Read Kathy’s story for insight into making the most of graduate schemes, the value of work experience, and working in a challenging Oil and Gas environment.
‘Look for opportunities wherever you can…You can never lose out by applying and you’ll surprise yourself with what you end up doing!’
What was your degree?
MEng Chemical Engineering (although originally applied for BEng ChemEng and only changed my mind to do a Masters halfway through the degree)
What is your current role?
Process Safety Engineer in the TAR (turnaround/shutdown) team at BP FPS, Grangemouth
Talk us through your Career History…
Joined BP in Sept 2014 on the Process Safety engineering graduate scheme.
First year was in the Process Safety team in Aberdeen supporting the offshore platforms. I was involved in day-to-day process safety issues as well as longer-term Safety Case updates for the Health & Safety Executive.
Second year was on an offshore rotation as a Production Support Engineer on ETAP platform. I analysed the platform production data, compiled daily and weekly reports, supported management and was first point of contact for non-urgent queries from onshore.
Third year I was moved down to FPS as a member of the TAR team (where I currently still am). On FPS, there are three ‘trains’ (replicated equipment) so that we can take a train down and still allow oil and gas to be processed by the other two. Due to this, we end up having a major shutdown roughly once a year. The job involves planning for the shutdowns, controlling and management of change packs, working with contractors to manage work onsite, and anything else you are asked to do to support the shutdown.
I finished the graduate scheme in Feb 2017, so I am looking to now move into a full-time Process Safety engineering support role in FPS, similar to my first year.
How have you used your degree skills and knowledge in your career?
Sadly, I would estimate I’ve used less than 10% of the theory I learned on my degree! Part of that is because I specialise in process safety, so a lot of my work is in risk assessment and likelihood calculations. However, a lot of the theory we use in class is done by computer programmes in industry, so although knowing whether an answer is in the right ballpark is important, the intricate detail is less so. This is a side-effect of working for a super-major in operations though – engineers in design consultancies will have a very different experience.
One thing which I was always told at uni but took a few years to realise is the importance of being taught to think logically. I genuinely thought this was how everyone thought, but it is a real skill to be able to sit down and go ‘OK, let’s break this down into steps and think it through’. You also learn how you work best at uni and I’ve definitely carried that into work – personally, I have to write all my thoughts and ideas down and then start analysing them, so my notebook always looks horrific.
Which experience have you found useful in your career?
I cannot over-emphasise the importance of doing the industrial six month placement in your Masters year. In addition, getting work experience in your earlier summers is also fantastic, but I appreciate it can be difficult. You learn what an engineering working environment is like, what doing this work day in and out is like, and you may find it’s not what you want to do (or that you want to focus on a different area of engineering like I did – I very quickly figured that I don’t like straight process work). Finding this out early will save you so much stress when you get your first post-uni job.
Look for opportunities wherever you can! Doing the ExxonMobil Engineering Challenge led to being offered a six month placement at their local Mossmorran plant. Applying for the RAE Leadership Award led to travelling to New Orleans and Houston for conferences, and taking part in an explosions demonstrations course on an old RAF base. You can never lose out by applying, and you’ll surprise yourself with what you end up doing!
How have you made decisions regarding your career?
As I said, I knew I wanted to do Process Safety early on, and I’ve had to fight to find roles in a very tough oil & gas environment. On a graduate scheme you may not have much control over your career, so in that case be as loud and obvious as you can! For example, whilst working offshore was great experience, personally I hated being on rotation. I made very sure that I was moved back to an onshore role for my third year.
As a personal note, always keep an open mind on your career – you never know what will interest you. I was very involved with Schools Link work from the very start at BP, and whilst there are parts of engineering I very much enjoy, I have been seriously considering switching to Chemistry/Maths teaching. My ideal role has moved from ‘engineer’ to ‘STEM work liaising between industry and education’, which I never would have guessed before. Being flexible and adaptable is key to keeping yourself interested in your career.
What advice would you give to students interested in your area of work?
I’m not going to lie – the oil & gas industry is not in a great place right now. We are still in a very cash tight environment, recruitment is low and takeovers are rife.
However, this is what the industry does – it will bounce back and it will need engineers! The companies are far more aware that if they stop hiring completely they’ll end up with a generation gap again, so hopefully recruitment will pick up. One area to keep an eye on is decommissioning – there are a lot of North Sea oilrigs reaching their end of life, and anyone with some knowledge in this area will definitely be in demand.
From Process Safety side of things, I love this work. As a Process Safety engineer, you interact with everyone – process, mechanical, instruments… You don’t need to be an expert in each, your skill comes in being able to ask the right questions to determine the risk, and then understanding the answers to pull it all together into a cohesive whole. You end up with a fantastic overview which few other discipline engineers get. And you also get the weird questions that no one else does – you’ll never forget considering the risk of people dropping their helmets inside vessels, or assessing the risk of how quickly bird poop corrodes…