Careers in Chemical Engineering. What’s Your Flavor?

"What do you want to do with your degree?"

This was the question I posed to an undergrad student once hoping I could impart some advice or knowledge I'd gained from my few years in industry. His answer, however, took me by surprise.

"I was thinking of going into the dairy industry. Preferably making cheese."

... Huh?

I was at a loss for words. In all of my experience, being a chemical engineer meant refineries, specialty chemicals, or pharmaceuticals. But dairy? Are chemical engineers actually needed in producing cheese?

Tillamook Cheese Factory in Oregon

Apparently, as I learned later from a chemical engineer who worked for Kraft, they are. To be honest, it opened my eyes and made me realize the versatility of chemical engineers and as I got more involved with AIChE, I learned they had their hand in everything. Chemical engineers work in production of electrical power, oatmeal, colas, bread, chicken nuggets, chocolate, aspirin, shaving cream, contact lens solutions--everything.

The Vital Importance of Internships

That is why it is so vital for undergraduate students to get summer internships or co-ops because it gives you exposure to the industry and gives you an idea of what it's like to be a professional. The worst mistake a chemical engineering student could ever make is never getting an internship. Nowadays, it's almost a requirement of the industry. Additionally, it will also help you determine early on if a particular segment of the industry is where you want to pursue your career.

Stay Mindful of Your Goals for Professional Development

For young professionals be mindful of how a company promotes its engineers and ask yourself if that's where you want to be in five or ten years. Focus on your immediate goals for certain, but also peek to your future and figure out if all of your hard work now will lead you to your goals years from now. If your goal is to be one of the most technically sound engineers in a company that puts greater emphasis on management, you might find yourself fighting with your bosses in regards to your development.

Network With Other Engineers

In addition, as young professionals, many times we make the mistake of fearing to venture outside our cubicals or comfort zone. Don't be shy. Go ahead and peek over that cubical wall every once in awhile, you'd be amazed by what you learn from other engineers. Go check out your friendly neighborhood engineering society and make it a point to meet others who work in industries outside of your own to give you a diversity of contacts but also to see if another field might be more to your liking.

A chemical engineering degree gives you lots of freedom and choices out there in the industrial world and it would a tragedy if you were to allow yourself to be pigeon holed into a position you don't like. So don't be timid and seize the day because that degree truly makes the world your oyster. Or, if it pleases, your cheese.

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