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Advice to a 2nd Year Chem Eng Student

A friend asked me to give some advice to a second year chemical engineering student they had met at a networking event. What follows is a slightly edited version of the email I sent them.

Hi (name removed),

Your email address was passed on to me by (name removed) who said that you were looking for some advice around internships and graduate placements.

I am a former Edinburgh University chemical engineering student. I graduated in 2009 when the job market was particularly struggling due to the financial crash that was still underway. I am currently a control engineer at Grangemouth Refinery, though in the past I have worked in operations both here and at British Sugar. I am not involved with recruitment at my current employer, though I was partially involved with graduate recruitment at British Sugar and I am happy to give some general advice from what I have seen.

One of the things that was recommended to myself when I was a student was to get involved with a society or sports club and I fully agree, particularly if you can take on some responsibility. Not only does the responsibility look good on a CV or application form, it often provides useful experiences and times when you can answer some of the more difficult application or interview questions which start ‘Describe a time when…’.

In terms of summer jobs, I do not think it is the end of the world if you don’t have an industrial internship. I particularly would not worry about not having one at the end of second year. During the summers at the end of first and second years, I worked at Pollock Halls as a porter moving bags of rubbish and dirty laundry about. It wasn’t till the end of third year that I did anything that was vaguely related to engineering when I took part in iGEM as a member of the Edinburgh team. The only internship that I think any employers really took any notice of was my final one at the end of fourth year when I spent eight weeks at Fawley refinery working for Exxon Mobil.

To get the summer placement with Exxon, I don’t think that the application form would have done much on its own. I had attended one of their graduate recruitment events which involved an overnight stay in Aviemore. It was at the event that one of the recruiters told me to apply and importantly, to email her once I had done so. I can’t say for sure what the recruiter was looking for at the event, but I suspect that it was those of us who were able to have fun but also be sensible and carry out the tasks asked of us and be helpful without being asked. Simple things but not everyone was able to do so.

In terms of graduate recruitment, I was briefly involved with interviews when I worked at British Sugar. I was not involved in the actual interviews themselves or in any of the decisions but I was to meet the candidates and give them a tour of the factory before handing them over to the two senior managers who would be interviewing them. Before the interview began, the managers would ask me how the tour went. They were interested in the candidate's attitude during the tour. Were they interested and asking questions? When introduced to a random operator, how did they respond? Did they seem comfortable with the heights and noise within the factory?

The one thing that I have noticed from every interview I have done is that interviewers are very interested in safety and your understanding of it. I have been asked which disasters we have studied at university and then been asked lots of questions about the event. How did it happen? What went wrong? What needs to be done to avoid such accidents? To win bonus points during an interview, I highly recommend bringing up safety whenever possible.

Another thing I would again emphasis is that a lot of these things come down to networking and knowing people. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think my application for Exxon would have gotten me to the interview stage if it wasn’t for the recruiter’s assistance. I recommend attending as many events as possible, particularly recruitment events organisers as well as general industry events like those organised by IChemE.

On that note, I will shamelessly plug an event I am organising (and presenting) next week in Edinburgh on behalf of IChemE, Disastrous Dinners: The Kings Cross Fire. The event is intended to cover a safety aspect as well as being a relaxed social event where folk can meet other engineers.

In summary:

  • Take on responsibility
  • Learn and show off your safety knowledge
  • Try and meet as many folk in person.

Apologies for the long email, I hope it has helped. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me (or have a chat in person at next week’s event).

All the best,

Alistair Marshall

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