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My job explained: Senior research associate

senior research associatePeter Hayes works for an American company as a chemist. Read on for a few tips on how to get ahead as a researcher.

What inspired you to study chemistry?

I was always fascinated by how the world works and the logic of the scientific approach to studying nature. I was also very fortunate to have a first rate chemistry teacher who was dynamic and interesting to listen to. He was probably the critical factor that helped me make the decision to study science and chemistry. I was also quite good at history but there were fewer career options in that area.

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

I started work in the chemical industry (polymers) and went to college at night and on day-release for seven years to eventually get my honours degree in chemistry. That was followed by full time study for a PhD in organic chemistry.

Can you describe a typical working day?

I work as a researcher in the polymer field and design new products. A polymer is a chemical substance consisting of large molecules made from many smaller and simpler molecules. An example of an artificial polymer is nylon and a natural polymer is DNA.

I have to supervise two technicians who actually carry out the experiments for me so a lot of the day is spent planning the new experiments for the various projects I’m working on and analysing data and results. In industrial jobs it is quite varied work, as typically a chemist would have several projects to work on at the same time. Of course meetings and presentations in PowerPoint are part of the daily routine. About 25% of my time is also spent travelling to customer research locations to get input directly from them.

What's the best thing about your job?

The best part is the satisfaction that comes from working on a project and solving problems and then making that product in a plant and seeing it be successful commercially. It’s really your “baby” and it makes you feel proud to have made something new and useful.

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

The most challenging aspect is to keep working hard until you attain your goal whether it’s finishing your degree or solving technical problems at work. It can get discouraging but you don’t have to give up, so personal motivation is important. Fortunately there are always people around who can help and it’s best to be open to other people’s suggestions

In my family I was the first one to go and study for a PhD and of course some family members said I should stay at work but later on I had much better jobs and higher salaries!

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

The ability to work in a team as projects are always composed of people from different backgrounds, e.g., engineers, chemists, and sales people. Analytical thinking and the ability to plan ahead will also come in useful.

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

You have to study a subject that you are really interested in and that gets you excited!!

What is your favourite chemistry related invention?

Chemistry is critical to just about everything in modern society. My favourite discovery has to be penicillin and really the development of organic chemistry and it’s application to medicine.