When you leave university and get a job most engineering graduates are thrown in the deep end, expected to be competent in the work place and in a new industry. This can be very daunting and is a time full of unknowns. Below are some tips to try to make sense of the exciting new position that graduate chemical engineers find themselves in.
1. Learn the value of networking
Networking both inside and outside your profession and industry is extremely important. It is much easier to get a job through the recommendation of a colleague than through a blind resume. Networking also opens the opportunity for business deals, and career progression, and can be done in any social event.
2. Build your reputation
“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”Benjamin Franklin
Having a good reputation goes a long way to achieving success both in terms of everyday work activities and long-term career progression.
3. Set career goals
What do you want to get out of your current job? High pay, development opportunities, ability to travel, experience? Think about what you are trying to achieve and you may see things in a different perspective. Look forward 2, 5, and 10 years and set clear, achievable goals. This will give you direction and purpose in your work and your career.
4. Get a mentor
Learning from an experienced engineer can significantly reduce the amount of time wasted at a new job. Find out who the shot callers are, the history of the plant, previous successful projects, and potential career opportunities.
5. Get to know the people on the coal face
The people actually doing the work, operating the process, and maintaining the equipment see the problems and potential solutions everyday. Get to know them and hear their ideas and you will save yourself a huge amount of time. For a graduate engineer there are a lot of practical systems that are critical to process improvement that you will not know without operating the equipment. Get your hands dirty and it will help you in the long run.
6. Take time to develop yourself
Your own development as an engineer is something that you should work on throughout your entire career. Professional associations, conferences, and networking opportunities are all ways to progress your skill and career. Technical experience and improving your soft skills take time, but are worth it in the long run.
7. Never stop learning
University teaches the general overview in terms of theoretical fundamentals. As you delve into individual piece of equipment, processing plant strategies, and synergy between equipment you will discover that there is a huge amount that you do not know. Go through journal articles, textbooks, and old site documentation and you will go a long way to remove this knowledge gap.
8. Don’t chase the dollar
Chemical engineers are generally very well paid. Early in your career it can be very difficult to refuse a high paying job to focus on gaining experience and exposure to different industries. Think long-term about your development as an engineer and what your current decisions will have on your future career aspirations.
9. Work in the field
What is actually happening in the plant cannot be seen from a computer screen. Studying the process trends is important, but there are many changes that can only be seen visually in the field. Blown pump glands, filter cloth holes, steam leaks, and water ingress can all have a major impact on a processing plant’s performance, and are difficult to identify through instrumentation. Try to spend as much time outside as you can and think of every trip as a learning opportunity.
10. Expose yourself to other people’s expertise
Every project no matter how small will involve dozens of different disciplines, whether it is the process, instrumentation, mechanical standards, site standards, operability or ease of maintenance. Exposing yourself to all these different areas will mean that you can consider their impact in much greater detail and reduce the number of revisions that are required to make everybody happy.
11. Learn how to manage time
In any professional environment there are a lot of urgent matters which will take your attention away from the work that really matters. Learning how to manage your own time as well as prioritize the work that will make a long term difference is important to seeing real process gains.
12. Learn how to manage projects
Project management is an extremely valuable skill to have. Hundreds of books have been written on the subject because the difference between a good project manager and a poor one can result in months of delays and millions of dollars in additional costs. Learn early about how to manage small projects and you will have much greater success in future, larger projects.
13. Improve your technical writing skills
Remember that a lot of processing plants will be running long after you have left and consider the problems that you have successfully and unsuccessfully solved. Imagine a new engineer taking your role and the amount of time that could be saved if they do not have to repeat your mistakes. Documentation is extremely important, and the technical writing ability to show the full story is critical. Technical writing also allows you to justify capital expenditure, change operating practices and improve general plant performance.
14. Change your presentation style
Universities provide opportunities for students to practice presenting to a group of their peers, but in the real world you will be presenting to very different groups of people – business leaders, management, technical experts, operations, maintenance, and every group in between. The ability to persuade and effectively present your point of view can be the difference between project success and cancellation. Find out who you are presenting to, what you want to gain out of the presentation, and how you are going to achieve this long before you actually present and you will go a long way to achieving success.
15. Study the P&IDs
Learning how your process works is more than just looking at the flow diagrams. Studying the P&IDs will teach you were important instrumentation is, line sizes, drain lines, possible line-ups and dozens of other useful and practical tools. Going out into the plant and following the lines with an accurate P&ID should be one of the first activities any graduate does.
16. Never trust the P&IDs
Particularly with older processing plants – never trust the P&IDs! After various ‘quick fix’ solutions, maintenance changes, and equipment age it is inevitable that some P&IDs do not accurately represent the actual plant. Make sure you verify all information before making any important decisions. A small amount of time checking could save you a lot of errors and embarrassment down the track.
17. Spend as much time on site as possible
You can work in an office when you are old and grey. No amount of design is as important as how the equipment is actually used. Take every opportunity to see different unit operations in production and you will gain a lot of insight into problems and potential improvements.
18. Think about the big picture
As much as it feels like your project is the only thing that matters, it can often be a small piece in a much larger puzzle. Take a step back and look at the big picture. This will often give you more insight into the real purpose of your project. Are you looking at energy efficiency gains for production increase, cost reduction, or environmental reasons?
19. Teach as much as you are taught
Although it often feels like you are a complete beginner, remember that you have years of education that others do not. Passing this knowledge on to processing plant operations is a great way to improving the decisions they make. Everything that you learn is something that other people may not know. Take the opportunity to train the crews and they will reward you in operational excellence.
20. Don’t re-invent the wheel
Unless the processing plant that you are working at is already operating at near full capacity and theoretical fuel efficiency there is no need to re-invent the wheel. Tried methods for improvement are simple and effective, and usually do not require brand new technology. Look for the ‘low hanging fruit’ and work on projects that are simple and provide the biggest returns on your time/investment. Once you have got some more experience then start looking for the major industry breakthrough.
21. Experience, Experience, Experience
Try to experience as many different pieces of equipment, analytical methods, control strategies, projects, and processes as you can. This gives you a major advantage over other engineers, and allows you to draw solutions from many different systems. The ability to pick the best from a wide range of situations is key to success.
Graduating from university as a chemical engineer is just the first step. If you have any advice of your own to share please comment below.