- Formal education gets you only so far. The most important contributor to your continuing education and evolution as an engineer (and person) are personal interactions with peers, subordinates, and supervisors.
- There is no such thing as a “typical day or week” in any engineer’s working life (or – his/her home life as well!) – that’s the real attraction of the profession. It’s never “just a 9 to 5 job”. The possibilities are endless.
- The most challenging aspects of being a chemical engineer are the very ones that make the profession so satisfying – the need to think on your feet, to solve unfamiliar problems with limited time available, to work effectively as part of a Team, and most importantly – to continue your technical education outside of the formal classroom or lab.
- There are really three sets of skills that a successful chemical engineer needs to cultivate: Formal education, communication skills, and the ability to interact constructively with personnel who don’t share your background, point of view, or specific training.
- Mentorship is one of the most vital roles that can shape an aspiring engineer’s career. If you can find a mentor who has an interest in your career development and is willing to tell you hard truths, you found someone worth his/her weight in platinum.
- Self-discipline is essential. The chemical engineering curriculum is one of the hardest fields of study at the undergraduate level. Sustaining the coursework will involve major sacrifices and lots of complex homework and exams to work through.
Getting started as a Chemical Engineer
What inspired you to pursue a career in chemical engineering, and could you share the pivotal moment when you decided this was the path for you?
“It was 1965-66, and I was in my Junior year in high school – it was time to start thinking about college and college majors. I got good grades in all my subjects, so I had a pretty clear path forward. I loved history, chemistry, and physics – what to do?? My school library had a book, “So You Want to be a Chemical Engineer”. The book had an excellent overview of what chem engineers did (plus projected salaries!), and I thought – this is for me! And… I never looked back.”
Beyond your academic education, could you share other experiences or roles that have significantly contributed to your growth as a chemical engineer? How have these experiences shaped your perspective and skills within the field?
“As in so many things, formal education gets you only so far. The most important contributor to your continuing education and evolution as an engineer (and person) are personal interactions with peers, subordinates, and supervisors. The typical engineering technician, whether in a plant or lab has a wealth of practical (real-world) experience in chemical operations than could ever be taught formally. Ditto peers and supervisors – their collective experiences outweigh by far what an individual could achieve on his/her own.”
What’s Life as a Chemical Engineer?
Could you provide an overview of a typical day or week in the life of a chemical engineer?
“There is no such thing as a “typical day or week” in any engineer’s working life (or – his/her home life as well!) – that’s the real attraction of the profession. It’s never “just a 9 to 5 job. You come into work in the morning with a work plan in mind, and by 8:30 am it’s a non-starter.
But – in the cosmology of possibilities, a chemical engineer might be called into a facility to solve a process issue, might be called on to analyze an equipment design, he might be making a formal presentation to Management on one of his/her projects, he could be creating an experimental design to obtain engineering parameters for a new process, he could be mentoring a more junior engineer. The possibilities are endless.”
What are the best aspects of being a chemical engineer? Conversely, what are the most challenging ones?
“As I said previously, one of the best aspects of chemical engineering is its totally non-routine nature. As an engineer, you will routinely be asked to solve issues or broach opinions that are not only non-routine, but have very serious real-world implications: plant profitability, process safety, and/or the future of a new product; And… you will not be given a significant amount of time to pull an answer together, unlike academia. In many cases, your “best guess” will have to do, as unsatisfying as that can be. Typically, you will be part of a Technology Team formed to solve an issue, so you will need to meld your skills into the skills/needs of the Team.
As you can see, the most challenging aspects of being a chemical engineer are the very ones that make the profession so satisfying – the need to think on your feet, to solve unfamiliar problems with limited time available, to work effectively as part of a Team, and most importantly – to continue your technical education outside of the formal classroom or lab.”
What key skills or qualities are essential for success in chemical engineering?
“There are really three sets of skills that a successful chemical engineer needs to cultivate. The first set derives from his/her formal education. The successful engineer needs to fully develop his technical skills in mathematics, differential equations, chemistry and physics, and the specific chemical engineering course work.
The second set, which comes as a shock to most new engineers is verbal and written communication skills. The old joke goes: “What’s your SAT Math score: 790; what is your SAT Verbal score: 420. Great – you’re an engineer”. The reality is that as an engineer, you will be called on to write crisp, to-the-point reports; and deliver crisp coherent presentations to personnel who are not technical experts. Good communication skills are key to your success.
The third skill set is the ability to interact constructively with personnel who don’t share your background, point of view, or specific training. Engineers will deal with MBAs, Marketing, Sales, and Accounting/Financial personnel who have much different ideas about how things should be. “Dilbert”, in its 1990’s incarnation, used to have a field day exploring the humor of an engineer trying to navigate Sales and Marketing personnel’s points of view.”
How does expertise in chemical engineering apply across diverse industries such as biotech, materials, green tech, and others, and what are the common threads in these applications?
“The value of a chemical engineering background is that the principles of operations are valid and relevant across all the process industries. No matter what “industry” the engineer participates in, analyses are going to involve material balances, heat and mass transfer across solids, liquids, and gases; chemical reaction engineering and analyses for different phases, application of different types of separation processes, and overall economic analyses. In some particular niches, the “nomenclature” may be different (in the pharma world, “analyses” are called “assays” and concentrations are expressed in Units, not grams/cc), but once the terms are understood, you realize it’s “the same old thing”. No matter what specific niche one is in, the underlying process is the same: you have to make “something” out of “something else” of sufficient purity or profitability that a third party will want to use it.”
How do you see the career outlook for aspiring chemical engineers in today’s job market and in the future? Are there specific areas within the field that show promising growth?
“The chemical engineering profession is constantly in change, and during the past 50 years, the changes have been profound. When I was in engineering and graduate school between 1967 – 1975, the field of study for engineers was profoundly influenced by the petrochemicals industry – products that were ultimately derived from petroleum and its derivatives. And – there were a plethora of companies throughout the United States – small and large, commodity and specialty – that specialized in these products. In addition, US-based companies – Union Carbide, DuPont, Dow, Rohm and Haas, Hercules, dominated the industry.
That has completely changed over the last 20 years. Many old-line chemical companies have vanished through bankruptcies, or merger/acquisitions – only Dow and DuPont maintain any real presence today in the US. In addition, the Petrochemical industry has moved offshore and taken jobs with it. Today, “old-line” chemical engineering no longer exists – academic departments have become Biochemical or Biomedical Engineering Departments. The Petrochemical emphasis has evolved into BioTech processes.
Also – when I was active, most newly minted engineers wanted to work for established companies for their security and benefits. That has died – today’s engineers either want to start their own companies or join a small start-up where their impact will be greater. Both Greentech and BioTech today offer the best path forward but are much more risky.”
Advice for Aspiring Chemical Engineers
In an ever-evolving industry, how do you stay updated with the latest trends and advancements in chemical engineering? Are there specific resources, publications, or platforms you recommend to stay informed and ahead of industry developments?
“Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to keep up with industry changes. The first step is to join the AIChE and ACS professional societies – read their publications, join their local chapters and attend their meetings, and go to the national conventions as well. Check out local universities and colleges and take advantage of their continuing education courses within engineering. Consider getting a PE certification or advanced degree. See where you might find Incubators or Accelerators where start-ups congregate. And – don’t forget YouTube and Podcasts. While there is a lot of junk out there, there are genuine education opportunities to be found.
Also – network, network, network. This is not necessarily a natural skill for an engineer, but getting out there and meeting people at events is one of the most important sub-aspects of an engineer’s life. Learn to schmooze until it becomes natural.”
What role does mentorship play in shaping future engineers, and how important is leadership in driving innovation and growth within the field?
“Mentorship is one of the most vital roles that can shape an aspiring engineer’s career. If you can find a mentor who has an interest in your career development and is willing to tell you hard truths, you found someone worth his/her weight in platinum. A mentor can evaluate you and your career goals with an impartial eye while giving you insight into developing your strengths, In addition, a mentor is a resource in fighting the corporate guerrilla wars that are always popping up.
Leadership is a tricky word, for it connotes someone running roughshod over people to achieve his/her goals. The reality is leadership is a skill set that allows the “leader” to mold a disparate group of people (technical and otherwise) into a cohesive team to achieve an external goal. The “team” – as a group of people – triumphs both as a collective of individuals, while at the same time allowing for individual gratification. Without true leadership, nothing happens, and the Team becomes ineffective.”
For individuals considering a career in chemical engineering, what advice would you offer to help them make an informed decision?
“The best mind is the prepared mind. Understand what your strengths and weaknesses are, both in terms of personality and intellectual skills. The chemical engineering curriculum is one of the hardest fields of study at the undergraduate level, and it is not uncommon for an incoming freshman class of ChEs to lose 50% of its initial candidates in the first two years. Sustaining the coursework will involve major sacrifices – no rah-rah parties, limited extracurricular activities and lots of complex homework and exams to work through. Self-discipline is essential – to get the job done regardless. What is your level of interest and skill in mathematics – advanced calculus is a must. And remember – chemical engineering is NOT chemistry. Reactor engineering is just a small portion of the total field.
Best bet – speak to chemical engineering students. Visit and talk to faculty on staff in local ChE Departments. Speak to practicing chemical engineers. And – check out AIChE publications and seminars.”
Reader Q & A with Dr. Shertok
Is being a chemical engineer a stressful job?
“Every profession has stress associated with it. Unless you inherit $1 billion from your parents, you will experience stress in day-to-day living. Chemical engineers by definition need to live with stress – an operating chemical plant that has issues that need immediate correction – every minute is losing money for the company. A new product that is not meeting technical expectations loses market share and revenue dollars.”
What are the safety risks of chemical engineering?
“The good news is that chemical plants are safer than ever. Government regulations, government inspection agencies, and an Industry safety culture together with associated training have made plants safe. Just as flying used to tolerate a certain number of crashes, the chemical industry used to be more tolerant. That has changed to zero tolerance.”
Is chemical engineering a rewarding career?
“Chemical engineering combines a good starting salary with a challenging, stimulating environment. Engineering is the only profession where a bachelor’s degree is sufficient for a living salary. You will never be bored and every day will be different. Where else can you find this?”