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Alcoa Australia

  • 1,000 - 50,000 employees

Calum McMulkin

I am responsible for researching technological improvements to the Bayer Process to help the company grow and sustain our current practices locally and globally.

What is your name and job title?

Calum McMulkin – graduate research scientist. 

What did you study?

A Bachelor of Science (Nanotechnology (Honours) followed by a Doctor of Philosophy (Chemistry) both at Curtin University of Technology.

Where did you grow up? What have been some important stages of your life that have led you to where you are today?

I grew up mostly in the country, starting in Leeman (two and a half hours north of Perth) until the age of six, before moving to Busselton until the age of 18 when I moved to Perth to continue my education at Curtin. High school and a relatively country lifestyle allowed me to meet and make long-lasting friendships, as well as participate in multiple sports (cricket, soccer, football, hockey, basketball and waterpolo). I was lucky enough to represent the state U12’s for Western Australia in Canberra for soccer.

I worked in Busselton as a surveyor’s assistant for a full year between finishing high school in November 2007 and attending university in February 2009, earning enough to be eligible for Youth Allowance to support myself during my undergraduate study at Curtin. Additional to working for most of 2008, I also travelled abroad to New Zealand for two months with several close friends and my twin brother, enjoying the slopes and hospitality of our eastern neighbour.

How did you get to your current job position? For how long have you had it?

During the writing of my PhD thesis, I began searching for job prospects, applying for postdoctoral positions and searching for industrial positions nationally and internationally. Alcoa had a job advertisement for a research scientist role and the advertisement found its way to each of the universities in Perth, thus was circulated amongst the PhD students at Curtin. I applied and was a strong applicant due to my physical chemistry background, as well as studying physics throughout my undergraduate degree. 

I have been employed by Alcoa for 1 year and 1 month in my role.

How did you choose your specialisation?

I chose my specialisation because it overlapped with numerous skillsets I had begun to develop since my undergraduate degree and into my PhD. Physical chemistry and physics were highly beneficial backgrounds to have come from for entering my role and workplace. The research aspect of the job was not daunting to me either due to the fact that I had recently finished four and a half years solo in a novel field of chemistry of my choosing, during my PhD. As both the work itself and the environment of the role were familiar, it was an easy decision to apply for this job.

I applied for many roles in research elsewhere in the form of postdoctoral positions (research-based roles) both internationally and domestically, including applying through the Australian Academy of Science for a fellowship to travel to Japan for two years and conduct research on a field of applied physics, which I was unfortunately unsuccessful in being awarded. 

What was your interview process like?

The interview process for Alcoa was similar to that of many mining companies in Western Australia (having applied and been interviewed several years prior for a graduate role with a WA operating mining company). The questions were typically aimed at the panel trying to understand the experiences I had gained across my education and/or working career. Additionally, questions like ‘If you had to summarise yourself in a single word, which word would that be?’ were aimed at trying to further understand what I am like as a person and what drives my ambitions.

What does your employer do?

Alcoa Australia mines bauxite which is refined to alumina for smelting in aluminium. It is one of the world’s largest alumina producers.

What are your areas of responsibility?

I am responsible for researching technological improvements to the Bayer Process (refining bauxite into alumina) to help the company grow and sustain our current practices locally and globally. As I am in a graduate role, there is less responsibility on me personally and more on the team I work within. I am in a learning phase of my career and will continue to be for another year (Alcoa’s Graduate Program is typically three years before full-time employment in your specific role, however I was employed and placed into my second year of graduate study due to my additional experience in research by completing my PhD).

What does a typical work day look like?

A typical day of work would be to come and check my experiments are running within guidelines (still working), take samples of various projects, and analyse for key markers for the refining processes productivity before midday. The afternoon would typically be for understanding the data collected and planning the steps for experiments or projects moving forward – not only for the next day, but for weeks or months in advance – and more importantly, to do this continually and with strong communication within my group.

What are the career prospects with your job?

Currently working within a research-based team, there could be more opportunities (when experience is gained) to move within Alcoa to various roles and advancing responsibilities. Alternatively, many people within Alcoa have moved from other mining companies with different needs and chemical knowledge, in addition to people leaving Alcoa for greener pastures based on their talents and experiences here.

I see myself continuing to work at Alcoa for years to come and furthering my experience and knowledge in the alumina industry (which is incredibly challenging and rewarding in itself). One day I hope to manage a group of researchers and be a valuable team member making a difference for the company.

Could someone with a different background do your job?

Physical chemistry knowledge for my role is vital as well as the ability to research independently or with a group of people. There is limited flexibility outside these prerequisites for my role specifically. However, Alcoa employs people with many different backgrounds and fields, including but not limited to: chemists (organic, physical, inorganic), physicists, engineers (mechanical, electrical, chemical), mathematicians, data scientists, modellers and microbiologists.

What would your career be if you weren’t doing what you are doing now?

I imagine if I wasn’t working in this industry for Alcoa, I would be somewhere researching another niche field of chemistry for the advancement of science. Most likely, I would work in the field of crystal growth.

What do you love most about your job?

I love the challenge of my job; I like to learn new things and I particularly enjoy the wide scope of learning available within the field of chemistry that encompasses alumina refining. 

Which kind of tasks do you enjoy most?

I enjoy problem solving chemical problems on a day-to-day basis. It is strangely satisfying coming up with solutions and working around problems we face daily.

What are the limitations of your job?

A con to the job is the extremely steep learning curve required to learn the alumina process. As my supervisor has said to me, he has been here ten years and the steep learning curve has yet to flatten out. Thus, if I were to let myself be stressed out by this fact, the work could prove extremely difficult. However, I am optimistic that this will not be an issue moving forward.

What advice do you have for a current university student?

I would encourage students in university currently to begin looking for job placements as early as their second year. Industry or research-based experience is invaluable to employers, and placements or vocational training are some of the best ways to gain the necessary edge on your colleagues who are applying for the same role.

Additionally, if you can teach at any point during your education, I would recommend doing so. It is an exceptional way to solidify your learnings throughout your study and continually improve your people skills – a critical tool in any future workplace you enter.