Transcript of podcast episode with alumni guest speaker, Lynda Koffi.
Podcast length: 36:57
Cate: Welcome everyone to the latest edition of Career Talk. I'm Cate Linforth, the International Employer Liaison Officer here at Careers Network in the University of Birmingham. I am delighted because today we are joined by one of our graduates, Lynda Koffi. Welcome, Lynda. Thank you for joining us. I just wanted to start off by asking you, if you wouldn't mind just introducing yourself, tell us a little bit about yourself, where you're from originally, what you studied at University of Birmingham, and where you are now, if you don’t mind?
Lynda: As you already know I'm Lynda and I'm 23 years old. Let's first say where I'm from, I'm from Ivory Coast, which is a beautiful country in West Africa. I flew to the UK after my high school degree and the reason why I decided to study in the UK is because I got scholarship to study there. I also had other scholarships to study somewhere else, like France or Morocco but I decided to choose the UK because it’s one of the major countries when it comes to higher studies. Getting a degree from a UK university is something quite valuable. That's the reason why I decided to take that scholarship.
I first started at the University of Wolverhampton, where I studied a Bachelor of Engineering, in Chemical Engineering, and I graduated in September 2020, and then I decided to apply for a Master's at the University of Birmingham, because it's one of the major universities in the UK and it was just right next door, because Wolverhampton and Birmingham are very close. So, I applied there, and I got into the programme. I had other offers, but I decided to go for Birmingham, and at Birmingham I studied an MSc in Chemical Engineering and Energy and I graduated in September 2021.
Cate: What are you up to now? Where are you located and what are you doing now?
Lynda: Right now, I’m interning in a company called TotalEnergies, maybe you’ve heard about it? It's a 6-month, end of study internship in the gas and renewable power department of that company. So the objective is to analyse and develop various projects aiming at supporting the energy transition. These projects involve different technologies, as we know like renewables wind, solar, biomethane, hydrogen etc.
Cate: Great, and you’re based in France now?
Lynda: Yeah, that's right. After my degree at the University of Birmingham, I decided to go into further studies. So, I’m currently doing, kind of a second Master’s in Energy Economics.
Cate: Oh, wow, fantastic! When you initially started university, when you were initially looking at universities and thinking of where to go and what to study, what did you envisage your career would be after your studies, or what did you hope to do after you finished university?
Lynda: Well, I'd say it was not very clear in my mind. Initially, I wanted to stay in the UK, like for the graduate route visa and look for jobs etc. But then I just felt like there was so much uncertainty, and I didn't want to end up not finding the job and get back to my country after 2 years with a gap in my CV. Also, I was interested in economics, because after my Bachelor's of Engineering, and Chemical Engineering at Birmingham, it was still Chemical Engineering with a specialisation in Energy and I wanted to specialise again in Economics, Energy Economics. I thought about my alternatives. I could have stayed in the UK and applied for a programming energy economics there. I decided to go for France because higher studies are much more affordable there. Also, I’m a native French speaker so that was an easy choice to make. So yeah, that’s the reason why I chose to move to France.
Cate: It's a really interesting opportunity because I think a lot of international students when they come to a different country to study, I was an international student myself, and I moved to the UK for my studies, and I remember myself and other international students talking about it, and at the time we thought we would either stay in the UK or we would go back home to our home country. I think a lot of international students don't always explore their options for going to a third country. I think what you've done is really interesting because you've given yourself even more valuable experience working in a different culture and learning in a different educational environment as well. When we talk about careers today, we talk about everyone will have a global experience of some sort, whether they're working for a multinational company, or whether they have colleagues from a different country, or whether they work with clients in a different country or from a different country, so everyone now has a bit of a global experience within their career.
Lynda: I just wanted to add something. There is something which is particular about studying in France, for example, the Master's programme I’m undertaking right now, it's divided into 2 parts. First, we take in-person lectures, and then for 6 months, we have to look for internships, like it's a mandatory internship to actually complete our programme. This is the reason why now interning with the company.
Cate: That's fantastic, so that work experience is built into your education, which just enhances, your academic profile is exceptional anyway and it looks like you're studying really technical degree programs and you've got a really good experience education wise, but it's nice to also have that built in career experience that you put on your CV as well so that anyone looking to employ you after your studies knows that you've at least had a certain amount of time in a work environment.
So when you were back at the University of Birmingham in particular, when you were doing your Master’s, now I appreciate it would have been right at the height of the pandemic when things were a little bit tricky and some courses would have been online and extra precautions would have been taken for those that were in person. Did you have any jobs or internships while you were at Brimingham? Or did you engage in any sports and societies while you were at Birmingham?
Lynda: Well, I participated in a programme that was called Master’s campus-based team internship. It was run from March to May 2021, and it was a team internship. My team and I, for example, my team and I, were a group of engineering students enrolled in different Master’s programmes at the University of Birmingham. During 3 months, we worked along Severn Trent, which is a water company, we worked on a technically and economically viable engineering solution, aiming at solving a challenge that was faced by Severn Trent. The objective was to help improve the sustainability of the company by reducing the energy consumption and the emissions of the ammonia recovery unit of Severn Trent. It was very interesting because it involved simulation, and it was challenging as well because we still had to go through lectures and all the stuff. Maybe the fact that we were at home make it made it easier, I don't know.
Cate: I think those remote working challenges, or remote internships are really valuable, especially given the recent few years and the uncertainty with being able to work in an office, or whether or not you'll be on site or not. But the employers are setting real-world challenges, real-world business challenges for their company that they need support with and a lot of times those solutions are implemented within their company. So, you're working on something that's really tangible, at the same time you were working with colleagues, you get to know a company. But like you say you're at home, so it doesn't disrupt your studies as much as going to a different city for an in-person internship might do. We do a lot of boot camps and consultancy challenges and things as well, which are a really interesting option for students, because any experience with an employer is going to help your career prospects and give you insight into that work environment.
Can you tell me a little bit about your transition from university into full time work with the internship that you're in now? Was there anything that you found particularly challenging with that transition going from full time studies to full time work?
Lynda: It's been a smooth transition because my course is pretty intensive, because I go to school from nine to five. It's pretty much the same thing in most French universities. It's different from the UK, and I was already used to it as I did, well from my birth to about 18, I was in a French environment. I was used to that timetable, and I just spent four years in the UK, so it's been pretty smooth and my colleagues are amazing. However, there is a big ‘however’ there's something really important that must be pointed out, I guess you did not notice it, or maybe you did, but I'm an introvert. I often get social anxiety and being an introvert in the workplace can sometimes be kind of difficult or I'd say maybe psychologically draining. Introverts tend to do their best thinking and concentrating solo. I personally thrive being alone and I do not crave social interaction. I do love my colleagues, they are all amazing awesome and caring, and I think I could have not dreamed of a better work environment. But still, most of the time, things like meetings, group breakfasts, lunches, after work things, usually tend to drain my energy. I know it's important to socialise and bond with others when working at a company. Ever since I joined Total Energies for my internship, I've been trying to get out of my comfort zone, talk more, interact more, and so on. There is a long way to go, but I'll get there. I just wanted to say that if there is someone out there and I'm sure there are many of us, you're not alone, definitely not. You have many strengths that you can put forward because introverts tend to be deep thinkers, as well as great problem solvers.
Cate: You've hit the nail on the head there. I think it's really easy for us to say ‘oh, just put yourself out there and socialise as much as possible’, and you explained it perfectly. It is key to do that when, especially when you're on an internship and you're hoping that that experience could potentially lead to something full time or at the very least, you want to make sure that you make a good impression for references and to get the most out of your experience. But for those of us who aren't naturally outgoing or who find social situations triggering their anxiety, it's really difficult to do that especially when you might have a group of people who, once you're close with them it's really easy to be outgoing with them, but it's when you're in an environment with new people.
Sometimes when you start at a new company, especially a larger company, there are a lot of different people to meet and to get to know and to read. Like you say it is very draining your energy. I think that's such a good point in that when you're studying, especially a lot of courses that students can choose to do and especially a lot of postgraduate courses, there is a high emphasis on independent work and independent research. And yes there are group elements to every course at some point, but a lot of your education relies on you studying and you putting the work in, the working by yourself. I would argue that transition into a workplace environment when you're forced to socialise and interact and there's a team, even the best teams in the world that is still a challenge for introverts that's such a good point. I'm really glad you mentioned that actually because I was sitting here just thinking, well, that sounds like a really seamless transition from university to work and that I've never had that experience even when I've gone from job to job, there's always something that I find challenging about the new experience. I was thinking, oh my gosh Lynda has just had this, like, easy breezy experience.
Whilst I do think that your educational system in the Ivory Coast and being with a French educational system and then now studying in France has lent itself to that increased contact hours, and more disciplined contact hours, like you say you didn't have to really get used to the nine to five. But I think any transition there are things to take into consideration and I think the biggest part is that sometimes it takes a little bit of time to get used to it and you just need to be gentle with yourself and you need to appreciate that you go from one super comfortable environment of something that you've been doing for a few years, to another one, and it's not always just going to flow exactly perfectly. You just need to give yourself that allowance to get used to a new pace, I guess.
I know that you said that with your master’s in France, the internship is part of your programme. Did you still need to go through the application process?
Lynda: Well, it was time taking. It was also tiring, and a bit stressful. Because actually, you have to find an internship on your own and the university does not help. You may have to do your course again, like the year after, if you do not get an internship. It's actually stressful for everyone. I spent the first semester looking for internships, but still I was going to school from nine to five. You have to apply and sometimes you get no answers, sometimes you get answer negative answers. I think, for the first three to four months of starting my application, I didn't get any positive responses. I was a bit stressed about it. I think around January or February, I got interviews. I had five or four interviews. I got three offers out of five. It's like a job actually, you have to be consistent and keep on applying and you have to tailor your CV and cover letter for every single opportunity. Yeah, it takes a lot of energy and time, and you have to stay focused and do not get discouraged, but because the moment you get discouraged, I think you start to fail.
Cate: That's such a good point and I think we find a lot of students will say, I'm applying for hundreds of internships or I'm applying for dozens and dozens of graduate schemes and I'm just not getting anywhere. Sometimes students focus on quantity over quality, because there is usually a short amount of time to secure an opportunity, and you don't want to miss that window by not applying for things, but it's really important to strike that balance between making sure that you're not just applying for everything, and not putting in the work that is required to make a good successful application.
Lynda: Yeah, definitely. At some point I even started to apply for roles I was not very interested in. You need something so you say well I'm going to apply for this even if I don't like it that much. I think it's a it's a bad idea to do that.
Cate: I think if you have if you have an opportunity that you really like, it's easier to write the application, it's easier to tailor your CV to that role because you're interested in it. It's easier at the interview because your passion shows through, and then actually becoming successful in the role is easier than a job that your heart just isn't in. I think that's a really important element to it.
With that being said, tell me about your role, and what do you do on a day-to-day basis in your current job.
Lynda: It's actually a role of analysts. What does an analyst do? Day by day, you have to go through different papers and see what's going on in the electricity and energy market. I'm currently in the department of Total Energies which is called gas renewables and power. The objective of this department is to analyse and develop various projects, aiming at supporting energy transition. These projects involve different technologies such as renewables, biomethane, hydrogen, liquefied natural gas etc.
I'm part of the strategy and intelligence unit of that department, which is the central Strategy Team, overseeing everything related to governance and monitoring of investment into renewable product. My role consists in performing strategic analysis on various electricity markets, France, Belgium, Spain, the UK, Texas. In these analysis, I consider various parameters, such as the energy mix on the market, the regulatory framework, the existing interconnections, the market dynamics, electricity pricing etc. I also benchmark the major players in these markets, by analysing the business models, their production portfolio, the volume sales, the customer portfolio, their sales strategy as well. I also look into the percentage of electricity they produce, what percentage of electricity is linked to long term contracts and what percentage is sold on a market that we call the ‘spot market’. It’s the daily market where we sell electricity. It's actually to evaluate the risk, to see how much of the production is exposed to risk and that kind of stuff.
Cate: That's fascinating. I mean, as you probably know in your current role, the energy market in the UK in particular right now is turbulent. I think it's really interesting as well because there are a lot of different factors that play into energy prices. There are political elements to it, there are, like you say, environmental elements to it and the transition into renewable. It's something that I think is necessary and especially with a lot of governments and industry commitments to enhancing renewable energy. That's a very important role.
What do you enjoy most about it? What's your favourite part of your day to day?
Lynda: I love the fact that there is always something new. I also love the fact that I have the feeling to be contributing to something big and meaningful. A project that helps separate the energy transition, and the shift away from fossil fuels, within a company that is historically known for being fossil fuel oriented. We are operating a change, and I feel kind of proud of it. I think that's the thing I love the most.
Cate: That's great. I think there's a lot of research around graduates, right now, now more than ever being more interested in joining companies that align with their ethical viewpoints. I think that's really important when you spend much time of your day at work. It's really important to be working towards something that one, you feel like you're making an impact on, and two, you feel is aligning with your viewpoints on things. It makes it makes work more enjoyable and it gives you that feeling of confidence in what you do,
What advice do you have for students who are looking at getting into working within the energy sector in a role similar to yours?
Lynda: When applying, make sure you highlight your passion for the role, as well as your soft and transferable skills, even if you have no experience. Highlight how your degree or personal skills will be valuable for the company. Also, you can optimise your use of LinkedIn by following or connecting with people doing those jobs you have an interest in. Me, for example, you can connect with me if you want. Do not hesitate to message them. Start reading a lot. I think it's really important, especially for the type of job I'm doing. If you don't like reading and going through massive documents and articles, you are not going to like this role. Similarly, keep on sharpening your Excel and VBA skills, which are really important to analyse various energy market data as an analyst. Make sure you keep on developing your critical thinking and analytical skills, which I think might already be quite good for people that went to university, especially engineering cities. As regard my current role, feel free to drop me a text on LinkedIn, anyone if you'd like, I’d be happy to answer any question that someone may have from the university or anyone.
Cate: That's really generous. I think the best ways that students who are looking, like you say, who are looking at particular roles or particular industries, one of the best ways that they can find out more is to get a mentor. We’ve got a mentoring scheme at the university, or it doesn't have to be a formal mentoring relationship either but to reach out to people who are in the industry that they want to go into who are successful and who are working on their career within that industry to get some more insight into both the industry but also what the role is like and what they can do to make themselves more employable.
What do you think the biggest challenges that the energy sector is facing right now?
Lynda: Well, I think it's the energy transition, it's climate change. For me, it's just the biggest challenge of all time because we are being told that our planet is about collapse if we don't do anything about it, and energy is kind of responsible for it. We use energy for everything, pretty much. For heating, for everything, even to cook, even for the light, everything and we put a lot of emissions into the atmosphere because of this sector. I think it's the major sector we have to actually use as a game changer. That's the biggest challenge right now. For me, technologies can help, but also it's about changing people's behaviour. For example, some companies that keep on investing into fossil fuels say ‘well, people need it’. As long as there will be demand, there will be offer as well, that’s normal, completely normal. I think the biggest change should come from demand and from people’s habits. Yeah, that that's the biggest challenge for me.
Cate: I think that's key. I think it's a time sensitive challenge, and this isn't something that we have indefinite time to solve and work towards. There are always going to be companies and individuals who want to capitalise on anything, so, like you say, if some individuals or companies will think well if there's a demand for it and we can sell it, we’ll keep exploiting it. But I think the best way that we can make that change is to vote with our actions and take our business to the companies that are working to help to help solve the issue.
What do you think is the biggest reward from your job, obviously apart from any salary, what's the biggest reward for you? Would you say that it's like an ethical reward, knowing that you're working towards something that means a lot to you? Or is there something else that keeps you going?
Lynda: Well, I think it's the same thing as I said before. I felt glad and happy that I'm contributing to a bigger cause and I'm actually being kind of a game changer, a little, a little game changer. But still, I think it's the thing I'm the most proud of. The most rewarding thing for me is that one day I'll be able to say, ‘well I participated into those projects that are now moving away from fossil fuels’ for example.
Cate: That's fantastic. Lynda, I could just talk to you all day. I'm finding our conversation really enjoyable. I just have one final question for you. This is thinking about current University of Birmingham students and those who are particularly international students but also any students who have done a degree similar to yours or any who are maybe looking at getting into the energy industry after their studies, what recommendations do you have for students to make the most of their time, both at Birmingham but also for international students to make the most of their time in the UK? But also, if there's anything in terms of like personal development, how can students make the most of their time studying in the UK?
Lynda: Well, first, I'd say, use your career centre, it is very important. I didn't use it much but use it. Make the most of it because there are many resources that are available to you for free and it's also part of your fees. So why are you not using it? Definitely make a good use of it. Also be curious and interact with people. Sometimes you just don't think about stuff. We are often told today there are so many information available on the internet. But you must know that information exists, before you are able to go and look for it. You should hear something first, if you know what I mean.
For example, me when I started my degree at the University of Wolverhampton in chemical engineering, I thought that the only work I could do would be on the power plant. I didn't have any idea of all the things I could do. I had to talk to people in the career first for example. Just get yourself out there and talk to people. They might not necessarily be from industry won't work in, but you are going to discover things that you will have an interest in, and maybe you will change your mind.
Just be curious, it's important. Also, I'd like people to remember, especially international students, but I think it's valid for everyone, that it's tough out there, and it's going to be easier for some of you. That's, clear, and harder for others, yet, you have to hold tight. Because sometimes you feel discouraged and you start comparing yourself to others, because you feel like you have something less, maybe because it was easier for that person and not that easy for you. Your degree, particularly a degree from the University of Birmingham is a springboard like no other. Certainly, there's no guarantee that every single door will open to you straight away. You have all the resources and strengths within you, and never doubt that. The moment you start doubting, as I said before, you start failing, to me at least.
Big careers, keep on learning. It's really important. I often tell myself that learning has no threshold level. And it's crucial that you remember that. Continuous learning will help you unleash your potential, and it's not possible to learn everything at university, but nowadays we have a wide range of resources available on the internet. Make good use of this, and well good luck.
Cate: That's so inspiring. I think that's really sound advice. Obviously, we all go to university to study a course and to learn a particular thing but don't limit yourself to a small area. Keep exploring your options, keep learning, meet with people talk to people. I like how you said that there's no threshold on learning, it's not like you learn a certain amount and then you're at capacity, the more you learn, the more you know. It sounds really simple but it's something that is important for all of us to remember.
Thank you again Lynda for your time. Genuinely, it’s been so lovely to talk to you.