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Alexandra Coultard

University of Nottingham

MSci Physics with French
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The Big Picture

Alex started her role as a graduate petrophysicist at bp in September 2020, based in Aberdeen. She completed an internship at bp the summer prior and was offered a graduate position upon completing her degree, which she readily accepted. Alex remarked that the work she did on her internship was similar to the work she now does for her full time job, which is not always the case with internships.

“The amount of real responsibility you get as an intern really surprised me.”

Petrophysicists serve as a bridge between geologists and engineers when it comes to the oil and gas industry, providing essential analysis on the data collected by tools several kilometres into the Earth.

“We interpret raw data from downhole tools to calculate things like porosity (the amount of space in the rocks) and permeability (how well connected those spaces are) to try understand what’s going on in the subsurface around the well.  We use a lot of different tools and types of data, so there’s a lot to learn, but it’s great to see the final interpretations when they stitch together into one big, pretty picture and we get a glimpse into what’s going on.”

The Application Process

When she was still at university, Alex went to a ‘Discovery Day’ at bp and spoke to people from multiple different disciplines, but found petrophysics most interesting. This led her to apply for the internship, after the completion of which she was contacted and offered the graduate position.

Alex applied for other internships at the time, one of which she turned down to do the bp internship because the roles didn’t feel like what she was looking for and bp felt like a better fit.

“What I really wanted coming out of uni was an interesting role that I could use my degree in, that I could see the real world applications of and that would give me the work life balance and level of income that suited me.”

Fear or Failure?

“The work that I do has real-life consequences and so it can take a little while to build up the confidence to understand that sometimes you can make mistakes. I’m really supported by the team around me who are happy to answer any questions I might have, or review my work to offer a fresh perspective and make sure my work is 100% accurate. It’s great to know that I have this support around me, but the fear of making a mistake is something I’m still working on.”

Alex plays an important role in her team and her fear of failure means she wants to make sure her work is perfect. This manifests itself in the form of her asking plenty of questions, requesting feedback from her team and ensuring that she uses the resources around her, such as her supervisor and other colleagues, before submitting any work forward.

The Company

bp is an Integrated Energy Company with over 60,000 employees. With operations in Europe, North and South America, Australasia, Asia and Africa, bp delivers energy solutions across the word. bp’s headquarters are in London.

“Our purpose is reimagining energy for people and our planet. We want to help the world reach net zero and improve people’s lives.” – bp.

Asking for Help

“I think there’s a real skill in saying you don’t know – but that’s not to say it hasn’t taken me a long time to build the confidence to constantly ask questions, especially starting virtually.  Working in a virtual setting, it is definitely more difficult to ask questions, but I think that’s something my team are really good at encouraging.  I think it’s great we foster an environment where no question is a silly one.”

The Physics Connection

“You can go into petrophysics as a physicist or as a geologist, so there’s pretty much a 50/50 split in backgrounds.  The real benefit of this is that the geologists really understand the wider context and applications of the information we process, whereas the physicists tend to be quite good at looking at the data as a whole.”

Alex benefits massively in her role from having a degree in physics, meaning that she understands how the tools work, whereas a geologist would have to learn on the job. This goes both ways, however, and Alex has had to learn a lot of geology to ensure that she knows everything she needs to.

Professional Skills

Aside from being in a very physics heavy role, Alex uses a lot of the soft skills that she gained during her degree on a very regular basis, stating that bp has a very iterative work process.

“It’s not like you do a piece of work and it’s signed off, never to be looked at again.  Often, you’ll do a piece of work then, for example, a geologist and an engineer will pick it up and continue it, or my boss will make suggestions on how we could take the project further.  There’s a lot of collaboration between the technical experts, team leaders and more junior people like me.”

As this process happens frequently, being able to prioritise work is extremely important in Alex’s role and company, therefore it is essential that everyone from all departments is involved in the decision making procedures.

Any Advice?

“Do you like long term goals or short term satisfaction? Consider that because that will really help.  Consider the kind of life you want and really try to think if the job will fit that.  Don’t be afraid to turn people down if you decide it isn’t for you.”

The Next Step

Alex has a couple of years left on her graduate scheme and doesn’t plan on leaving bp anytime soon after that. 

“There’s a lot of opportunities out there for petrophysicists, and also for people who have a knack for data science.  One day I’d like to consider looking into how my work could apply in renewables or low carbon, which I’d like to still do with bp.”

Skills Learned;

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