R&D chemist (and project management) – what I wish I had known before my placement – OurWarwick

R&D chemist (and project management) – what I wish I had known before my placement

Billy Dyer AustraliaUnited Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the)
Billy Dyer | Chemistry (with Industrial Placement) Contact Billy

Drawing to the end of my placement has left me in a state of reflection on the past 8 months; I’ve gained a huge amount of experience whilst performing my feasibility study on a recyclable carpet, and looking back there are definitely things I wish I had known before starting my project. If you’re not a chemist I wouldn’t dismiss this blog. The points I list are applicable to anyone who will have to manage a project, written from the perspective of someone who went from being a complete novice to feeling confident in my project management skills within 8 months. Not only do I list my shortfalls, but I explain why it happened, and why it’s good that I’ve experienced these challenges in an environment where failure is expected, an internship. I hope you find it engaging and useful. It’s a long one, so fix yourself a cuppa and get involved.

Although I was officially an R&D intern, after watching my fellow employees manage their projects and comparing their work to mine, I believe the work I was doing was very similar, with the main two differences being my lack of experience and need for guidance from my supervisor.

1.      1. Organisation is key

It should go without saying, unfortunately not in my case. Managing a project is no easy-feat, and being the somewhat disorganised and  impulsive individual that I am made the whole ordeal much more stressful than it had to be. For the first 2 months I was trying to perform a huge number of tasks simultaneously, and it just didn’t work. I was getting side-tracked constantly and ended up feeling flustered and anxious.

Having a concise aim of the project, steps in which to achieve this aim, and a rough timescale would’ve made my first few months much more enjoyable. Sticking to these steps is also crucial. Dedicate half or full days to invest into a task, rather than an hour, as it always takes time to get into tasks.

2.      2. Communication with experienced individuals cannot be underestimated

Diving into a feasibility study on a recyclable polyamide carpet was a daunting task. Luckily for me I was surrounded by experts with centuries of experience between them. To begin with I struggled with the idea of asking questions; my knowledge was so surface level that I felt embarrassed, but this was the wrong approach. People are happy to help guide, as long as the question is not something that can be answered from a quick google search – time is precious, and when someone is doing you a favour you have to be mindful of this and put some effort into finding the right questions to ask.

3.      3. Gaining knowledge on a subject is great, but experience comes from trying things

I spent the first 2 or 3 weeks of my placement researching the topic, when in reality a few days would have been enough for me. Obviously it depends on the project and how much trial and error or just doing things it entails, but all projects require some form of pushing the knowledge you have and translating it into doing something, whether that be performing market research, making resins, or calling potential collaborators.

In my case I put this off, and spent unnecessary time researching things that I already knew about. I’m still not quite sure why, but the fear of failing was definitely a factor. What if people realise I don’t know much about my topic? Well err, that’s kind of expected in the first few months of a new project.

4.      4. Your project is important, but engaging with your peers will develop your sense of the company and foster curiosity in other areas

The company I worked for have 21,000 employees worldwide, and at my site in the Netherlands there must be atleast 40 active projects, each with their own interesting aims and concepts behind them. Talking to my peers shone light on their projects, their career in the R&D industry, gave me a better sense of the company I was working for and put into perspective just how sprawling large businesses are. The site I was at had between 150-200 employees, and projects ranged from biobased metal coatings to recyclable carpets, and everything in between! I believe R&D chemists should have a curiosity and talking to your peers can help feed this curiosity whilst also giving you a break from your own project. It was inspiring hearing about all the different angles and projects being looked at by the company.

If I’m being completely honest I think I achieved around 1/3 of the work that my project entailed over these 8 months, out of an 11 month placement. It felt like just as I had built up all the necessary skills Covid came along to stop me in my tracks.

The slow start was not ideal, but at the end of the day I was entering this field as a complete novice. I’m not embarrassed by this, it’s actually expected, as my supervisor and colleagues know what it is like to be a novice, and that experience is what really makes an R&D chemist. As wll yours if you ever enter a project management role (most jobs entail some form of project management).

Thanks for reading

Billy Dyer AustraliaUnited Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the)
Billy Dyer | Chemistry (with Industrial Placement) Contact Billy

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