James Philip, alumni from the School of Chemical and Process Engineering

James Stefan Philip

What have you been doing since finishing your studies? What are you doing in terms of your career?

Since completing my studies in the summer of 2016 I initially decided upon enjoying a year’s rest period, albeit that was reduced to 9 months due to my hectic travelling schedule and future job prospects. I knew I had many more years of work ahead of me and had just completed a very demanding 5 year long masters course, subsequently I seized the opportunity to visit one of my best friend’s in New York City for several weeks. Following on I embarked on a North American excursion that extended to Boston and Montreal, enjoying the sights and my new found liberty away from the confines of the libraries, laboratories and examination halls.

After approximately 10 weeks of travelling I returned to the UK rejuvenated, my body had not completely recovered however my mind was restless with the anticipation of what to do next. I had been preparing for the moment I graduated for so long that when it actually arrived it seemed like a numb anti climax, fortunately I had been completing graduate scheme applications throughout the year and attended several interviews prior to graduation, which I would highly recommend despite the pressures of the course.

The reason I decided to study Chemical Engineering was to make processes more economically and ecologically viable, I consider myself a self professed eco-warrior and very much enjoyed working on retrofits and optimisation studies, turning effluent streams into useful feed sources, redesigning heat exchangers to run on lower grade steam and utilising waste materials in everyday processes. This desire ultimately led me to the Renewable Energy sector where I have discovered a whole new field known as Engineering Asset Management. I use my technical expertise to manage Renewable Energy Assets, ultimately comprising a portion of the national energy usage in UK alongside coal and gas sources. I feel very fortunate because with my latest career decision I know that I am one step closer to achieving the ambitions I set for myself 5 years ago.

What company are you working for, what is your role and what does it involve?

I currently work at a company called EcoGen Services Limited, a SME with a rich history in the Renewable Energy Sector and a small but very experienced team. Having worked at huge conglomerates previously such as Unilever and Koch Industries, I felt a smaller company would be beneficial to me at the relatively early stages of my career, as I could gain more responsibility early on and benefit from working closely with my supervisors. Here we utilise large-scale management practises and coordinate large projects but within a small, personable and friendly work environment, which is ideal for me at present.
My current job title is referred to as a Renewable Energy Asset Manager, as such I consistently manage an extensive portfolio of wind and hydroelectric sites. I have always been enthralled by the renewable energy sector, thus by utilising my chemical engineering background this has helped me successfully manage operational functions alongside new project management responsibilities. These typically include but are not limited to; monitoring of operational performance, maintaining suitable log records, analysis of performance data, management of suppliers or contractors, HSE compliance and lifecycle management to name but a few of my responsibilities. Whilst I continue to refine my technical skills, the engineering problem solving capabilities are further complemented with commercial awareness and project management. I now hope to invigorate the sector and share my enthusiasm for renewable energy with a wider clientele, whilst striving towards the accolade of engineering chartership, all of which my supervisors fully support. I am currently in a position that I very much enjoy, working in a field relevant to the course I studied and still based in the vibrant student area of Headingley, so I can easily get to the University and converse with my former lecturers, without whom I would not be in the position I am now. I am truly very grateful and excited for any future opportunities that arise from my role as a Renewable Energy Asset Manager.

What experiences at Leeds do you think have particularly helped with your career/will help with your future career?

Without doubt the underpinning scientific and mathematical elements intrinsically linked into the course and the accreditation by the IChemE is a tremendous benefit, as the educational requirements for chartership have now already been achieved and I only must focus on acquiring further experiences. The extensive variety in the modules studied: Ranging from reaction engineering to multi-scale modelling create a learning environment where you really get the breadth and depth necessary to develop a strong academic basis, prior to joining the wider scientific and engineering community. Now when I participate in meetings with UKPN, Jacobs, Atkins, Nordex and many other collaborative companies I can actively contribute and elaborate on whichever technical issues are encountered by the assets. Obviously I am still relatively new into the field but have already made stark analytical and technical contributions regarding heat analysis around a turbine generator, the review of SCADA data to identify performance anomalies and even designing a new data system to change the way information is stored and distributed within the company, revolutionising the management of engineering projects.

Again, it is the diversity in experiences at Leeds which as been of paramount importance to me, both inside and outside of the lecture hall. Industry is so different to academia and I believe it could be easy for a new graduate to become bewildered, but with the support of the Engineering Employability team I was able to obtain numerous placements and gain vital experiences prior to graduating, so that when I entered the Renewable Energy sector I did not require very much time to acclimatise but was able to begin making significant contributions relatively soon, which is especially important when you work for a small team as I do. Everyone is required to really get involved for the prosperity of themselves and the company. 

Looking back, why did you choose to study your particular course and why did you choose the University of Leeds?

To be totally honest whilst finishing college I still was not certain on what I wanted to do precisely, I only knew that I was very resource and energy consumption conscious and so wanted to be in a field where I could positively influence the aforementioned. A degree in Chemical Engineering from a well respected Russell Group institution would undoubtedly assist the achievement of my objectives. For the precocious but uncertain child I used to be, it exposed me to such a variety of possibilities that I was not only able to decide what I wanted more concisely but acquire the skills to do it simultaneously! There were difficult times obviously but frankly the experience overall was fun, even more so in hindsight. Furthermore the difficulties encountered are proving to be good experiences to challenges encountered later in life: I am still realising additional benefits of the course with each new day in the challenges that I encounter. 

Leeds itself is a progressive ever expanding student city, when I attended my first open day and arrived from North London I was sceptical it would be able to sustain my frenetic social calendar, however it exceeded all expectations and with far less significant detriment to my bank balance. The university itself has such a large student population and with so many societies it is difficult not to make friends! You experience the full campus lifestyle but can easily reach the vibrant metropolis right next to it, which is most convenient. Every time I ventured out of the library there was a new shop, club or student night and a whole group of us would travel together from Kings Cross at the beginning of term to get into the spirit of study and University life in general. I made friends and experiences for life and can appreciate my time there even more now that I have finished and had more time to reflect. I am immensely glad that I went and think the cost of a university education at Leeds is well justified based on my experience.

What was the best aspect of the course/the University and why? Any highlights?

I suppose within the School of Chemical and Process Engineering there is a real feeling of kinship. The course is demanding and there are a lot of lectures and labs to attend, but everyone realises very early on that they are all the same situation and so strive to help and support one another. This is applicable to lecturers and all students including postgraduates who run seminars and workshops proving themselves to be a highly valuable resource for undergraduates. Unlike school and college where in my experience people would eagerly compete against one another, the style of learning matured at University, you obviously had to complete your own assignments and pass the examinations but should you encounter difficulty, or require further clarification the nurturing environment within the faculty was such that there was always somebody to ask. This expanded to outside the School of Chemical and Process Engineering, I had cohesive positive experiences using all the resources available to me; whether having a late night discussion via Leeds Nightline, getting advice from the Students Union or being assisted by the organised, knowledgeable and friendly staff of the Ziff building, I honestly cannot remember a negative experience on campus, which I think is amazing given the size of the institution.

Highlights for me probably include leaving the safe space of University to travel even further from home to Wilton, Redcar on my placement year. I physically left all my peers and support network behind to gain some invaluable work experience as a Process Engineer. Despite working, off campus communications with my peers in Leeds continued and my personal tutor even came to visit me at the home of Business and Science in the Tees Valley also known as the Wilton Centre, Redcar. Here Dr Kevin Hughes was able to view my work and review how I had progressed during the year, which emphasises the high level of pastoral care offered by the faculty. After my placement year I returned to University to work with the Engineering Employability team as an intern whilst completing my Master’s, now in Chemical Engineering (Industrial). It was the same year I joined that we won an NUE (National Undergraduate Employability) award for the most improved student employability service in the UK. I was able to travel to London with my colleagues, attend a prestigious conference and even meet Levi Roots. It was a very memorable occasion, certainly a highlight and strong testimony to the hard work of my colleagues and myself.

What other activities outside of your studies were you involved in?

I obviously studied for the vast majority of time but in the moments assigned to more leisurely or recreational activities I trained with the athletics club at South Leeds stadium twice per week, took German classes at the language centre, kept active via the Edge sports complex where you can even hire squash and badminton courts. This aided my physical and mental well being by providing a cathartic remedy to my exam anxiety. I worked part time throughout my degree both on and off campus at the Leeds Alumni Department as a telephone fundraiser and in numerous retail departments around the city: Completed expeditions as part of my Duke of Edinburgh awards, which you can complete up to the age of 25. Attended numerous coffee mornings and career specific talks or events, I myself ran a weekly workshop for undergraduates in earlier year groups and assisted at the engineering careers fairs, sometimes working on the exhibitions as I did for Unilever. Competing in the Frank Morton annual sports day, held for all Chemical Engineering students in the country, the list goes on. I think I have made my point here, I did a lot of other things besides study and it helped enrich my overall university experience tremendously.

What would you say to students thinking about studying the same course at Leeds/thinking about the same career?

Be under no illusion the course is challenging, not only in terms of content but more so volume. If you have the determination and foresight necessary to see the benefits of a degree in Chemical Engineering or its related fields, then if you attend the University of Leeds you will be equipped with all the tools and support necessary to succeed: Then potentially embark on a very prosperous and highly lucrative career. I have not got to the latter part yet but it is nice to have ambitions. I hope all the future students out there especially those who are uncertain in their career choices like I was seriously consider Chemical Engineering at Leeds, you will undoubtedly have an interesting experience whether you are here for 3 or 5 years and leave with a highly respected international qualification, which will help you go wherever you desire.