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Petrochemicals: A Catalyst for a Profitable Chemical Career

Developing more efficient fuels and producing base chemicals are just two reasons why the petrochemical industry has been hiring advanced-degreed chemists and chemical engineers for decades. Today, roles for chemists in the industry range from fundamental research to applied research and development (R&D) and beyond to other technical roles, often with a customer focus. For those who take R&D jobs, the sector offers state-of-the-art equipment, a multidisciplinary environment, and the satisfaction of seeing your work applied to solving real problems. It also pays well. The only downside is that recruitment in the U.K. petrochemical sector is limited, although job-market predictions suggest a brighter future.

Routes Into Industry

Career paths and modes of entry vary in the petrochemical sector. Ph.D. chemist Steve Graville, for example, did all his research training in industry. Graville considered following his B.Sc. course in industrial chemistry (at Brunel University in the United Kingdom) with a Ph.D. in academia, but then he was offered a job at BP carrying out research on combustion processes. "I was doing very fundamental science at BP," says Graville, and he was enjoying it. So he expressed an interest in pursuing a higher degree, and his supervisor arranged for him to register his work for a Ph.D. at University College London. While still working full-time at BP--and on full salary--he earned his doctorate. "My thesis was essentially about my day-to-day work at BP," he explains.

Four years later, Graville moved to the industrial gases firm BOC to work in combustion-related R&D; his work there emphasised practical applications. One of his most rewarding projects was managing a pilot plant for BOC's sulphur-recovery process, which is used in petroleum refining. "In the end, there were probably a dozen patents that came out of the project, because the work was at the forefront of its area," he recalls. "And BOC supported all of these."

Evolving Roles

Graville’s career at BOC has given him the opportunity to work in a number of areas outside combustion research. He now plays a more commercial role, working with customers providing solutions for the supply and integration of hydrogen plants located at refinery sites, a growth area for BOC. "I very much enjoy the customer focus, but it’s still very technical," he explains. "You have to have the technical background to really understand what the customer wants and provide the right solution."

Steve Graville

Entering Industry as a Postdoc

Chemical engineer John Crawshaw entered the chemical industry at a later career stage than Graville did. Crawshaw earned an M.Eng. and Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Nottingham University in the U.K. and then did a 3-year postdoc at the University of Cambridge before joining the oil-field-services company Schlumberger in 1994. Crawshaw's move into the petrochemical industry was motivated, he says, mainly by curiosity about what it would be like to work in industry and a suspicion that the facilities for doing experimental science were very much better there than he had found in academia. Crawshaw joined Schlumberger on an 18-month fixed-term postdoc contract; 12 years later he is still with them, as a programme manager at the Schlumberger Cambridge Research Centre. His current research focuses on how viscoelastic surfactant solutions flow through rock formations from which hydrocarbons are extracted.

The research environment and aims in industry are quite different from those in academia, says Crawshaw. "Whereas in academia you have far more freedom to pursue intellectually interesting ideas that don't necessarily lead to a practical application, usually we [in industry] have a specific problem that we are trying to solve," he explains. "And you have to bring together the science from whatever area to try to solve it. Our teams tend to be very multidisciplinary, and I very much enjoy that."

John Crawshaw

Challenges and Pressures

That's not to say that life in industry is perfect. Both Graville and Crawshaw say their jobs are not without pressures. Doing new science and delivering new technology within the time frames required by business can be stressful and may mean working long or unsociable hours, particularly in global companies with team members scattered around the world.

Unfortunately, jobs in the industry--and new hires--are not abundant. Les Bolton, a reactor engineering advisor for BP's acetyls business in Sunbury-on-Thames, U.K., who helps with BP's recruiting, says that "it's a relatively small number of Ph.D.s we're taking in, about two or three chemists and two or three chemical engineers in the U.K. each year." Kevin Dinnage, also at BP, oversees the company's recently established Technology Associate programme, which targets Ph.D.s and postdocs whose expertise is directly relevant to the company. But Dinnage says such opportunities are relatively rare.

Still, there are other modes of entry. Bolton notes that even if there is a limit on specific-expertise hires, chemists and chemical engineers who are prepared to generalise--to apply their knowledge and research skills outside their areas of direct expertise--will have broader career options.

Chasing Opportunities

With relatively few jobs currently on offer in the petrochemical industry, presenting yourself well during recruitment is crucial. In order to attract recruiters’ attention and secure an interview, says Bolton, candidates need to stand out on their application forms. "We’re not only looking at the academic [achievement]," he says. "Anything, including sports activities or voluntary work, particularly if it arose from your own initiative," will be noticed. Communication and presentation skills are highly valued in the sector, and "one of the characteristics we are looking for is the ability to work in teams."

Indeed, in the petrochemical industry many of the job requirements--such as versatility and the ability to think on your feet--are the same as they are elsewhere in industry. Maddie Smith, a career consultant at the University of Manchester, U.K., says she has observed that "the more successful candidates are those that are able to demonstrate that they can think of alternatives and solutions to achieve a goal." During an interview--and in the games and exercises frequently used during assessment--such people "are able to show that they can think about the applications of their knowledge outside of the narrow focus of their Ph.D.," says Smith. The ability to capture the attention of a potential employer with skills such as these can be a great help in turning an interview into an offer.

Job-Market Growth

Even more helpful--and hopeful--are recent predictions that indicate an upturn in the sector's job opportunities. This year, Cogent--an independent organisation licensed by the U.K. government to research potential skills shortages in the sector--published a report on the skills needs of the petroleum industry. The report describes "an aging workforce" with "fewer young people opting for a career in scientific disciplines. ... The sector requires new graduates, particularly in chemical engineering, and process and energy engineering." It projects a demand between 2004 and 2014 of roughly 6000 science, engineering, and technical professionals in the industry. The number isn't large compared to some industries, but it's many times larger than current rates of hiring.

Challenges and Rewards

Those who are already in the sector say the upsides are substantial. The financial rewards in the petrochemical sector, as in most science-based industries, are greater than what academia offers. But, say Graville, Crawshaw, and Bolton, the greatest reward is seeing your research put to practical use. "The satisfaction of seeing things I've worked on being used," notes Crawshaw, "is one very important aspect of my job."

Nina Morgan is a freelance writer based near Oxford, U.K.

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