The mybrink interview - a Chemistry Graduate

09/10/2017

At mybrink, we’re all about people. We’re all about talent. And we’re all about inspiring success.

In our mybrink interviews we speak to talented graduates who have already made this journey, and want to share their experiences, successes, ups and downs with you; as you start yours.

Torna Burton

Chemistry Teacher

First Class Honours M.CHEM: Magdalen College, Oxford

Tell us about your background and how you arrived at Chemistry as a degree

I went to a small state school, where I was really quite an allrounder. I loved all subjects including the arts; history, English and languages but my father persuaded me that science was more of an employable route, especially, dare I say it, as a woman. So I took his advice and took mainly science subjects at A level. I absolutely loved Chemistry as it was so diverse, so decided to do this for my degree. When one of my teachers suggested Oxford, I was flabbergasted. But I applied, was accepted and had a wonderful and fulfilling experience in Oxford, completing my degree there.

What career expectations did you have when you graduated?

To be honest, I was one of those students who didn’t have a set plan or idea of what to do after University. Initially I almost assumed that I would do research, but I wasn’t keen on pursuing a PhD. I then applied for a few graduate schemes but with little enthusiasm and very little confidence. So towards the end of my degree, I still had no strong direction.

How did you find your first role?

As I wasn’t enrolled in a graduate scheme, I literally looked for jobs! I was a scientist, so I looked in the New Scientist, and there I found my first and what turned out to be fantastic job, working for BP Chemicals. The role was perfect; I got to use my brain and my chemistry knowledge, and because it was a medium sized firm rather than large corporate I gained the most phenomenal, exciting and challenging range of experience imaginable. I was involved in market leading chemical product development; from the development, manufacturing, logistics, warehousing and distribution, to the marketing, networking and training of sales teams. The role took me around the globe and I was encouraged and promoted.

Where else have you worked?

Another key part of my career was a complete change, to a large Corporate environment working as a management consultant. Based in the Oil and Gas division I had a prestigious key client, Shell, but my role moved significantly away from Chemistry into business, finance, analysis, management consultancy, IT rollouts and training. It was financially rewarding and exposed and pushed me into high profile and demanding projects, again, internationally. Looking back, the environment of a big corporate wasn’t really for me, although I did stay for a long time. It’s a very personal thing, the environment that’s right for you, and sometimes it’s only through experience that you learn this. Some people thrive on competition, promotion and pressure. I actually prefer a smaller, team based approach; where satisfaction comes simply from delivering great work, not for personal advancement or recognition.

Speaking of job satisfaction; you’re now in teaching, tell us more about that

Well first of all, I absolutely love teaching! My mother was a teacher, and even though she loved it too, she never really encouraged me into the profession.

But I have taught now in two schools, and I can honestly say, there’s nothing more rewarding. Again, it depends on what you’re looking for. For me, it’s all about the Chemistry. And that’s in two ways; being able to convey and pass on knowledge and passion, and about chemistry with the pupils. I have had to relearn my Chemistry which has re-ignited my passion for this fascinating, diverse subject. But I also must rethink almost daily how I approach teaching, in order to appeal, engage and break through to all different types of pupils; from quick learners to those struggling or less enthusiastic. This may mean one day using traditional teaching methods; another day devising an interactive game pupils can do on their phone.

But what’s not to like about creating screaming jelly beans, methane bubbles, fireworks, elephants toothpaste or gold coins?

Teaching keeps you on your toes. Having to keep your knowledge up to date, adjust your teaching techniques and deal with young people is challenging, and you can’t underestimate how tough the job can be. Children will constantly test you with difficult questions and their behaviour. But the rewards are so immense when you see a pupil improve a score, suddenly grasp a concept, or get into their chosen university. You know that you’ve had an actual impact on this person’s life and what can be better than that?

What else do you love about it?

What’s also amazing about teaching is the opportunity to connect with young people outside of the classroom, and get involved with interests outside of your academic subject. You may be facing a total brick wall with a pupil; but a trek across a muddy field on a Duke of Edinburgh expedition may deliver a breakthrough, as you’re in such a different environment.

I also can bring my love of sport and marathon running into my job as I can get involved with running sports and cross-country running clubs. There’s not many jobs where you can do that!

It’s the future generations of scientists that will be finding a solution to the problems our environment faces and inventing new technology; it’s an absolute privilege to play a part in this. Just like no-one ever forgets their teachers, you never forget a pupil. It’s just so fulfilling on a different level to a corporate career.

Is there anything about your career you would change?

Absolutely not! I believe that every experience is invaluable and makes you the person you are. Even when in a job that was not perfect for me, I gained skills and learned something about myself. Even though I have come to teaching after time away from Chemistry, it means I can bring my practical, industrial experience of chemical plants and manufacturing to the classroom.

Some people ask whether it was hard being a woman in a male environment in my first role. But for any female students concerned about this – please don’t be. It was a wonderful, stimulating, encouraging environment and I personally faced no issues related to my gender. I’m so passionate about science and very much would encourage other women to go into it. There are some fantastic careers, unusual ones with great scope and opportunity and your skills will be in great demand.

If I was to change anything, it would have to have been more confident as I left University. I had a 1st class MSc from Oxford, but I was shy and lacking in self-confidence. Whilst I ended up with a fulfilling career, I do wonder how things may have been different if I had more confidence back then.

What advice would you give to students choosing their career following a Science degree?

Wow, there is just so much opportunity out there. Whether it’s industry or teaching, I honestly think you need to try to work out as best you can what kind of person you are, what drives you and what kind of environment suits you. Are you a real team player, preferring the comfort of a flat management structure and self-motivated enough to find a job rewarding without constant promotion and financial reward? Or do you have a competitive side that sees you perform and thrive under constant pressure?

Would a relatively small thing like seeing a pupil’s eyes light up as they grasp a concept make your day? Do you love your subject so much that the chance to immerse yourself in it and pass it on to others is an absolute dream?

Remember to give consideration to smaller/medium sized companies as well as the big names. A smaller organisation may have more opportunities to gain experience across a wide variety of areas, and expose you to senior level people and high profile projects more quickly.

The reality is that until you’re out there working, you may not find this out. But try to be true to yourself and make your best assessment of what suits you, and remember to be proud of all your achievements and believe in yourself – that’s the most important thing.