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Cornell Engineering

Alumni share thought process behind early career paths

Stephanie Glass ’06
Fractionation Technology Group Head, ExxonMobil

Stephanie Glass ’06 loved chemistry when she was in high school, and so when she visited her older sister who was studying chemical engineering at Lafayette College, she was inspired. “I visited her in a unit operations laboratory… and I just thought it was the coolest thing,” said Glass. “I think that was really what first put the idea in my head to pursue something similar.”

For the Pittsburgh native, choosing a college and career path was somewhat of a science itself. Research, experimentation and discovery would all factor into her life choices. Glass, now a fractionation technology group head at ExxonMobil, would graduate from high school and spend the next 16 years of her life at one school and one company—a testament to her apperception that home is where the heart is.

Glass chose to attend Cornell Engineering after visiting several colleges. “There was just something about Cornell when I stepped on campus. It was exactly what my mental picture of college was,” said Glass, who added that the comradery among students and the university’s strengths in different academic disciplines also attracted her. “I was fairly confident with what I wanted to do but I knew that if I decided chemical engineering wasn’t for me, I wasn’t going to have to pick up and move to another college to have an option to do something else,” she said.

Despite feeling academically challenged her first semester, Glass would quickly adapt and eventually join the Cornell Chorus, become president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers student chapter, work two jobs and still find time to take riding lessons at the Oxley Equestrian Center.

But it was her time spent working internships that would prove most valuable to Glass’ career ambitions. She would spend each summer at a different company, learning what she did and didn’t want in a job.

At the Cornell Center for Materials Research, she spent her summer as a rising sophomore in the Research Experience for Undergraduates program, working on semiconductors and running computer models on compounds like silica and germanium. “I did not like that long-term payoff of research and development,” said Glass. Her next summer was spent at Procter & Gamble as a manufacturing intern. “It was very engineering, but it wasn’t chemical engineering,” she recalled. “I was missing that process chemistry portion.”

Her research and development internship at PepsiCo was perhaps the most surprising to Glass, who had been considering a career in the consumer product industry. There, she researched anti-foaming agents and cleaning procedures. “I thought it would be so cool to go into a store and take a product off the shelf and say, ‘this came from my production line and I can even tell what hour it was produced.’ But what I found was that it wasn’t very fulfilling for me,” said Glass.

It was a conundrum for the rising senior, who now had little time to figure out what she wanted to do for a career. That’s when she took a course from Al Center, a professor of practice who had worked many years as an engineer in the petroleum industry prior to his tenure at Cornell. Glass says Center become a mentor to her, and she began to develop an interest in the petroleum industry as she spent more time discussing it with him. “At some level I previously saw the industry as just producing products like gasoline,” she said. “It wasn’t until the start of my senior year that I saw it more as they were solving a global energy problem.”

Glass decided she would take the leap into the energy industry, and turned down several job offers from the consumer product world. The thought process behind her job search was similar to when she was considering colleges, that is, she didn’t want to corner herself. “If I end up at one of these companies and my initial path isn’t what I want to do, do I have options or am I now two years out of school and looking for a new job,” Glass asked herself at the time. She was looking not just to find a job, but to launch a career.

Glass eventually accepted a job as a planning and improvement engineer at ExxonMobil’s Baytown Refinery outside of Houston. While this initial assignment wasn’t her dream job, Glass saw a career path at the company that included many different options for advancement. “There was a lack of job definition in that assignment, but I had a very good mentor who showed me that lack of job definition is actually just a potential to define my own roles,” she recalled.

It would only be four months before she would be offered a new position at the company as a crude distillation process engineer—a hands-on job separating crude oil into its various fractions, and one Glass says she enjoyed with enthusiasm because “I was happy to have the opportunity to get out in the field. Finally, I felt like a real engineer.”

Glass would spend almost three years between that position and a fluid catalytic cracking process engineer, where she could apply knowledge from her previous position to improve a different process. In 2009, she would be offered the first of six new positions at ExxonMobil, and with each she would learn new skills along with new aspects of the industry.

Choosing a technical engineering path over a management track, Glass would next become a distillation engineer in the company’s Research and Engineering division. “I was worried about the job because it was a little bit more of a desk job and I knew I loved getting my hands dirty,” she said. “But what I learned through that role was how to add value in a different capacity and how that initial front-end engineering effort is really important to making a project a success in three or four years.”

From there, Glass would transfer back to the Baytown Refinery where she started her career, but this time with the more senior position of crude distillation complex engineer. Later, she would find herself in back in the Research and Engineering division both supporting improvements for a refinery in New Orleans and also as the lead process engineer for two large capital projects at other circuit refineries.

Today, Glass is a fractionation technology group head where she leads an engineering research and development team, provides technical consulting, and supports major unit shutdowns and maintenance inspection activities.

She annually returns to Cornell as the ExxonMobil-Cornell recruiting team lead to speak to students and share her advice for soon-to-be job seekers. “Really be introspective going into the process and understand how you make decisions and what things are valuable to you,” Glass advises. “People throw around the statistic that the average adult changes careers seven times in their life. I knew that was not me. I was looking for a place I could go and be home.”

She says in order to find a career and not just a job, treat the search process like a four-credit class. Invest time and understand how your values line up with a particular company’s. Know what type of environment you’ll be successful in and what you want your job to provide in terms of fulfillment.

Glass says ExxonMobil meets her personal needs and is a company she could see herself retiring at. “I don’t see the corporation ever running out of opportunities that would interest me,” she said. “For me that’s the biggest thing, just making sure that I enjoy my job and I find it challenging.”