Dr James McCleary completed his Phd in Chemistry and Polymer Science at Stellenbosch University in 2004. Since then he has become quite a jet setter. He agreed to answer a few questions about his studies and subsequent career path.
What did you study and when?
I completed a BSc and a BSc Hons in Chemistry at the University of Pretoria in the mid-1990s. During my undergraduate studies I had a short course in Polymer Chemistry and found the field fascinating. I then moved to the Western Cape and completed a BSc Hons in Polymer Science at Stellenbosch University. This was followed by an MSc in Polymer Science in 2000 and the PhD in 2004, also at SU.
Did you have any work experience before you started to look for a job?
As a PhD-student, you work on practical problems in an environment similar to many industrial research environments. The technical skills of practical laboratory work are well established and good research practices are mastered as a necessary tool to complete your doctorate. I also worked at the University for a year as a post-doctoral student.
Where are you currently employed?
I work for BASF, the largest chemical company in the world. I am responsible for Sales and Industry Management as regards polymers, pigments and additives for Sub-Saharan Africa with a focus on the coatings industry. To put it simply, my team and I sell paint raw materials to paint producers from Cape Town to the Sahara Desert!
How did you get the position?
After SU I worked at several companies, such as a paper producer for two years, then a paint company with a research facility at SU for three years. I then moved to Johannesburg to development laboratories, then into a sales and supply chain role for a year, then marketing, all at the same company. After six years I was promoted to an executive role in corporate strategy. After a year in this role I was head-hunted by the ideal employer every chemist dreams about working for – BASF.
What is exciting about your work?
I work with many different people and no day is the same. I can wake up in Kampala, go to bed in Dar Es Salaam. I may be in Durban or Cape Town tomorrow and in Germany the next week. The variety of problems that I deal with and the opportunity for creative solutions is endless. Nothing about my job is routine or boring.
Your advice to students who are entering the job market
Qualifications simply open a door to an opportunity. Once you have the opportunity nobody cares what you studied or what your marks were. You are judged on your performance and commitment. Companies invest in good employees, so take every opportunity to be one. Humility and commitment will take you further than a PhD.
What would you have done differently during your years at university?
I was lucky to have excellent scientists involved in my education, so I would not change anything about my education. I had great international exposure at conferences and was part of a Stellenbosch generation that pushed polymer science forward, in South Africa and internationally. Today I realise I should have spent more time ensuring that I was fully informed as to the opportunities and the market requirements for the opportunities that were potentially available to me. In this respect I definitely could have done much more, like gaining industrial experience during the holidays, or making contact with persons in industry.