Was the path that led to your career in tribology planned or happenstance?

TLT Sounding Board November 2017


© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Nandyphotos

Fate, karma, Kismet, luck or happenstance—whatever you call it, that’s the path that led the overwhelming majority of TLT readers to careers in tribology. For most survey respondents, the career-forming event began as seeming-at-the-time innocuous decisions or actions: A graduate student assists a professor on a research project. An engineer is transferred to a lubricant-related job. A chemist is invited to an STLE meeting. Even many of the engineers responding to this month's survey confessed they hadn't heard of the field until they joined it. “Spell Check doesn’t even recognize tribology,” notes one. How to reverse the trend? In the second half of this month’s survey, readers suggest dozens of ways STLE members can encourage students in the STEM disciplines to pursue careers in tribology.

I have a degree in chemistry. When I saw public transportation had an opening for a fluid analyst, I applied. From there I kept getting more involved in the field of tribology.

Planned. I have worked in almost every area of lubricant production, distribution, marketing and field engineering. The only area that I have not had a working role in is refining. I moved from area to area as the need has arisen and enjoyed each assignment.

(1.) An early appreciation for all things mechanical. (2.) A career that allows a person to experience different aspects of the whole operation. (3.) A strong dose of happenstance.

Upon completion of a chemistry degree, I came upon a metalworking formulation job and was directed toward STLE for its training course and to meet people in the industry. I guess you could say it was planned by my mentor, a former ASLE member, but happenstance for me.

Ha, ha, ha. Sort of an accident but maybe not. I went to work at a small cleaner company that happened to make lubricants, too. Tribology made perfect sense to me, so I kept going. It all clicked when my son went to work for a braking systems company—like my dad did! I realized that I was born into friction management. It’s a language I learned as a child.

Happenstance. I had no idea there was a whole industry devoted to this science when I transitioned from an internal combustion engine performance role to a tribology-centered role.

I was co-opted in college at a company and worked in a group focused essentially on cleaning for pulp and paper mills. I had off-and-on experience as a chemist there but mainly did marketing work. An old friend told me his company was looking for a chemist/formulator. I took the job and started working with lubricants/metalworking fluids.

My career was happenstance. I always was willing to learn new things. That led me to an enjoyable 28-plus-year career in this industry.

Happenstance and then planned as awareness grew.

Completed a chemical engineering degree. Then went into a sales role. Combining my love of science and commerce has created a niche skills set that has led to a satisfying career.

It just happened.

It started with the Navy and nine years working in aviation with hydraulics. I changed fields based on a recommendation, and I am now in tribology. Before this, I had no idea it even existed. Spell Check doesn’t even recognize tribology.

I entered by chance via a project to reduce costs of coal-milling plant consumable-wear items.

I enjoyed studying a module on tribology as part of a mechanical engineering degree, did a research project in the field and the opportunity for doctorate study in tribology presented itself when I graduated. Definitely being in the right place at the right time rather than seeking it out—that doesn’t diminish my job satisfaction though!

I started my career as a mechanical engineer. I was introduced to the tribology field before starting my master’s studies. 

It was a happenstance in that a job I got in a testing company led to work with an additive company and now an oil company. I wasn’t exposed to this word tribology until I got my first job.

I had planned on going into the energy world from university and did. Initially I was in the industrial chemicals field. Moving into the field on lubrication was purely happenstance—I chose to leave Big Oil and had to learn everything about running an oil company from scratch. I had good mentors, so the process was successful.

Happenstance. I left a job I hated and found an opening in the metalworking fluids field.

I was motivated by customers who were trying to achieve higher degrees of reliability through lubrication and became engrossed in helping them achieve these goals.

Seeking a career in the petroleum industry, I led myself to this job.

I was made the “grease monkey” at the factory where I worked because no one else wanted the job and I was the man with lowest seniority. Although it was happenstance, it worked out very well for me because it propelled me into a career that has been extremely rewarding.

My cousin always claimed, referring to me, that, “He came out of the chute an engineer.” The tribology interest came naturally as I tried to better understand how machinery operates and where the inefficiencies and wear come from.

Happenstance. I was working on a master’s degree in mechanical engineering when my friend said that his tribology supervisor was looking for a doctorate student. So I applied for the post and got it.

I was working in oil and gas and found a role in sales for tribology that fit me better.

It was happenstance, but it is still very rewarding and enjoyable.

My career in tribology was via the lubricants industry. I have worked on the development of several types of lubricants (including a metalworking fluid). These products are included under the heading of tribology.

It was unplanned. I was hired by an oil company initially because of my sales and sales manager capabilities. I took a lot of interest in the field and now hold STLE’s Certified Lubrication Specialist™ certification.

I had an early interest in chemistry in high school that led to a desire to study chemical engineering in college. A college internship gave me an opportunity to learn about and practice tribology.

In a college chemistry class we visited the Kerr-McGee research lab. At the time they were working on a synthetic replacement for whale oil (yes, this was a while back). I found that interesting.

Happenstance. I started as a millwright in the lube room at Great Lakes Steel in Detroit. Later I became an oil jobber in Aztec, N.M. Worked in the bulk plant, then onto sales. From there it was to Hawaii to oversee a new bulk oil division, then to Washington to help a struggling oil distributor. I also created my own predictive maintenance through oil analysis company. Currently I’m a market oil specialist.

I was trained in a different field but jumped at the opportunity offered to me in lubrication. Although my training in chemistry was a great asset, I had to pick things up quickly to make a success of it.

It was entirely by accident. I was hired to work in a refinery. As a new employee during an oil glut, they told me careers in refinery were going to be difficult and that we were laying off engineers. I was asked if I would be interested in a job in finished lubricants. That was more than 30 years ago, and today I cannot imagine working in a refinery.

I started out as a diesel mechanic and was afforded the opportunity to explore maintenance reliability with a focus on tribology (even though I didn’t know it). It was purely a case of being in the right job at the right place at the right time.

It was happenstance. I had a choice of assignments in my first job at a major oil company. I chose to be involved on a project to build a new lubricants base oil plant. I stayed in the field of lubrication ever since that initial assignment (more than 38 years now).

Definitely happenstance. My career began in mechanical maintenance, performing and documenting calendar- or timed-based preventive tasks that were wasteful and intrusive to the equipment’s up time. As I began to become aware of and involved with predictive and proactive maintenance, my interest in tribology grew rapidly.

I am an associate professor at a university dealing with tribology, and my career was planned to work in tribology.

How likely are you to recommend a career in tribology to students in the STEM disciplines?
Very Likely 69%
Likely 25%
Not Likely 6% 
Based on responses sent to 13,000 TLT readers.

What could STLE members do to get a new generation of engineers and chemists interested in careers in tribology?
Provide enticing demonstrations to high schools/colleges. Needs to be hands on and visual.

Continue to highlight the careers of successful tribologists and what they have done.

Mentor aspiring members in the field now. Speak at colleges and hire interns to get acclimated to the industry.

Plan on attending job fairs at colleges or make a short presentation about tribology job opportunities to local chemistry and engineering departments.

Work with universities and companies to offer internship opportunities in tribology.

Hands-on experience. Bring them into the plants and out in the field. Let them see what it is all about.

Introduce basic fundamentals to apprentices so they can gain an understanding of lubricants.

Do a better job informing the public when tribology problems inevitably occur. These are indeed fascinating interdisciplinary problems with the potential to improve daily life.

Better communicate the technical challenges that still exist in the field, as well as the riches and rewards that can come from solving them in the long term.

Create a fundamental Language of Tribology half-day course. 

Awareness. I personally did not value the importance of this field until I was immersed in it.

Talk about STLE to younger engineers and lubricant professionals. Invite them to an annual meeting and be their mentor during the event.

Publicize and encourage them to take tribology courses/training and exams. Publicize to juniors and their peers, including general and financial managers, the benefits of tribological awareness.

Demonstrate the relevance of tribology on the development of modern machines and technology. Use the development of tribology to demonstrate how it will become ever-increasingly important.

Get out and meet the future engineers.

Include the concept of tribology and its benefits into school, college and university training. It is a foreign term to most people, even in the engineering industry.

Participate in school careers events. Ask STEM-subject teachers whether there are any parts of the syllabus where a guest lesson from a tribologist could help them out. Offer work experience placements. Engage with mentoring schemes for students of STEM subjects.

Show the effects of theoretical (advanced knowledge) and practical research and how they increase profits, create savings, improve efficiency and so forth.

Engage them on current and future market trends on how tribology could help shape an industry. Make a connection between tribology and their daily lives so the new generation has a brief idea about tribology.

Chemistry and engineering students are like the rest of the population—quasi-experts on the lubrication of their personal vehicles. A talk with students could start as an interesting look at vehicle lubrication and veer off to other topics. You’d then talk about how small differences in chemistry (formulation) can make a big difference in the end lubrication result. As long as the talk is engaging to the audience, you’ll communicate the idea that the study of tribology impacts numerous real-world industries. I got interested in chemistry partially by analyzing the residue left after an overhead projector light bulb exploded.

Have STLE local sections interact with university students and offer scholarships, STEM camps and tribology science kits to high school teachers.

Although the entire field of tribology is changing quickly, it needs to be understood that the importance of tribological research and development will require an entirely new generation of experts.

Bribe politicians to pay attention to the real world instead of playing games. That’s not serious, but I think there has to be greater understanding by the country’s leadership, and now there’s next to none.

Explain the relevance of tribology in everyday life.

Whenever we have a chance to meet members of the younger generation, discuss the compelling experience you have from the lab experiments or from the plant floor.

Explain the importance of our industry and show them examples of what our industry does and the improvements our industry produces.

(1.) Suggest courses at the college/university level. (2.) Recommend software. (3.) Recommend the STLE Lube School.

Let them know of the many important areas where tribology is of vital importance to society and the vast number of opportunities that exist to make meaningful contributions.

Companies should offer internships for college students.

Get them to understand the ROI through proper lubrication practices. We have to quantify our programs so decisions can be made that promote lowering operational costs.

When talking to the younger generation, remind them that friction and wear is present whenever and wherever there is motion. So the challenges will always be there in this world, and engineers and chemists will always be in demand.

Share their experiences on the field. It will attract new generations and get them interested in tribology. This needs to happen both at schools and in the industrial environment.

Discuss the importance of the work and the interesting things we do across a variety of industries.

Bumper sticker: “Tribology: Making a Difference.”

Write articles about why tribology is important.

Go to STEM camps and do local outreach to universities to encourage students about to enter the workforce to consider tribology.

Take time to teach them and keep them interested. That includes explaining basic concepts that seem like second nature to us, the seasoned old professionals. 

Remind them that lubrication is sexy!

Career days at schools. Presentations at shop classes.

Make the science more available to the consumer. Proof of concept.

More marketing so chemists will know more about tribology.

Introduce them to NASCAR and end-result of formulating a product that gets things moving fast. 

Tell them to read this article. 

Editor’s Note: Sounding Board is based on an email survey of 13,000 TLT readers. Views expressed are those of the respondents and do not reflect the opinions of the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers. STLE does not vouch for the technical accuracy of opinions expressed in Sounding Board, nor does inclusion of a comment represent an endorsement of the technology by STLE.