemE’s National Early Careers Committee offer the benefit of hindsight

IT’S THE classic question isn’t it? If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice what would it be? Try as we might, we’re not expecting the laws of physics to change any time soon, so, charged with helping the coming generation of young engineers, we thought let’s not look back, let’s look forward. A few of us from IChemE’s National Early Careers Committee (NECC) got together to share our thoughts for those chemical engineers yet to graduate.

Think local

Placement schemes are arguably one of the most daunting aspects of university. The application deadlines conflict with university deadlines and I found it really piled on the pressure. I felt that stress, as did my fellow undergraduates. It’s easy to feel as though the industry is out of reach but I can assure you there are actions you can take to bring it within your grasp.

I felt my chances of competing and securing an industrial placement were limited by my relatively low A-Level grades and the high costs of renting away from home. So I sought out more local companies, thinking they might offer me a more achievable route into industry. When I was in my first year at university, I emailed three chemical companies local to my family home, asking them for a paid summer placement. None of them were advertising summer placements so there was, of course, the risk that my applications were futile but if they were interested then I had the upside that I faced no competition from other applicants. Music to my ears!

There’s a plus-side for employers too. It eliminates the cost and effort of advertising, and reviewing applications, and supporting students with finding accommodation. Of the three I contacted, one got back to me offering a three-month paid placement; this kickstarted my career in the chemical manufacturing industry.

To find local companies in your area, I recommend using Google Maps, searching key phrases like chemical company, chemical manufacturing, or chemical engineering. This really worked for me, with four chemical companies in and around my closest town. Once you’ve found a local company you want to apply to, I recommend searching its website for any email addresses that may be relevant. Address your email with your CV and cover letter to its Chemical Engineering Department. Make it clear who you are aiming to reach. You could even search on LinkedIn to find an exact employee you want to talk to.

I advise you to take a bit more time on your applications if you use this approach. Researching exactly what the company does allows you tailor applications and shows the company that you are truly eager to work. By being specific about what you can contribute you can give the company an idea of how you will fit into its business. In my case, I was able to contribute AutoCAD experience and help upgrade the site’s P&IDs. Though applying locally may not work for everyone, speaking to staff members in various companies through LinkedIn will always provide opportunities to build connections and gain more recognition as an aspiring engineer.

I applied using this technique for a summer placement the following year at a different local company, allowing for development of skills from my first role. The summer placement experiences I gained helped me secure a year-long placement in industry and finally, my employment after I graduated. Think outside the box when searching for experience and look locally as there may be experience available within walking distance! Experience may even be within the university walls, with summer research projects and PhD support roles available so do check with your university about these. Completing a mix of both can help when deciding to continue in academia or pursue a role in industry.

“Courses and committee roles can be challenging but grasping every opportunity whilst at university will give you an edge when it comes to job hunting”

Do not underestimate the importance of societies and soft skills

Often, the fast-paced environment of university can distract you from your key passions. Societies and extra courses can be overlooked but, they are a great way of allowing you time away from your workload, whilst connecting you with others who share your hobbies. They are also paramount for job applications and personal development. In my first year, I opted into an AutoCAD course taught by older students within my university. I knew this software would be appearing in my degree at a later date and really wanted to get a head start! This skill was massively important when I started applying for placements with my first role focused on creating new piping and instrumentation diagrams using AutoCAD. Gaining additional skills allow for companies to have more confidence in you to work independently. Consider searching for both academic and hobby-based societies that you would like to join via your Students Union website. Get involved in as much as you can and speak with current committees. Learn about their goals and show your interest. Apply for a role on the committee! Courses and committee roles can be challenging but grasping every opportunity whilst at university will give you an edge when it comes to job hunting.

Think smaller

If your undergraduate peer group is anything like mine was, the overriding ambition was to secure a job at one of the major industrial companies. We wanted to join companies that employed hundreds or thousands of other engineers – and especially those that had a formal graduate programme! The appeal is that a rotational scheme would allow for varied experience and predictable progression. A recently-employed graduate can expect to find themselves starting in a certain function of the business, contributing to their work activities and networking with the team members. After some time, they would transfer to a different department or even a different site before concluding a preference for a permanent position. With the limited number of vacancies of these programme types available and increasing graduate numbers, smaller companies shouldn’t be overlooked and can offer their own set of benefits! I sought employment at a smaller company and found that there tends to be much more flexibility in deciding on what extra responsibilities you could take on.

This in turns allows you to gain exposure to other departments of the business alongside your core tasks and develop additional professional skills. In one of my previous jobs, I put myself forward to contribute to the business development team and engaged in the more strategic activities of the company. I had a desire to further my understanding of how a business grows and adapts to market requirements. This role included conducting research outside of the main industries of the business – ie energy transition technologies and reaching out to potential new clients for new opportunities. I’ve experienced that with a simpler corporate hierarchy typical in smaller organisations; you have more autonomy to choose how you want to tackle a problem or approach a conflicting situation. You can decide what supporting actions you want to take on – or not – depending on your development needs. For example, I opted to use this new role to prepare and deliver more presentations. This grew my confidence to become a more effective communicator. Feedback from peers in other smaller companies has also highlighted experience of people leadership responsibility early on. Some have directly been involved in the recruitment and line management of younger staff within five years of graduating.

After speaking with several students, there is a great preference to join the larger companies as they are more likely to operate an IChemE-accredited training scheme, which allows graduates to meet key requirements for chartership in a timely, structured manner. However, this shouldn’t dissuade graduates from applying to the vast number of companies that don’t have this programme. The expected development of competency skills and professional experience are just as achievable. There is more onus on the graduate to ensure their work activities and training align with chartership requirements. I’ve found this to be beneficial as it encourages regular reflective reviews. These self-led reviews allow not only for an accurate up-to-date record of experience but also offer boosts in confidence, as achievements are actively acknowledged. Be proactive and engage with your line manager and an IChemE mentor. This process can be very fulfilling. If you are not on an accredited scheme, the Initial Professional Development (IPD) stage recently introduced to IChemE’s chartership process also makes this activity easier to manage. Be open when applying for placements and graduate positions – don’t restrict applications to just larger well-known companies. Take ownership of tracking and reflecting on your experiences!

Grasp new opportunities

While it may be tempting to remain in a role due to comfort and fear of being perceived as a job-hopper, personal circumstances or a lacklustre experience may convince you to try out a new industry or role type. As an early-career professional you are likely to have fewer commitments and more flexibility. I’ve had three different jobs since graduating five years ago and was fortunate to experience both sides of the industrial fence – design (client serving), and operations. It was daunting to move between such different roles and locations. However, I gained a whole host of transferable engineering knowledge, skills and professional competence. This ranged from appreciating the technical differences (and similarities) between industries to understanding how to adapt and perform effectively in different engineering environments and cultures. Working front line on a traditional chemical plant is a bit different to a shiny new consultancy office! I also learnt how different companies approach common industrial challenges such as sustainability and decarbonisation, which have become significant interests of mine. Overall, it’s about having confidence in your own abilities and adapting to the needs of the job. Recruiters are aware that early-career professionals may lack industry-specific experience, but they trust in your achievements and your potential. Some recruiters I’ve spoken to in the past have said it’s not a “red flag” to job hop if you have clear reasons and motivations to do so. They also emphasised that job adverts are “wish lists”, so do not be put off from applying to new opportunities even if you think you are not completely qualified. Don’t be afraid to take on new opportunities early on in your career and understand that you will gain valuable experience no matter where you end up.

Work smarter

One of the most challenging issues I had to overcome at university was adapting my learning style. I worked on several difficult projects each needing subjective approaches, very different to the tried-and-tested strategies used in A-Levels. I particularly remember one time in first year trying over and over to solve a degrees-of-freedom equation where I had not fully grasped the concept in lectures. Despite throwing myself at the assignment late into the night, it was only the next day once I revisited the concept and filled my learning gap that I was able to see through the trees and understand how to solve the problem. If I was back there in first year, I wish I had realised this sooner. To be a chemical engineering undergraduate, it is a prerequisite that you can work hard. But working smarter rather than harder best increases efficiency – and saves a lot of effort!

“To be a chemical engineering undergraduate, it is a prerequisite that you can work hard. But working smarter rather than harder best increases efficiency – and saves a lot of effort!”

Take care of yourself and manage your workload holistically

It is so easy to become stuck in a uni-bubble with various assignments, lab reports, and exams. As self-driven studies stretched me to produce more in my second and third year, the silence of the library really took its toll, drowning out the world beyond. I have since realised that rest is not just time away from work but an essential part of maximising the quality of assignments. Doing activities aside from studying are crucial for helping develop yourself as a person - something just as important as your degree! I really wish I had prioritised engaging with the countless societies, communities and opportunities that come with student life. Where else can you be a radio DJ, a quidditch-er or a hitchhiker in your spare time? Remember you are not a machine – so make sure you dedicate time to other things that make you happy.

My biggest “sliding-doors moment” came in my fourth year at university. After three years of throwing absolutely everything into my studies, I found myself completely burnt out. It suddenly hit me that I really needed to spend some time working on me rather than just the next assignment. I sought out help from a university mentoring programme and I never looked back. And my final year grades rose as a result! Learning to take care of yourself is key. If you find this hard, you could seek advice from your university support services or from a friend. Your friends may be finding it difficult too!

Devote time for your future

When thinking of what to do beyond university, it is a very daunting prospect. With the Covid-19 pandemic landing in my final year, looking even a day ahead was tricky! The uncertainty of the future was all too easy to push aside, and I did not dedicate enough time planning out my next steps. From experience, hurried CVs will really not help you get to where you want to be. Five well-thought-out CVs to positions you can see yourself in outweigh 50 empty applications! At the same time, do not lose nights of sleep. This uncertainty has brought many great opportunities worth looking forward to.

We hope you have found this guidance useful! If you are an undergraduate or recent graduate and want to boost your network, join the IChemE National Early Careers Committee by following us on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/ichemenecc) and contacting our committee members.

Article By

Laura Grindey AMIChemE

Chemical engineer, Eternis Fine Chemicals UK and member of IChemE's National Early Careers Group

Sameen Barabhuiya AMIChemE

Process Engineer at NuFarm

Paul Jenkinson

Senior Gas Networks Engineer (Net Zero), GTC

Recent Editions

Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.