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My job explained: Technologist

technologistJames Dodd describes how he overcame failing his A-levels first time around to become a professional chemist, working with cutting-edge equipment and engines which are larger than houses.

What inspired you to study chemistry?

My first job involved analytical environmental chemistry. The enthusiasm of my supervisor was infectious and holding £100,000 worth of mass detector in my hands made my mind up!

How long did it take to train and what did the training involve?

My training has taken roughly ten years by studying part time by day release and distance learning. I started with an HNC (Higher National Certificate) in chemistry, followed by an ACOL (Analytical Chemistry by Open Learning) course, then a degree by distance learning (I got a 1st). However, the training doesn’t stop, because I am now working towards Chartered Chemist status and the Register of Analytical Chemists as well as constantly learning new things on the job.

Can you describe a typical working day?

My role is development so no two days are the same. I spend my time thinking about what to develop, how to develop it and who can help. I design lubricants for large engines (i.e. ships!) I also design experiments to carry out and then analyse the data generated, this could be from lab or rig tests as well as engine test data.

What's the best thing about your job?

The working environment. It’s light, friendly and flexible, with good people and a culture of safety which is world class. The challenges we face in delivering our products means that there is always something going on, this creates a stimulating environment with plenty of interesting problems to solve. There is an amount of travel as part of my job, which is mainly in Europe but could go as far as Asia or the US depending on what project I’m working on.

One thing which really impresses me in my current job are the sheer size of the engines we deal with! Imagine an engine bigger than a large house, with huge pistons weighing five tonnes each, travelling at eight meters per second pushing a ship weighing up to 250,000 tons at 15 knots. And we have to stop the metal parts smashing each other by lubricating them with a thin layer of oil. It is impressive!

Have there been the challenges in getting to where you are now?

The biggest challenge was that I failed my A-levels! This was understandably disheartening, especially as I enjoyed the chemistry I was doing, so I started along a career path in retail, until I managed to get a job in environmental chemistry. Finding myself in a chemistry laboratory, concentrating on the thing I enjoyed, I started on the HNC by day release as I mentioned earlier. I was supported along the way by the companies I have been employed by who paid the various course fees and paid for travel and living expenses along the way.

In the time I have been studying for my qualifications I have also got married, moved house and had two children, so by no means easy! With my current employer I started out as a laboratory technician, doing synthesis and analysis then progressing to run small projects before successfully applying for a higher post once I had completed my degree. In this post I use my skills and developed knowledge to deliver on my projects and to supervise technical colleagues. I was also the first person in my family to get a degree.

What qualities and skills do you think are important for your role?

An open mind always helps. A combination of good communication skills and curiosity helps you to generate ideas as a part of a team. Using the skills and knowledge of others helps develop better solutions especially as you don’t then have to be an expert in everything. The ability to think through problems allows you to offer solutions to them. Working to deadlines and working in a logical manner helps to keep costs to a minimum in a budgetary driven environment (more for less).

What advice would you give to someone thinking about following in your footsteps?

Try your best at what you are doing but don’t be afraid to get a job and work for your qualifications. If a company will support your development then you can still achieve your own personal aspirations and get paid to do it! You just have to weigh up the pros and cons for yourself; A-levels and university versus working for your qualifications.

What is your favourite chemistry related invention?

Society and people need things – whatever that ‘thing’ may be, and they need it to be cheaper, quicker and more environmentally friendly than last year or last week. Chemistry helps to make use of dwindling resources more efficiently than ever before (recyclable cars for example), or to develop technologies to assist developing countries, like water treatment plants.