Academia

Crafting the Career of Your Dreams

Planning your career trajectory in an industry rich in promise for someone with technical ability, a willingness to work hard, and an eye for opportunity involves several important steps.

Perhaps the first thing to realize is that your degree does not make you an expert…expertise comes through experience. Your training will have exposed you to concepts, made you think about the applications and implications of those concepts. But expertise comes through experience, and in the oil and gas industry, that generally entails dealing with real field systems. As you emerge from university with your degree certificate in hand, a spot of humility and an eagerness to observe are required. Every oil and gas field is different, and you’ve got lots to learn from each new one you work on.

So, how do you go about using your skills, your natural talents, and your training to best effect as you embark on your working career? First, think about what “best effect” means, what you want it to mean, and what your employer thinks it means. Figure out what the company’s main drivers are. (A good idea is to go onto the company’s website before an interview, identify their key drivers and nuances, and then subtly reflect the fact that you’ve done your homework at the interview).

What Do You Want From Your Job?

Job satisfaction is most likely to be achieved if your work addresses the company’s objectives. This sounds obvious, but we can easily be lulled into thinking the organization is there to help us achieve our objectives. It’s not; in your organization it is likely that shareholder value, national wealth, or institutional reputation will be the main currency, and you will subsequently be assessed on how you contribute to enhancing these.

As well as figuring out what the drivers are for your organization, there is the trickier task of identifying your own drivers. Ensuring you have time and energy for the things in life outside of work may be critical. Location of your work, type of work, opportunities to develop could be other considerations. Financial reward will certainly be one of the drivers. People often seek wage increases because they want to be valued as much as needing the extra cash. One of the biggest frustrations for people in the workplace is the sense that their work is not given the recognition it is due, either because we perceive someone else is taking the credit, or the contribution itself is not valued. Oftentimes, the real significance of a pay raise is the acknowledgment that the employee’s work is of value to the organization.

What Does Your Employer Want From Your Job?

Work toward ensuring that you deliver in line with the top priorities of your organization and in sync with your colleagues. While working in teams, our natural tendency is to focus on the bits we think we excel at, and our attention is drawn to the things we think others are not so good at. In fact, we gravitate to doing what we enjoy the most, and naturally that ends up being what we’re best at.

Be honest about your deficiencies, and recognize that there are others in your team who may be rather good at the bits you don’t like, or quite possibly don’t even value. If you give them encouragement in working on the bit of the jigsaw puzzle you find less interesting, you’ll probably be given more freedom to get on with the bit you really enjoy. The point is not to try to fit everyone in the team into a single mold but to identify what the work needs are, what the range of skills required to deliver the work may be, and to respect others for their contribution to the overall skill set.

One of the parts of Heriot-Watt University’s MSc degree program that graduates reflect upon as having best prepared them for industry (particularly once they’ve been in the industry for a few years) is the field development project. During the project, students have to synthesize all that they’ve learned in their courses and apply it to a real-field scenario. That exercise alone has enormous value for the learning and consolidation process, but graduates often reflect that they not only learned how to apply their technical knowledge, but also how to work as a team in what can be a pressurized environment, with deadlines looming and evaluations of each individual’s performance at stake. The most impressive projects are not necessarily those delivered by the teams with the greatest technical expertise, but by those teams that worked most effectively as a unit. This lesson certainly carries forward to life in industry.

How to Achieve Job Satisfaction?

A major element of job satisfaction comes from recognition. If you have worked hard, thought hard about making sure your work is effective and accretive toward the goals of your company, and if in your dealings with others you have been honest, then you will surely derive a sense of contentment as you head home at the end of a shift. But there is that very natural and justifiable human need to receive recognition for what we do—I believe it is inbuilt. The key is to identify the individual from whom you would like the recognition to come and what their requirements may be. Don’t hesitate to identify the elder statesman in the organization, no matter how cantankerous he/she may be, and ask them for advice on what needs to be done to do well in your organization. After all, they too were once new to the firm, and they too once wanted to know what it takes to achieve job satisfaction. If you’re lucky, they won’t have forgotten what that feels like.

Keep Learning

There is enormous value in attending courses, conferences, and workshops. They all force you to think outside of your routine, and you get to enjoy an enormous privilege—meeting people from all over the world. Set aside a specific time every week to read articles. Acquire the self-discipline to read without checking your inbox or mobile phone for messages. (If you can’t do that, recognize the signs of addiction and seek immediate help.) SPE makes such resources very easy to access. Start writing based on your own work. Try developing a half-day course on your specialty. If you listen to the questions you get asked, you’ll learn something every time you deliver the course.

Another Degree?

A higher degree like a PhD is a marathon that requires endurance, determination, and willpower to complete. Don’t start on a PhD simply because you can’t think what else to do next, you can’t get a job, or you think it is a way to continue the student life that you have enjoyed. The right reasons for pursuing a PhD should be the desire to know what the answer to a question is, simply because the question has been posed, and the desire to teach. As an example, for Stephen Holditch, one of our technical leaders in today’s industry, the burning question in his mind was the behavior of a reservoir during a fracture treatment and how to model it (TWA Interview, TWA, Vol. 10, No. 2, 5–7). You must actively enjoy going deeper until you (and the examination committee!) are satisfied that you’ve left no stone unturned in your quest for the answer. You may ultimately not even find the answer—the point is that you were prepared to just about die trying.

Decide What Your Biography Should Say in Years to Come

Finally, let me share the drivers that motivate me as an academic:

  • The freedom to undertake work that interests me.
  • The satisfaction of seeing someone who previously did not have awareness or understanding of a concept now “getting it.”
  • The pleasure of meeting a former student, perhaps after 10 or 20 years, and hearing the story of their career development since leaving university, and reflecting on the perhaps small part that their time at the university played in initiating or furthering that career.
  • The satisfaction of someone agreeing with me about the usefulness of a particular piece of research that I am proposing, to the extent that they are willing to fund it.
  • The sense of fulfillment when a piece of research or consultancy I’ve undertaken led to a change in industry practice, or even just influenced a business decision taken for one single oil or gas field.

Having read these, I’d encourage you to reflect on what you might want to state as having been your drivers in the next few decades to come.


Eric Mackay holds the foundation CMG chair in reactive flow simulation in the Institute of Petroleum Engineering at Heriot-Watt University.  His research interests include the study of fluid flow and geochemical reactions in porous media.  Mackay has taught reservoir simulation at Heriot-Watt University since 1990. He has over 150 publications related primarily to inorganic scale management and carbon capture and storage.  Mackay was appointed SPE Distinguished Lecturer on Scale Management during 2007–2008. He holds a BSc in Physics from the University of Edinburgh and a PhD in Petroleum Engineering from Heriot-Watt University.


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