This is an installment in a series called “Industry Insights” where we hear from a Purdue student who is working at an internship, co-op, or full-time job and learn about their experiences. Today’s writer is Maya Denton who works for an industrial gas company.
“My name is Maya Denton and I work as a cryogenic plant process engineer for an industrial gas company in northeastern Pennsylvania. I graduated from Purdue in May 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. I’m part of a rotational program at my company, which means I wasn’t hired for a specific role but rather for my potential to grow and develop at the company, while contributing in a variety of roles over my first three years. Each rotation lasts 10 – 12 months, with program participants “rolling off” into a more permanent job at the end of their third rotation. This type of program was a good fit for me right out of college because I honestly had no idea what type of job I wanted – all I knew is that I wanted to experience the practical application of the chemical engineering skills I’d spent the past four years developing.
After serendipitously running into Catie in the airport and being approached by her to write this article, I’ve been wracking my brain for the most insightful and inspiring advice I could share with current PSWE members –all while being excited that I get to relive my days of being involved with PSWE for just a short while. While thinking through the most impactful lessons I’ve learned from beginning my engineering career in industry over the past 16 months, I keep coming back to the concept of change and adaptation in environments that may seem utterly difficult and challenging at the time. After re-reading the other Industry Insights articles, I noticed that all three of them touched base on the issues and struggles with maintaining confidence in a new role, doubting yourself and feeling like everyone knows more than you, and not letting your fear and nervousness limit your potential to succeed. I just want to reiterate that this is something that EVERYONE struggles with, especially as a new employee right out of college. It’s not easy to master new, very specific, highly technical skills, but it is very easy to fall into the trap of believing those skills should come instantaneously and that if they don’t come instantly, there’s something wrong with you and you’re not as smart as the person working next to you. Natalie Portman has a fabulous video on Imposter Syndrome that you should check out anytime you find yourself subscribing to this way of thinking.
My official entry in the working world as a continuous improvement engineer for my first rotation focused on cryogenic technologies (air separation units, helium, hydrogen, CO2 plants) in North America. My continuous improvement role was altogether different than anything I’d done before, requiring a lot of data analysis and knowledge of statistical methods (making me thankful I’d saved my ChE 320 book). Continuous improvement roles typically focus on productivity – doing the same with less or doing more with the same. These projects and roles were highly business-oriented; we were doing anything to help save the company money. Projects ranged from things like working with technical experts on ways to reduce plant power consumption while making the same amount of product at a specific plant to analyzing the differences between our productivity project portfolio in North America and that of Europe and Asia.
I didn’t fully anticipate how different industries and businesses would change the types of jobs and roles available at the company until last year when I started my current rotation. In the industrial gas industry, companies have two major divisions – engineering and operations. The teams in the engineering division focus on competitively bidding to build plants which will provide needed products to potential customers. This process involves identifying opportunities to provide our services, designing a plant that will provide the amount of product needed for the customer and that will make us money, and presenting our bid to the customer to sign our business. If the customer accepts our bid, the engineering construction and start-up teams will work with the other engineering teams to build and get the plant running. The operations side, which both of my rotations have been in, works on maintaining and operating currently existing plants. Site managers and operators run the plants, while process controls, advanced controls, maintenance engineers, plant process engineers, and project engineers, among others, help with any technical problems that may arise, keeping the plants up and running efficiently.
Jumping from my first rotation in continuous improvement to working as a cryogenics plant process engineer for my current rotation was also a huge change for me. Instead of using plant process engineers as technical resources when working on certain statistically-driven productivity projects, it was now up to me to learn the technology in-depth, gaining the skills to troubleshoot any problems that on-site plant operations may call me about, monitor and improve production and power usage in the plants, and work on identifying and executing more highly technical productivity projects. There’s been a large learning curve as I transitioned from a more business-oriented role to a highly technical role, one which touches aspects from almost every chemical engineering class I’ve ever taken.
Throughout the very different roles I’ve had so far in industry, there have been times where I’ve struggled and doubted myself, especially at the beginning of each assignment. If there’s one thing I’ve learned post-college, it’s that learning a new role and new concepts as an engineer in industry takes time – you have to learn to be patient with yourself, while taking actionable steps towards gaining skills necessary to succeed in your job. I didn’t feel comfortable in my previous rotation until April 2015 – that’s 9 months into that assignment! The big difference between college and working in industry is that there’s no syllabus telling you what concepts you are expected to learn, when the tests will be, etc. You are constantly learning and growing whether you realize it or not, what you view as the biggest challenges and roadblocks now will lead to the most personal and professional growth down the line. There will be days where you will feel on top of the world for figuring out a difficult problem, mastering a tough concept, or realizing that you understand how to operate a chemical plant.
The last point I want to make hits a personal highlight for me as part of being in a rotational program along with a dash of philosophical life advice. Although being in a rotational program brings the challenges of adapting to new and changing roles, it has provided me with the wonderful opportunity of being able to see different aspects of the company and learn more about the various roles available. There are so many people willing to talk to me about their current roles and career, who have encouraged me to explore my interests in different areas. Through my first two rotations, I’ve been able to experience different parts of the company and evaluate what I like about each role, as well as what I didn’t like as much, understanding more about my strengths/areas for improvement and my passions. Another large difference between college and your career is that there is no set path, no designated steps for you to follow (something I am very aware of as I ponder what type of role I’m interested in for my 3rd assignment). Ultimately, you have complete control over what direction your career goes. I encourage you to take on new roles and assignments that are challenging, talk to others who are in your industry, learn as much as you can. But always keep a strong sense of self – remember who you are as a person, what intrinsically motivates you every day to get out of bed and be alive, who you want to be and what kind of things you want to accomplish in your life. It’s very easy to get caught up in what you think you “should” be doing, what your manager or co-workers did in their career, even what career option would bring the most “success” in terms of advancement or money. The most important lesson I’ve learned so far since graduating from college is that now success is on your terms – think deeply about what it means to have a successful life and career for you, constantly re-evaluate and be introspective about your definition of this. Push yourself to try new things and accept challenges that come your way, but remember that overall, you are now the one who dictates where your career (and your life!) will go.
Thanks for letting me share some of my industry experiences and thoughts on life! Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for anything related to chemical engineering, working in industry post-college, or anything else. Hail Purdue!”