A Warm Welcome from BASF

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This week I attended BASF’s Welcome to Germany event, where 25 PhD students from UK universities were invited to a fully-funded visit to BASF’s headquarters in Ludwigshafen, Germany.

If you’ve never heard of BASF, you should have! They’re the world’s biggest chemical company, and with over 100,000 employees around the globe, they’re a big recruiter of chemistry and engineering PhD graduates.

The event was clearly a way for BASF to attract PhD graduates from the UK and make their presence more known throughout each of our respective universities, but this was never hidden from us – the people we spoke to were always very clear as to what the purpose of the trip was, and I appreciated that.

The event was 3 days long, and jam-packed with events and information about both BASF and the area of Germany where it is located. It’s the first event of this type so far, and from what I can they plan to continue them in the future. I thought I’d share my experience here, so that PhD students and graduates can get an impression of BASF and consider whether it’s somewhere you would consider working yourself.

Day 1: Arrival at Mannheim

BASF had arranged for us to stay in the Intercity Hotel in Mannheim, which was fully paid for by them. Check-in was easy and, luckily for us, we arrived early and had time to explore Mannheim. This is the city where new employees at the Lugwigshafen site generally live, particularly those from abroad.

Mannheim is a small city, but seems full of life, with the local people happily shopping in a plethora of both high street and designer shops, or taking in tea and cake in the vast range of cafes and restaurants. It’s a fairly attractive city, and has an altogether welcoming and very liveable feel.

At 6pm, we were welcomed by the representative from BASF, who was very friendly and informative, and whisked away to the Mannheim Television Tower (or Fernsehturm) for a welcome dinner. It was spectacular. BASF had done a good job of selecting students for the visit, as everyone was talkative, interested in each other, and eager to network. Often, with events like this, it’s easy for students to stick together in small groups and not interact, but everyone really got stuck in and made an effort. Eating in the revolving restaurant, with a stunning view of Mannheim by night, we got to know some of the students from St Andrews, Oxford and Imperial College universities. Everyone was interested in each other’s work, and it was a very successful evening – with tasty food and plenty of wine to go around!

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Day 2: Exploring BASF

Thursday started off bright and early – we left the hotel at 8am (after a hearty free breakfast) for a day packed with activities at the Lugwigshafen site. The day started off with a bus tour of the BASF site, and our ideas of perfect German efficiency was shattered with a bit of a mix up with the tour guide not being booked. However, BASF quickly resolved the mix up and the day was underway with only a minor delay.

The Ludwigshafen site is very impressive in its size. To someone like me who only has experience of very small chemical companies, it’s quite overwhelming. With its own power stations, train tracks, dock to the river Rhine, many separate plants synthesising a range of bulk chemicals, R&D labs and offices, its own fire station, and a wealth of amenities for its employees, the site is like its own little town.

What I and many other students found most impressive was the sites use of the verbund idea – which roughly translated means ‘connectedness’. There are literally thousands of metres of pipes connecting the various plants, and it’s impossible not to notice them. The site has been cleverly designed to make the very most out of it and make it extremely efficient. If a side-product from one plant can be used as a starting material in another, it’s pumped directly to it, through one of these pipelines. It all works incredibly well, and we were told they save hundreds of millions of Euros this way.

Following the tour, we were given a brief look around the BASF Visitor’s Centre, which is open to the public. This is useful for finding more about BASF in general, and it was interesting to learn where the company has come from, and how it has developed since the 19th century. This centre is great for any employees who want to show their friends and family what BASF is about, and also includes some information on chemistry in general which they would find useful. What I most enjoyed here was finding out the immense range of products coming out of BASF. Many people aren’t aware of it, but BASF products are everywhere! From sportswear to crop protection to car products to children’s toys to furniture, we have probably all used BASF products at some point in our lives.

Late morning consisted of talks from BASF employees, including an insightful talk on innovation at BASF. It was very interesting to hear how project ideas are generated in the company, and how new products are developed from ideas to reality. We were also given the chance to meet BASF scientists in groups of 4, with me being introduced to Dr Natalina Shabelina in the materials science department. This was a brilliant opportunity to speak to an employee up close and find out what life is like on the job. I was very interested to learn that as a PhD graduate, you don’t undertake any actual lab work in your job as lab leader. You take charge of a group of lab technicians, who perform the hands on lab work, and you design the experiments, manage the projects, and eventually come up with new ideas and projects for new products yourself. It’s very different from what you’d be used to at university, and there were very mixed reactions from the students I was with. Some relished the idea of taking on a managerial role, while others weren’t sure about giving up lab work and moving into an office.

The labs themselves looked well-equipped and busy, and the buildings were all very clean and appeared to be well-run. The whole site had a very professional feel to it. What really stuck out to me throughout the whole trip was that every single scientist we met was very passionate about BASF, and all seemed to genuinely love their job. This was a breath of fresh air, and a stark contrast to many industrial scientists I’ve met in the UK.

A key point about working at BASF is that after 3 or 4 years of working in R&D, you are given the opportunity to move to a role you might be more interested in elsewhere in the company, such as marketing, production, innovation or development. Although this didn’t appeal to me personally as I love R&D, many of the BASF employees loved the fact they could learn more about how the chemical industry works as a business, and it really seemed to add a great deal to your personal skills and enhance your CV. What’s more, we were told when you move jobs in BASF, you might not necessarily get a pay rise, but your pay never goes down, which is always good to know!

Of course, a job in BASF would involve a move to Germany, which a lot of us were very concerned about initially. However, the support on offer from BASF to international employees and the positivity of the staff really changed a lot of minds in our group. Obviously, you’re expected to learn German as, although you can ask for meetings to be in English and all official documents are in English, German is still the main language at the site, and many of the technicians you’d be supervising speak very little English. BASF arrange for all international employees to receive one-to-one German lessons, funded by them, and within a year your German will be developed enough for you to easily get by. This was a relief, as the language barrier was a big worry for most of us (only two of our group spoke German!).

BASF appear to support all their employees very well, with new workers being given a mentor to help them start off, and colleagues supporting each other and offering help and advice continually through their careers. Furthermore, facilities such as a kindergarten and the opportunity to spend some time working from home allow the work-home life balance to be a little easier.

In the afternoon we were given a presentation on sustainability at BASF, and I personally was very surprised to learn how much BASF are investing in sustainable technologies. From electric cars to wind power to solar cells to home insulation, they really are looking to a more sustainable future. The matter of sustainability is really important to me, and I really liked how BASF appreciate the need to focus in this area. I was particularly impressed by projects in developing countries, such as sending consultants to Africa to teach farmers how to improve their soya bean crops. Chemical companies are often seen by the public to be destroying the environment, but BASF really seem to be trying to make a difference to the world and separate themselves from their competitors in this matter.

BASF were obviously very keen to impress us, and took us on a tour around their own wine cellar on the Ludwigshafen site. They have their own wine experts who select the very best wines to offer to the public and employees, and have wine-tasting days regularly. We were shown round by Annika Strebel, who was voted the German Wine Queen in 2011. It was all very impressive, with us tasting some amazing wines and learning about wine-making in Germany.

Following this, we had dinner in the wonderful Casino restaurant on site, which comprised of a four course dinner, with a different wine to accompany each course. It was a fantastic dinner, and a true testament to BASF’s eagerness to impress us and attract new applicants to its site.

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We then proceeded to sample Mannheim’s nightlife, with drinks in a local Irish pub. A few of us then found ourselves in a local nightclub, where the landlord of the Irish pub had suggested as it’s the place to be for students in the area. It was good to know the town you’d be living in as an employee has plenty to do in the evening!

Day 3: Last Chance to Impress!

On our final day, we were shown the Learning Centre (or Lernzentrum) at Ludwigshafen. Here, BASF offer a range of resources and courses to develop both your knowledge and personal skills as an employee. From textbooks and CD ROMs, to games and audio books, they have everything you need to learn more about your subject area. Furthermore, they offer a range of courses to develop your own skills and move forward in your career. This includes language courses (not only in German), communication skills, management skills, business skills and so on. It was nice to know there is always a chance to learn more and build on your skills set at BASF. They seem to really want to nurture you as an employee and help you move up through the career hierarchy in the company.

We were then given a presentation on the application process for a job at BASF (hint hint!), which was useful for those keen to apply as soon as their PhD has finished. It all seems fairly straightforward, with jobs being posted on the BASF website when they become available. Hints from some of the employees, however, suggested that you can also e-mail staff at BASF with your CV without a job being advertised, and they may offer you a role for an upcoming project. It was nice to hear directly from a company about how the application process works, as websites aren’t always as informative as they could be.

The visit finished off with a Q&A session with a panel of various BASF employees, which many of the group said was their favourite part of the trip. It was good to hear not only about their current jobs, but their past experience and how they got into the role at BASF. All had started in R&D, but many had moved out into other roles that they thought were more interesting. It seems there are two main paths you can take at BASF: you can work in R&D for a number of years and then move into a different area that interests you, or you can stay in R&D and become an expert in your particular field (which often comes with a higher salary in the end). The latter appealed most to me, as I personally love research, and the prospect of becoming an expert in a particular project area would be something I’d really enjoy.

Lunch and a group photo followed, which we had to agree for them to use in their recruiting campaigns. This was fine by me, and I’m looking forward to seeing it! We were also given a goodie bag with some BASF information inside, along with some freebies such as the customary free pen and even a travel pillow for our journeys home.

Overall, it was a very positive experience, and they were pretty successful in their aim to attract us to their company. I could see people’s minds changing over the 3 days, as BASF slowly convinced us that we’d want to work there. Moving to Germany isn’t an ideal option for many PhD students, and this is the thing that really makes me think twice about applying, as I’ll be getting married next year and I have my new husband to think about. However, if this is something you’d be happy to do (and BASF seem to make the transition as easy for you as possible, even providing you with someone to help you with all documents when you get there), then I’d strongly suggest thinking about applying.

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