[Thanks to BP for sharing his informational interview report on the chemical engineering major and career path.]
For my informational interview, I contacted a polymer and paint engineer at an aerospace company. My dad works with his wife and connected me to him. The personal I interviewed graduated with a Masters in Chemical Engineering (ChemE) from University of Colorado at Boulder.
Since I am pursuing a Chemical and Biological Engineering (ChBE) degree from Boulder, I thought it would be a good fit. I wanted to learn about what career opportunities are available for someone with a ChemE degree and ask for any advice on what to do in my early career. Should I pursue a master’s degree, go right into industry, take time off and travel, etc. So I contacted the individual and conducted the interview.
What does a Chemical Engineer generally expect to do day to day?
Chemical engineers work in plants, labs, in the field, or in an office. My interviewee is usually in the development labs or the plant where he oversees the R&D of paints that are UV resistant and hydrophobic (water repellant); resins that are lighter, stronger, more flexible, and more UV resistant for upcoming carbon fiber planes; and checking the production line as quality control to see if the paint and resin perform as promised. He says he walks 8-10 miles per day (very large plant) and works about 50-60 hours a week. He leaves his work at work, which is reason to justify the longer hours.
So what does your typical day look like?
Most of the day involves supervising his employees and performing QC, but sometimes new projects come up. When that happens, sometimes he will have to do quantum mechanical computer modelling to find a desired property and corresponding material for a new paint/resin. He’ll take these results to the lab and make a small batch-process to see how to approach scaling the product up to industrial quantities. He’ll look at mixing and separation primarily, and attempt to improve yields by means of controlling temperature, reactant flows, pressure, and reaction time. Once the refinements have been made to produce a product in desirable yields, he works within a budget to build the required plant arrangement to make the product. He will be present during the installation of the equipment to ensure everything is set up properly.
What skills does a Chemical Engineer need to do their job successfully?
Math becomes a second language, and solving complex and abstract problems has to be in your nature. Understanding kinetics, thermodynamics, mass and energy balances and transfers, heat transfer, and process design are all skills he uses frequently. The ability to work well with others and collaborate/brainstorm effectively is a must as well.
What are your greatest challenges on the job?
The greatest challenge is when politics play into project decisions. Sometimes the budget will need to be stretched further than anticipated. There is usually some friction there. When the plant operators report a malfunctioning process (unexpected yield, completely unknown product, etc) then troubleshooting the issue becomes a major pain—especially if you were not present during the construction. Many times, we find a problem in the interpretation of our instructions (a tech will misread a procedure) which causes more problems than it should. When we don’t meet plant demands, higher-ups want to know why, and people start pointing fingers.
What should I be doing during and after college to better my career success?
Co-op internships are ideal. This gives you experience in your college years and helps you decide which field to pursue. In order to have the most options later, it’s best to start working towards a Professional Engineer (PE) license. The earlier in your career you get a PE license, the better.
Boulder has a student chapter for the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), and a ChemE Honors Society (OXE). Both would be great networking opportunities. Also, getting involved with professors and participating in undergraduate research might suit your interest. Introduce yourself to your ChemE professors, see what they are doing, and ask if there are any opportunities to broaden your perspective. That’s the most valuable thing to do before graduating. There are senior thesis opportunities, as well as a BS/MS program if you’re interested in pursuing your masters in short order.
What is the process for obtaining a PE license?
Take the Fundamentals of Engineering test while you’re still in school, it’ll be easier and will set you up to begin gaining experience for the PE license required: each state has different requirements but most require 4-6 years of working under a licensed PE in Chemical Engineering before taking the PE Exam. After that, you are licensed and able to make top-level decisions like signing off on final designs, provide consulting work, and bid for government contracts. It really gives you flexibility in your career choices.
Discussion and What I Learned
Conducting the interview was extremely valuable. My interviewee reassured me the PE licensure is the way to go early on in my career. He also informed me of the opportunities for networking at Boulder, between AIChE and OXE and the professors to do research under for specific fields.
I learned that ChemEs work fairly long hours, but he said the work doesn’t come home with him, which resonates with me; I can devote time to something in the environment it applies to, but home is for relaxation and the like.
In all I’d say I’m more excited to pursue my degree and jump into a job. He did say to pay attention in certain classes, so I will heed his advice there to avoid any distress.
I think if I were to conduct another interview, I would ask more specifics about the work environment he works in himself. I didn’t ask about any past work experience, or how he got to where he is today; I think I could learn a lot from the steps he took and get a better context from where his advice is coming from.
Within the week, I called my interviewee and left him a message, thanking him for his time and advice. I am glad to have had the opportunity to ask a professional what it’s like to be him.