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  • Shelly Elliott

Five Years as a Real Engineer in the Real World


Five years ago today, I was standing in the driveway, kissing my mom, brother, and two-month boyfriend (now my husband) Scott goodbye before getting in the car with my dad to drive to the Buffalo airport and board a one-way flight to Houston, Texas, to start my career as a chemical

engineer with ExxonMobil. I was coming off one of the best summers of my life after graduating from Notre Dame, meeting a special guy, spending lots of time with my family, road-tripping up the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington with my best friends Becca and Rachel from ND, and vacationing in Naples, Florida, with the family and our close family friends. Now, it was time to put my big girl pants on, be a "real" adult, and be a real engineering in the real world, and my emotions swung like a pendulum.

I was incredibly anxious about both my professional life and personal life in Houston. Regarding the former, I never interned in manufacturing or refining. All I saw of the refinery when I had my interview was a 30-minute tour where literally, the size and scale of the refinery had me awestruck the entire tour. Baytown can process about 580,000 barrels per day of crude oil; the small refinery operated by American Refining Group in my hometown can process 10,000 barrels per day. Let that sink in! It was my first real-job that was “hardcore engineering” based. Up until now, a compressor was a sideways trapezoid on a piece of paper and a heat exchanger was a rectangle. Would I be prepared? Would I be overwhelmed? Did I remember how to derive the Navier-Stokes equation for fluid flow or use MCCabe-Thiele diagrams to model a distillation tower? Who were my new coworkers? What if my new coworkers didn’t like me? What if I didn’t like the job? Like most companies that pay to relocate employees, I had to agree to work for the company for two years before I would be free of any obligation to pay back any relocation expenses.

Let’s start with being prepared. First, my education taught me the basics, and my previous internships and school work gave me critical experiences like working with people from different backgrounds, communicating my thoughts, questions, and ideas, and approaching a problem with discipline and persistence. What I didn’t realize at the time was how much training, resources, and people my company would put at my disposal. Most companies want to train you to do things the way that the company wants it done, which is why companies invest thousands of dollars in training and development programs for employees. Don’t get me wrong; it is crucial to know the basics and have a problem-solving approach, but companies will teach you their methods, processes, and systems.

Next, real jobs aren’t like school. Very rarely, if ever, will you be given a huge problem to tackle in a room by yourself with pencil and paper. You’ll have a team of coworkers, resources, software programs, and tools around you that can help support. The part of ExxonMobil I started with was called EMRE, ExxonMobil Research and Engineering, and my group specifically provided support for our at the time 7 U.S. refineries in the distillation technology. (Hint: Distillation is a fancy word for boiling something to separate out its components.) Before I started, I knew the group had a lot of experienced people in it, but what I didn’t realize was that some of my coworkers were global experts in their field. Here I was, from the first day of my career, working alongside them. I asked a ton of questions, but doing so showed them that I wanted to learn. And regarding those equations? We had software programs and tools that would model things for us. What I had to understand, was how to interpret the model’s results and use those results to recommend an action or business decision.

From a personal side, going from a town of 8,000 people to the third largest U.S. city with a population of over 4X10^6 made me nauseous just thinking about it. I had never driven on an eight-lane highway before. I had never lived in an apartment, as I grew up in a house and lived on-campus in a dorm all through college. Plus, living in the dorms all through college meant I didn’t have to cook for myself. Our dining halls were top-notch, and I hadn’t exactly been taking notes when I was home on break when my mom whipped up delicious home-cooked meals. And perhaps the core of my worries was starting a whole new life in a big city where the only person I knew was one of my best friends from Notre Dame and my roommate, Rachel. That’s another critical difference between the real world and school. It’s a lot easier to make friends when you’re around peers between the ages of 18 and 22 all within a few miles radius than living in a huge city with millions of people. The bonus, though, is that you can meet so many interesting people of all different ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, and religions that can enrich your life in so many ways. Take, for instance, our best friends from Houston. She was born in Scotland, raised in Canada, and he was born in Poland, raised in Australia, and our paths crossed in Houston, Texas. Actually, Scott and I had our first international trip together when we went to Krakow, Poland, for their wedding, which ignited our passion for international travel.

Picking up my life and moving to Houston was one of the best decisions I ever made. It brought incredible people into my life and gave me experiences I would have never had otherwise from both a personal and professional perspective. Dive in. Leave no rock unturned. Ask as many questions as you can. Meet as many people as you can. And recognize that each opportunity is a gift for you. A few weeks ago, while back in the Bradford area, Pug and I ran into one of our favorite coaches, Ron DeCarli. He’s a legend in upstate New York for running the most intense basketball camp of the summer, and coach is one of the most inspirational people I have ever met, beating the odds on and off the court, including cancer. Coach has a saying that has always stayed with me: Who you are is God’s gift to you. What you make of yourself is your gift to God. Embrace each opportunity to make yourself better.


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© 2020 by Shelly Elliott.

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