Mid-career Perspective: Christopher Smith

30 April 2020

In a new interview series, members of the SCI Mid-Career group offer advice on career management, and how to overcome career challenges.

In this interview, we hear from Christopher Smith, who has a Master’s and DPhil degrees in Chemistry from Oxford University, the latter focussing on hydrogen storage materials. Christopher joined Johnson Matthey in 2010 as a Development Chemist, working on catalytic converters for Heavy Duty Diesel vehicles. He then moved in 2018 to be a Regional Technical Account Manager for a major European car brand. Most recently, he moved into his role to be a Supply Chain Programme Manager and Network Design Lead in a completely different area, in Johnson Matthey's new Battery Materials sector! Christopher is also a member of RSC and a Chartered Chemist since 2013. 

What are the key things you do to manage your career at the mid-career stage?

As a mid-career professional, I have learnt the increasing importance of talking to people and of project and team management skills. People make things happen and the most upward career paths will involve an increasing degree of project management skills, so it is worth investing in these areas. 

Prioritising professional development is not always easy or urgent, but very important to try and do so. I put one hour aside each week to think about my career and what I can do to position myself for the next step. This may be by arranging a conversation or lunch with a colleague, finding training material or engaging with social media forums that are of interest. I have also been mentored within my company which I set up privately and has been a source of sound guidance and support. 

Having a wonderful wife and two children has made a healthy work-life balance not just desirable but essential. When my second son was born, I took two months shared parental leave which was an invaluable opportunity to take a step back and think more purposefully about my career. I highly recommend it.

What are your challenges around mid-career support?

A broader challenge for mid-career professionals is to keep an attitude of learning. Also knowing the boundary between stable and stagnant really helps; I have found myself drifting from one to the other without realising. Keeping my work life (and non-work life) fresh is really important and I would caution anyone against arrogance. If anyone has mastered how to walk humbleness and confidence in their work then you're doing better than me! Ultimately it is your hard work and professionalism that will establish you and provide the platform for your influence and credibility in your workplace. I believe these are vital for integral leadership (and they take time). As there are less forums for mid-careers professionals we will all have to be that bit more pro-active to find that support, like going out and finding a mentor.

What has been useful or what could be of interest at the mid-career stage that SCI might be able to offer?

Firstly, having attended three SCI mid-careers events, I have found networking to be the most valuable part. Secondly, opportunities to connect with more senior people in the chemical industry would also be good. Thirdly, it could be good for the SCI to map out different career paths of Chemists or people in the chemical industry and then provide suggestions for career development opportunities, e.g. training or events that may be beneficial for this path.

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