Our careers often take us in unforeseen directions. Dr Jessica Jones, Applications Team Leader at Croda, chatted to us about moving from research into management, the benefit of developing softer skills, and her unexpected mentor.
Tell me about your career to date.
I came through university in what is probably seen as the ‘traditional’ way. I did a Master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Liverpool, with a year working in industry, which I really enjoyed. And then after I finished my Master’s, I did a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Nottingham. I always wanted to work in industry, but I really enjoyed research, so I decided to do the PhD as I thought the skills would be useful for either career path.
Jessica Jones in the lab
Were you tempted by a career in academia?
No, I never felt like I was the kind of person who had what it takes to succeed in academia. I never felt like I could ever come up with the nucleus of a new idea. I always felt like someone could give me the slimmest thread of a thought and I could turn it into something, but I could never have that thread myself. From my perspective, academia can be a lonely career and I enjoy and benefit from working in a team with other people.
So, after I finished my PhD, I joined Croda in 2013 as a Research Scientist in our synthesis division, in a synthetic chemistry R&D role. Over seven years, I progressed from Research Scientist to Lead Research Scientist and then Team Leader. During that time, I moved around a bit. I worked at different manufacturing sites, in different research areas and did lots of different projects across multiple sectors.
In February 2020, I was asked if I wanted to go on secondment, as a Team Leader, to one of our applications teams in Energy Technologies. Energy Technologies focuses on lubricants, oil and gas, and batteries. I really enjoyed the secondment and after it came to an end, I chose to take it on as a permanent position rather than return to my old role.
What does this role entail?
My role entails managing a team of application and lead application scientists who work on a range of projects, from designing new products to supporting customers with specific problems and working with universities on more theoretical, developmental ideas.
At the moment, we’re working on a lot of what we call EV (electric vehicle)-friendly fluids. When you move from traditional combustion engines to electric vehicles, there’s quite a change in the properties needed for the fluids within the engine. We make the speciality additives that go into the base oils that support functions such as reduced engine wear and improved fuel efficiency.
The EV market is very different to the traditional car market, which is dominated by big lubricant manufacturers. EVs are so new that Croda has been at conception discussions with world leading EV companies. The whole sector is very data driven and, coming from a research scientist background, that appeals to me very much. It’s very exciting to be at the cutting-edge of innovation with what we’re doing within electrification and renewable energy.
Which projects are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got two long-term new development projects that are both progressing to the final stages of manufacturing. These are products that I designed the chemistry for when working in the synthesis team. It can take four or five years to get a new project through the development process, and I’ve continued to manage them throughout their timeline, even though I have moved into different roles. They are both speciality additives for crude oil to reduce the temperature at which impurities develop, to allow the more difficult oil fractions to be brought out of the ground without it solidifying in pipes when they transport it.
What does a general working day involve?
There are eight people in our team, and I am responsible for managing six of them. There are two other senior technical specialists I work alongside. They have lots of experience in the industry and working with academia, and the three of us coordinate the projects across the team.
My role is to translate the pipeline and the strategy from our senior leaders into what we do in the lab every day. I have three projects that I'm running, which are new product launches. Alongside that, I coordinate the project pipeline and make sure everyone is able to manage their projects and progress them. I do a small amount of lab work, but I would say it makes up 5% of my time.
I always thought I would be a specialist when I joined Croda because of my PhD and lab experience. However, over the time I’ve worked here, I started to really enjoy working with other people; and I think I probably realised I had better skills at motivating other people, building up teams, and networking. So that became a lot more important, and I chose to move into the management side of things but still within a technical function.
Interpersonal skills are sometimes underrated in management. How do you approach this side of the job?
I think I am quite at ease around other people as I am very extroverted. I think that makes me different from a lot of people in my team. For example, my boss and I are the total opposite of each other, but it works really well because it means that we complement each other perfectly. He’s very strategic and he likes to take his time to make decisions. He likes to review all the data very methodically and is good at using detail to evaluate a project’s true value, whereas I’m much more about talking to people, bringing everyone together and acting quickly to get things done. But I think the balance of both works incredibly well for us as a team.
During lockdown we received a webinar on personal resilience, and the session was about your outward projection to other people. About 70% of how you are perceived by others is made up of how people see you and your ‘brand’. Your technical expertise and actual ability to do your job only makes up about 20% of how people view you and how successful you are. And I think as a scientist, you get a bit focused on delivering the project successfully, thinking that you need to be really amazing at delivering data, but people forget about the need to work on themselves to develop as well.
What part of your job motivates you most?
It’s a combination. The science we’re working on is very exciting, and I really enjoy getting all the projects together, making sure everything fits together and that everyone’s doing the right thing. But emotionally, it’s the team that gets me up in the morning – coming in, seeing what they do, how they have been. I’ve been really lucky over the past 12 months, being able to see some of my colleagues really develop. I’ve taken a lot of pride in realising the impact you can have on other people and allowing yourself to take credit for that.
>> What is life like as a materials scientist? Take a look at our thought-provoking conversation with Rhys Archer, founder of Women of Science.
Which mentors have helped you along the way?
There’s one person who stands out. I was asked to take on this extra role to become a European technical rep in one of our business areas. I’d never done anything like that before so the idea that I was going to be put out there, in front of customers, as the technical expert for the business was quite terrifying.
I was to work with the European Sales Manager of the business, and we ended up traveling a lot together. He was the opposite to me. He’s very experienced but had a reputation as a bit of a loud, burly Yorkshireman and I wasn’t sure how we would fit together, but we got on like an absolute house on fire. He was so helpful to me, not just in giving feedback on what I was doing in the role, but general conversations about career and life outside of work and personal support. Having that kind of professional relationship develop has made a massive difference. Just meeting someone like that and having a person to go to when I needed help, someone who I really trust to have my best interests at heart. It was very beneficial for the number of years that we worked together. Since then, we have moved on to different roles, but we still stay in touch, and it has taught me the value in reaching out to different people to help me to develop.
Jessica with the first product she developed at Croda.
In terms of equality and diversity, do you think enough is being done in your sector?
I think there is always more that can be done but I’ve never felt my gender has hindered me in my career and I’ve always felt very supported at Croda. Sometimes people are in a rush to see change immediately, especially when the senior management at Croda and many other STEM organisations is still made up of a majority of white males.
I like to think that the support myself and others have been given will mean that, as we progress, there will be more representation in senior positions. I would always want to achieve something on merit rather than to tick a box for equality. If that means it will take time for the generation I am in now to get to those positions, then I can wait. Importantly, I genuinely think everything that’s being put in place at Croda, and more broadly across the STEM sector, will pave the way for more diverse representation in senior roles in the future.
Do you have any advice you’d give to someone starting out?
Having a mentor is very important. I never thought I needed one until accidently developing that relationship. Since moving into different roles, I’ve set out to deliberately engage with people for that purpose. I would encourage people to seek out those who are different from themselves and engage with them.
I also think it’s important not to be afraid to ask for things you want. If you want to get a promotion or seek out further development, it’s often tempting to ask permission. If you can demonstrate to people that you are ready, it is more effective.
Generally, I think people, especially women, really underestimate the value of self-promotion as they worry it can be perceived as arrogance. A lot of people think that if you simply do a good job, then you’ll be recognised for that. That would be amazing if it were true, but people will judge you on how you’re perceived and how you present yourself, as well as what you do.
I think you need to put yourself out there. Whether it’s getting involved in something outside of your day job or taking the lead in a particular task, it’s a great way to get recognised. Sometimes it won’t work out and it can be hard to take the criticism when that happens, but you always learn from the outcome. I always prefer to have given something a go, even if I fail, than never to try.
Finally, I think people should always be themselves because everyone has unique skills to offer. I don’t think people would look at me and think that I look like the manager of a technical team, but I’m comfortable with my own style and that makes other people comfortable with it too.
>> We’re always interested in hearing about different people’s diverse career paths into chemistry. If you’d like to share yours, get in touch with us at: email@example.com