Talk with Simon Knudsen (Chemical Engineer)

This week we introduce you to Simon Knudsen, a competent chemical engineering graduate from DTU and SDU. He is a graduate of MSc.Eng in Chemical and Biochemical Engineering from Technical University of Denmark in 2021. Earlier, he has done his B.Eng in Chemical Engineering from Southern University of Denmark in 2018.

He is a fresh graduate, but he has ample experience under his belt. While studying for a demanding and study-extensive degree, he has gathered very strong hands-on experience within both technical and non-technical areas. To name a few, he has worked as an Analytical Chemist at C.C. Jensen, as an Intern and Student Assistant at Maersk Oil and later as a Student Assistant at GN Store Nord. Furthermore, he has also proved and brushed up his in-depth knowledge of chemical engineering principles by working as a Teaching Assistant at DTU. He also has proven people and management skills by having worked as a Buddy for new MSc students and then later as a Chairman for KT Students at DTU.

To say the least, Simon may be a fresh graduate, but his work experience and knowledge makes him a tough competitor to any industrial engineer within any industry. He has specialised within Process Engineering during his degree, and therefore has expertise within production, process design, modelling, simulations and waste water treatment.

Additionally, a great news and a big congratulation to Simon, as he has been employed at Ramboll as a Chemical Engineer. It was well-deserved and we wish him the very best for his future career.

Education

Simon graduated in 2021 with Masters (M.Eng) in Chemical and Biochemical Engineering from Technical University of Denmark (DTU). Before that, he graduated in 2018 with his Bachelors (B.Eng) in Chemical Engineering from University of Southern Denmark in Odense (SDU).

How was the workload of your degree? What did you spend most time on?

I extended my masters period to work besides my studies, which spread the workload quite evenly.

ChemE is considered to be a tough degree, so in your experience, what topics did you find the most difficult?

During my first semester I took an elective course which is outside the classical chemical engineering line called "Pharmaceutical drug development". That was especially difficult, since there is a lot of implicit knowledge outside our field of expertise such as how the kidneys and livers work, and so on.

The greatest challenges for me at DTU has been programming. At SDU in the bachelors, we had mainly focused on experiments and "learning by doing". Back then I was one of the best at using mathematical programs, but our class was quite small, so when I started at DTU, I realised that I was just a large fish in a small pond.

In any case, I had spent many evenings in the library until late night, in order to learn Matlab programming as fast as possible, so that I could catch up with the other students.

As you mentioned that programming played a very key role within your degree. Could you elaborate on what functions did programming play in ChemE? What did you have to do in MATLAB? Was it mostly modelling, ODE solving, data analysis or simulink? In your opinion, how can one best learn programming?

I did both modelling and ODE solving. I needed to learn it to pass some courses. Mainly course 28361(chemical engineering model analysis), which I had failed on my first attempt because I had absolutely no clue on how to use Matlab, and I was sponging of my two other group members who were much more intelligent than me. For my last attempt, I convinced the lecturer (Alexander Shapiro) to let me do the exam the next year, and basically let me sit and watch the lectures. It’s also 100% necessary for course 28451 (Optimizing Plantwide Control), where you also learn Simulink. And finally I used it in course 28443 (Industrial Reaction Engineering), where you mostly learn how do resource optimization, and solving differential equations in matlab is often needed for this.

You can sign up for some evening courses where you can learn it at DTU, but I recommend signing up for courses at udemy.com, or some other sites. There is a course called “Become a Good Matlab Programmer in 30 days”, if you are a complete beginner, which I recommend.

Unlike the elective courses at DTU, you can do it in your own time if you have the self-discipline for it. Generally online courses on how to do programming are excellent, as long as you have the self-discipline to spend 30-45 minutes each weekday, you’ll learn it fast.

What line did you choose to focus during your degree? Could you tell a little about this field and what it entails?

Process Engineering. Process engineering can best be described as a generalization as opposed to most lines which are specializations. To be a good process engineer, you need to know a little bit about everything, because your job requires a good deal of overview, and each choice you make in one place will affect the outcome on another place. It is your responsibility to have a plant-wide overview of a situation, and to see where things can be improved or optimized. I love this, because in my opinion it keeps the work fresh, since you never get to work with one thing all the time. Maybe one week you will be working on a heat exchanger and the next week you will be working with a pipeline.

I know a couple of very intelligent people working at impressive corporations, but their entire work schedule from beginning to the end consists of babysitting an algorithm and making sure the AI does what it is supposed to do. I have a lot of respect for these people since it obviously requires intelligence and engineering skills, but it would never be satisfying work for me.

Did you have student jobs during or between your education? How did you get them? Where did you work? How did it help your education or future career?

I have had a good deal of student positions.

My first job was as an analytical chemist for C.C. Jensen in Odense. Me and my group had asked to do a semester project with the company where we analyzed a heavy metal distribution in an oil filter. The company was pleased with our work, and they offered to do the same with more oil filters, but this time they paid us for it. The entire summer holiday me and my good friends in the group worked countless hours in the lab.

Later I did an internship with Maersk Oil (before they got acquired by Total), and they re-hired me as a student assistant, and the experience I gained there is in my opinion invaluable.

When I started at DTU, I also decided I wanted a job as a student Assistant. I was a teaching assistant in course 28852 where I taught Risk Assessment in Chemical and Biochemical industries.

And I was hired by GN - Store Nord in the Jabra Department, mainly doing QA and QC work in the lab.

Back then I did not have much experience apart from maybe my time in the Oil industry. So I decided to fluff up my CV with some volunteering work at DTU. I signed up to be a "buddy", which meant that I showed around exchange students during the intro week, and I also joined the student union "KTStudents", of which I am currently the chairman of. Both these things taught me to be more open and how to work and talk with people across cultures.

My ex-girlfriend used to work in the HR-recruitment team, here is a really good tip she gave me: Think of a job-interview more like a date, and not like an exam. If you are unsure of something or don’t know the answer to a question, your employers would rather hear you say that you don’t know, instead of you trying to bullshit your way to an answer which you think they would like to hear.

How did you get your internship during your BSc? Did you use any website or external tools?

The internship was posted on the job-bank at SDU, and I simply fell over it accidentally while casually searching for internships. Back then, my only work experience was a summer job as an analytical chemist in a lab, so not much relevance to the kind of work I did at Maersk Oil.

I think the main reason they hired me was because I told them, I would move from Odense where I was studying to Esbjerg, which is where the job was. This showed them, that I was serious about spending my time with them and that I wasn’t going to half-ass the work.

Work Experience

What industry do you wish to work in? Have you limited yourself to only engineering jobs or are you also interested in non-core jobs?

I have applied mostly for process engineering jobs, but I have also previously worked in labs, and I absolutely loved it. I have no problem doing gigs like those.

You have some very strong job experience already from your university years. In your opinion, what makes you stand out compared to the other job hunters?

Well, I think experience is more important than high grades. I also understand the importance of trust and teamwork, and I’m very willing to do the less glamourous and smaller tasks, and believe it or not, it makes a huge difference. A team of average IQ engineers who trust each other 100% and know how to communicate will beat a team of genius level IQ engineers who all secretly hate each other and don’t know how to do any kind of communication at all.

You also have to think about it in this way: When a manager employs you they’re probably going to spend as much time with you as they are spending on their own families. In that doesn’t matter how skilled you are if they can’t stand you.

What skills do you think you have gained from your chemical engineering education, which are vital for the industry in this time and age?

I’d say programming. It will only become more and more relevant as our robotic overlords start taking over.

Do you think it has been easy or difficult to look for jobs, especially during this Covid crisis?

Yes and no. During the first six months of the lockdown, companies were slimming down left and right. But now that we are re-opening we are in an almost historical opportunity to find a decent job, since they are all hiring.

In your words, if you had to describe chemical engineering? What would it be? What it meant to you?

Chemical engineering can be described as a generalization. You have to learn about everything to be worth your salt, it is what is both great and terrible about our choice of education.

Any suggestions for future graduates? Something they should be doing while they are still in university getting their degree.

Get a part-time job besides your studies. Even if it's not relevant to your studies or nor that glorious, such as working in a warehouse or at Burger King.

Whether you like it or not you have to work with other people, and therefore, you need to learn how to communicate and interact with co-workers. Also having a bad job on your CV goes alot further than having no job. In my personal experience I have heard a lot of employers state that even if the person has a 10+ GPA, they will not hire them if they have no previous job experience.

It's better to get a bad grade in a course where you learn a lot and which teaches you a subject that is relevant to your future career, rather than getting a 12 (A) in a course that's absolutely useless.

I have seen many people obsessed with their GPA, either because they think it will help them get a job afterwards, or maybe they're worried about how they should look to their friends and family if they fail. And so instead of taking harder courses which would sharpen their skills as an engineer, they take courses that are basically impossible to fail, but teach them little to nothing. Of course it is always pleasant to get see a 12 on your report card, but it's the equivalent of beating a video game on easy mode, you’ve beaten the game, but you can’t say that you’ve become much better at it.

Join a student union or volunteer to show around exchange students. Both things were very rewarding and fun for me, and I got to meet many new people.

Ask a professor to do an elective semester project.

What skills should they focus on during university years? Learning how to program will go a long way, especially now that we are going more towards an automated AI industry. It's also very important to work in a team and understanding how to build trust with people, since you will be working in a team whether you like it or not.
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