What does industry want? (Interview with Greg Sheehan)

What is it that industry wants from graduates?

This question occupies a lot of air-time in higher education circles, and the push is on from the Australian government to foster closer collaborations among universities, industry, and graduate researchers.

You'd be right in thinking that not getting on top of these new research priorities could set your career planning back a step or two!

This week's 'Careers Month' post is an interview with Dr Greg Sheehan, Director and Principal Process Engineer with Hatch Ltd. Hatch is an international consultant engineering and project implementation company with offices in ten countries.

Greg graduated with his PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Queensland.

"I graduated at a time when the engineering sector, particularly in my field of Chem Eng, was very different, " he said. "I got my first job at MIM Holdings straight after graduation, started at the company the following week, and was on-site in Mount Isa in a day! I've been with Hatch now for nine years."

Greg developed his extensive experience in commercial minerals research and project implementation with MIM Holdings and the Australian Magnesium Corporation. He has also held the Xstrata Chair of Extractive Metallurgy (University of Queensland). These days, he spends a lot of time travelling between Australia, North and South America, and China, as well as many national sites.

Greg's experiences mean that he is a strong advocate of more connection and development between academic and industry contexts.

These are the three key pieces of advice he'd offer to PhD researchers: 

1. Research the sector that interests you

"Whichever sector you want to work in, make sure you do your research about it! If you're doing Engineering, for example, and believe that engineers can always find a job in industry...well, make sure you check on that for the industry you're looking at," said Greg. "Over the past four years all global engineering firms (China excepted) have been shedding staff rapidly. In Australia, most will be down about 60%, with hiring freezes as well."

He describes his own field as applied biochemistry, and flags that the new PhD appointments in his organisation have come from nanotechnology and biomedical areas.

Greg encourages PhD researchers to find out about the state of the sector they're wanting to join. "It's worth looking not at what has been done but what is coming through as new initiatives. If there are jobs to be had in the area, that's where they'll be!"

"Hatch Ltd., for example, has a relatively new portfolio of expertise established in Digital Operations. This was not something that I would've foreseen at the time I joined the firm."

For Hatch particularly, Greg flags that the ability to conceive of the work and workplace as a broader space that must respond to competition as science and technology transforms industries is very important. "It's a global business, after all," he said.

Image sourced from Hatch Ltd. website: https://www.hatch.com/en/Projects
2. Why your PhD topic's not relevant

Several times during our interview, Greg made mention of the fact that a researcher's PhD topic is not relevant. "PhD-qualified applicants aren't specifically recruited and any applications are mixed in with the general pool," he said. "New staff are taken on as the best match for the team, rarely for their PhD topic."

"We invent and market our own technologies, so the focus is on engineering technical excellence, team fit, and leadership potential (technical or people). Every company has its own processes and way of doing things, and I guess the idea of 'team fit' comes down to a person's skills and expertise and their personality."

So, from this perspective, you can see why applications that focus too much on research specificities may not fly as well as those that showcase professional potential and demonstrated experience of those traits. What will you be required to do in potential new roles? What is the best way to show that you are a great choice for those skills and qualities?

All that said, Greg does not think that doing a PhD is meaningless!

3. Why doing your PhD does count

When we discussed what those who have done PhDs bring to their roles, and whether this gave them an edge, Greg replied, "I feel that these graduates have more maturity and can act more independently. In our discipline, most PhDs have had good training in critical thinking, planning, persuasion and writing."

"They've had substantial development and experience in approaching and solving problems. These abilities are crucial in our work, which has project management and implementation at its core."

So, the PhD gets you some way through the door!

But it's your ability to articulate your skill-sets well, develop engaging and relevant interpersonal skills, and be a quick study of organisational dynamics that will land, and keep you progressing through, a job and into a career.


Greg Sheehan was interviewed by Tseen Khoo on 22 May 2017.