Case study: Ben Petrovic’s Academic Engineer placement with SSE

From May 2022 to May 2023, Ben Petrovic, from Brunel University London, undertook an industrial placement with SSE.  We spoke to him and his manager, Katy Burke at SSE, to find out about their experiences.

Katy, what exactly was the placement opportunity that SSE offered?

Katy: We were looking for support for our project, as we were about to embark on a significant engineering study for our Keadby 3 carbon capture equipped power station. We’ve had success with previous placements that have been arranged in this way, where an academic engineer comes in and adds value to a team, been really engaged and technically knowledgeable.

We’ve found it a beneficial arrangement for both sides, for somebody to step out of their academic environment and get that workplace experience and understand, in the real world, how projects work. That gives them a development opportunity.  For us, it’s a good way of giving back, as well as strengthening the SSE brand throughout the academic community, and we get someone who’s very capable and makes a valuable contribution to our projects.

Keadby 3 carbon capture power station, SSE plc (click on image for more info – credit: SSE)

Ben, why did you apply for the placement?

Ben: Jacky, the previous participant in the scheme, gave the UKCCSRC early career researchers (ECRs) a short presentation online before the UKCCSRC advertised the placement opportunity. Then I read about it in an UKCCSRC bulletin.

I applied as I think there was a bit of a hole in my CV in terms of industrial experience. I’ve been constrained in academia or an echo chamber type of thing, and really wanted to get a taste for what the other side of the fence was like. Doing a secondment is an easier sidestep to try that because it’s not permanent. I thought it would give me a bit of a first-hand experience in applying research and a different perspective, and it did!

Did you get other things out of it, that you weren’t necessarily expecting?

Ben enjoying his SSE-issued headset

Ben: Just the exposure to the other side of the fence is so awakening. Things perhaps I didn’t anticipate were the diversity of the engineering disciplines involved, having the opportunity to communicate with them and see how they would approach carbon capture.

The scale of the projects was unexpected as well. With research, we just sort of focus on part of it. Seeing how big these projects are, and how big the wider infrastructure required to facilitate them is, that was something I don’t think you can really digest until you’re within it. It’s a completely different scale order of magnitude.

Katy, how does having a placement student benefit SSE?

Katy: I think there are a couple of key things.  We’re getting somebody who’s technically minded and very capable, so we’re able to get them up to speed quickly and then leverage their skills.  We’re not starting from scratch. You’ve got someone who’s self-motivated and organised, because doing a PhD definitely requires those skills.

It also helps us identify people who we’d like to come into the company at a later date, perhaps when they finish their studies. It’s a really good pipeline for us to bring talent into the business.

Ben, how did this placement impact your research when you went back into that?

Ben: More indirectly than perhaps directly, I think.  Having been exposed to the sort of questions that each party were asking, makes it a lot easier to inform your research in terms of what conclusions you’re trying to draw.  You’re more likely to ask, “what’s important?”.  I’m working in a more abstract novel side of capture but a lot of the questions you would ask with a more traditional sense of capture are real world problems, not just potential issues that someone has anticipated and published a paper about. So, things to be more mindful of, directing the research a bit more.

Katy: Do you think academia can be a bit siloed? So, it takes you out of that and means you ask, “how’s this going to work in the real world?”. There’s a lot of commercial and technical risk questions, so it gives you that insight?

Ben: Yes, I think academia tends to be a few TR levels before where a company like SSE would want to adopt something, because bridging that gap can be quite difficult. It’s changed my attitude, or way of approaching a task, with a commercial mindset rather than just looking at interesting science.

And how has the placement impacted your future career plans?

Ben: It’s confirmed that academia is not something I want to be doing at the early career stages. Although it was challenging to adjust to the pace of the placement, I think it suits me a lot better, I enjoy it being fast paced. I think it’s also made me far more employable, as I’ve demonstrated that I can fit within an industrial environment, not just an academic one.

Katy, what was the best bit about having Ben doing your placement?

Katy: I think Ben slotted really well into our team, and into our wider team with SSE. I think he also did well at engaging across disciplines, as we’ve got a broad engineering function.  He was able to just get on with it and build relationships with people in our organization. I think that that was one of the big highlights for me.

And he just had a willingness to take on more and more responsibility. The placement was originally scheduled for six months, but because we could see it was going well, we asked him to stay for another six months with the agreement of his supervisor, as we felt he had a lot more to offer.  So, we were able to give him more responsibility and more complex tasks and get him involved in a broader range of things. His ability to rise to a challenge and then take on more responsibility was really good. That’s why we’re keen to get him back!

Ben, what was the best bit about the placement for you?

Ben: Oh, the same really. Also, just being welcomed into the SSE family was fun. I enjoyed being part of Katy’s team and it was quite refreshing to have some Northern accents in my life.

And as Katy was saying, my work was definitely recognized and nice to have that recognition when things go well, with the opportunity to demonstrate more.

Katy: You did get involved in a really great range of activities – sitting in on some of the major hazard studies, liaison with contractors, modelling, flood protection, interface management, etc.

Ben: There was a lot of support, it was very much a team effort.  I think it’s quite easy at the late stage of a PhD to isolate yourself, so it was refreshing to see that the engineering community is one of collaboration. It definitely reinvigorated my passion for engineering!

Thank you so much for your time. It sounds like a fantastic placement for both parties, and we wish you every success in the future!