Answers to Career FAQs by Chemical Engineer Members

Are you interested in a career in chemical engineering? Deciding which college courses to take? Wondering about life after graduation? We interviewed three AIChE members, representing different career paths in chemical engineering. They answer students' most frequently asked questions about education and launching their career. Click on the following subjects to get to see frequently asked questions about it. 

Thanks to Participating Members

Education—Laying the Foundation

What you can do in high school and college to get your career off on the right foot.

How did you decide to enter the field of chemical engineering?
I liked chemistry in high school and planned to major in that. Two of my cousins are mechanical engineers and they told me that women engineers were in great demand and made good money, and that to have a career in chemical engineering (or any science) I would need an advanced degree. So, I took the introductory chemical engineering course and I liked it.

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What courses did you study in college and did you acquire any degrees beyond biochemical engineering? If so, what?
I studied the typical chemical engineering curriculum of the time-chemistry (including organic and physical), physics, calculus, the chemical engineer series (fluid mechanics, heat transfer, mass transfer, kinetics, thermodynamics, chemical engineer labs, process design). In addition, I have a double major in Engineering and Public Policy (EPP), so all of my electives were taken up by the requirements for that degree. They included social analysis, energy policy, law and engineering, and EPP projects.

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How well did your high school studies prepare you for college?
Very well. I was in an advanced curriculum and took calculus, advanced chemistry, and organic chemistry my senior year (physics junior year). Our guidance counselors did not encourage us to take the AP exams, but I could have gotten a few credits had I done so. I took American lit my senior year, a composition course, and a "skills for the college bound" course, both of which taught me much more from a practical standpoint than any literature course could have.

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How well did college prepare you for being a chemical engineer?
Pretty well. One limitation of my education is that we spent a lot of time learning theory but had very little (close to none) experience with "real world" stuff like what the equipment looked like or how it really worked. Now many more students are getting this kind of practical experience through co-op jobs and summer internships, and I understand that some professors in some schools try to incorporate the more practical experiences into their teachings.

The EPP portion of my education gave me an excellent preparation because we worked on two major interdisciplinary "real-world" projects. They were by far the toughest courses I took, but I got the most out of them -- working with others with different backgrounds, writing, oral presentations, seeing how engineering applied to real societal problems, and so on.

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What do you wish you had more training in before entering the workplace?
The practical aspects of engineering, as well as business basics (maybe one course that gave short overviews of accounting, marketing, and strategic planning).

What skills should I develop to be successful in this field?
Science and math. Good writing and oral presentation skills. The ability to work with others on teams. Problem-solving.

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What personal qualities does someone in this field need?
Patience, attention to detail (though not for all positions, perhaps), and assertiveness (especially important for women since this is a male-dominated field).

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What part-time jobs or volunteer work can I do to help me prepare for this profession?
I can't think of anything specific for a high school student, but a job that lets you use math, science, or computers would be good preparation for chemical engineering in general, and a job that uses writing, editing, or graphic design would be good preparation for an editorial position, which is the job I have.

A chemical engineering student should try to get summer jobs in the chemical engineering field (which is usually done through the college placement office), as well as participate in co-op programs that alternate a semester of study with a semester of work. Those experiences are infinitely valuable, and could be the key to a graduate's ability to get a job.

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Is there any personal advice you would give someone entering this field?
Study, work hard, do well in math and science, search the Internet for information on chemical engineers and the chemical industry, get into a co-op program during college, join AIChE in college as a student member so you can learn more about the field before deciding how you use your Chemical Engineering degree. Once you graduate, never stop learning and create a wide personal and professional network of contacts -- in chemical engineering and outside the field.
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Finding a Job

Useful information on job search strategies.

How important were internships in your career? Did you have any? If so, where and what did you learn?
I only had one internship before I started my first full-time chemical engineer job. It was a great experience not only because of the people I got to work with, but I got to be a part of a true functioning team in industry.

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How did you find your internships?
I found the internship through one of my friends who was a mechanical engineer.

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Did your future employers ask about internships?
They wanted to know what I had done and what challenges I experienced. They were really interested in why I chose the internship in the first place.

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In searching for a job, what do you think is the biggest mistake that new job-hunters make?
Inadequate preparation. You can see this in poorly written resumes and lack of thought given to the questions that any interviewer will ask. I think that it is important that you have well-defined reasons in preparation for the interview questions that you will inevitably be asked. As an interviewer, I frequently ask chemical engineers about any experience that looks like job-hopping, but usually it is only a factor when you see 3-4 jobs in as many years.

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What do you think of the new online job web sites such as monster.com, jobs.com, and careerbuilders.com? Are they effective for chemical engineers?
I have used PJScout, Monster.com, and several others. The only lead that produced a job offer, I have to say, is the one that I followed up at the AIChE Career Fair in Dallas.

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What sources do you think students overlook when searching for a job? What unusual avenues do you suggest?
Most resources that I have looked at certainly rank networking high on the list for job offers. Chemical engineers coming out of school will likely not have this network, but it is good to keep in mind for the second job. I think one thing that new grads can do to make their job search easier and more productive is to approach it from a "project" perspective. I mean develop a job search plan and not just a resume. There are many different job sectors that a chemical engineer can fit into. It is important to do your homework and identify what your interests are up front. You can waste a lot of time and effort if you are taking a shotgun approach. If you are interested in a certain sector or a certain geographic area, you're better off to expend your energies on those jobs.

One of the most important things to me for my first job was that I wanted to be in a position where I could really use what I had learned in school and do "real" engineering work. I think it is important to establish a solid foundation in your engineering experience early on, especially if you plan to get your professional engineering license in the future.

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Apparently there are several resume styles to choose from. Which format do you find employers prefer?
I personally think that a resume that calls out key experiences in a bullet point list under each employer using the Feature-Accomplishment-Benefit format is best. Also, maintaining a decent amount of white space between sections makes it easier to read. I actually had the AIChE's Career Services review my resume and give me their input. I think it is important to have an independent reviewer take a look at your resume and see what they think your resume says about you. I am always surprised when I see misspellings and typos in a resume. Your resume is a primary marketing tool and it certainly deserves attention.

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Are you aware of any particularly good reference books on resume-writing?
I really like Martin Yate's book Knock 'Em Dead Resumes. The book has one chapter that takes you through a series of questions that really makes you think and by the time you are finished you can generate a good resume. The resume-writing process also prepares you for interview questions.

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Would you look down on a resume of a recent grad if it was longer than one page?
No, although if you have very limited experience it certainly does not help to try to "fill" more area with irrelevant information. I have heard several interviewers make critical comments about a new graduate having a resume longer than theirs, so keep in mind the perspective of the interviewer.

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What is the more useful degree, an M.S. in Chemical Engineering or an M.B.A.?
That really depends on what you want to do with your career. When I was finishing my M.S. in Chemical Engineering, I was planning on continuing for a Ph.D. The job market was so good at the time that I decided to go to work rather than continue in school. I am more interested in moving into a business function so that is why my current job is a good fit for me. It is located between two of the top part time MBA programs - University of Michigan and University of Chicago.

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What is the starting salary range for recent grads?
The average starting salary range is in the low $50K, depending on where in the country you work and what the work entails. Unfortunately, I don't have exact statistics on what to expect where.

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What kinds of questions were you asked in job interviews?
Lots! From what was my largest challenge to overcome and how I overcame it, to what was my worst/best group experience in school. There were many questions around the projects I put on my resume and what I thought about my previous jobs.

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How many interviews did you have to undergo?
I went on two. One on my campus and one at the company for a day trip. I was actually planning on going to graduate school for a Ph.D. and wound up only going on a couple, at first for the experience and later because I found that I would need to take on a job due to family needs.

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Life as a Chemical Engineer

What to expect on your first job as a chemical engineer.

What are the positive aspects of being a chemical engineer?
Interesting work, interesting problems to solve, involved in making life better for society, relatively good salary.

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What are the negative aspects of being a chemical engineer?
Lack of understanding on the part of the public about what chemical engineers do. Some chemical engineers would say corporate politics are a negative, but I haven't experienced that in the jobs I've held.

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Is your current job what you expected? How is it different?
My current job is what I expected in that I get to think and overcome all sorts of interesting engineering challenges on a regular basis. The atmosphere is great - open-mindedness to these problems is encouraged.

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How many hours a week do you work? How demanding is the work in terms of time and stress?
Here, too, I'm in an unusual position. I work only 4 days a week, 8 hours a day. I decided to take a lower salary for the opportunity to better balance my work and personal life. The job is as demanding and stressful as one makes it. I'm very organized and I plan my work well, so there aren't many surprises and unexpected deadlines. There is stress at times, but most of it is manageable.

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What personal qualities are important in this occupation?
Well-organized, creative, conscientious about meeting deadlines, enjoy working with people of different backgrounds, diplomatic when dealing with people who might be difficult sometimes, able to juggle multiple tasks.

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How important would you rate the ability to work with others and accept criticism, scale of 1-10?
Work with others -- it varies from job to job, probably from about a 3 to a 10. Accept criticism -- 10. But this is a life issue, not an engineering issue. I think it's important for everyone to know how to accept criticism and learn from it. It's also important to know how to give constructive suggestions, not just criticize.

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Is your work done mainly in teams or individually?
A lot of my work is team-oriented. I work with a few other people and we all depend on each other to bring certain results or knowledge to the group as a whole so that we can accomplish our overall goal. Some other things that I do at work, like training, also involve working with teams.

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Which departments are represented on the team?
My team is strictly process development, but we have to work very closely with people that are designing our product, as well as those that are building the machines for our process and the materials that we are using.

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How much and what types of reading, writing, and speaking skills are actually required in chemical engineering?
More than some people might expect. Some "introverted" people (and I use that term affectionately, only to mean those who don't particularly thrive on getting up in front of a group of others) go into science and engineering because they want to work alone and not have to deal with other people. That's a misconception. All engineers must at some point (if not nearly always) work as part of a group or team, and all engineers must be able to communicate the results of their work - to their peers, supervisors, upper management, subordinates, and the outside world. You could have the most wonderful idea, but if you can't convince others of its merit, your idea will die on the vine. The key, which many engineers and scientists just don't realize, is not to dazzle the audience with technobabble, but to be as clear, concise, and to the point as possible. The hardest thing for many engineers to do is get to the point.

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Were you trained by the company?
I came to this position pretty well trained, having been an editor at another magazine for over 8 years. I did get a lot of on-the-job editing and writing training there, as well as in previous jobs and in several college project courses.

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What is a typical day on the job like?
Since I work as a technical editor, there is no typical day. The only things that are pretty consistent from day to day are the following: I work in an office. I arrive at about 7:15 am and leave about 3:45 pm, and I take a 45-minute to 1-hour lunch. I do a lot of my work on the computer, writing, editing, reading and answering e-mail, and looking for information on the Internet. I also do a lot of reading of papers and other publications.
The main components of my job are as follows, although on any given day I do not do all of these things:

  • I review manuscripts to see if they are suitable for publication in our monthly magazine, Chemical Engineering Progress (CEP) and if not, sometimes suggest ways the author can revise the paper to make it acceptable (which might involve writing, calling, or e-mailing the author).
  • I decide which articles to publish in a specific issue in my areas of responsibility, which are environmental protection, heat transfer, and career management.
  • I prepare manuscripts for editing by setting up the electronic file properly, making sure all the information, tables, figures, and references are in the file.
  • I edit an article, first by writing the changes in pencil on the hard copy and then entering those changes into the computer file. Editing involves making the text clear and concise, consistent with CEP's style, making sure that the tables and figures illustrate what the author says they do, making sure the reference citations include all the required information in the proper style, and so on.
  • I send the edited article back to the author so he or she can review my changes to make sure I didn't change the meaning of anything, and I incorporate any changes from the author into the computer file.
  • I review other editors' work (and they review mine) to check for mistakes (basically proofreading).
  • I review press releases dealing with business news and research and development news to find things that might be of interest to our readers; some press releases come to us by mail, and others I get by surfing the Internet. I write up those news developments as short stories (a few paragraphs).
  • After the art director creates a page layout for an article that I've edited, I review that, proofread it, make corrections and sometimes make minor changes to improve the look of the article or how it reads.
  • If my article is featured on the cover, I work with the art director and the editor-in-chief to come up with a cover theme and determine how we should represent that idea graphically on the cover.
  • I input data about my articles into our website database, which generates the online table of contents.
  • I do some "administrative" stuff like typing letters and envelopes, faxing, and filing.

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What is included in the fringe benefit package?
Nothing out of the ordinary -- vacation, sick leave, pension, health and life insurance, and a 401k plan.

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Why do you think you were hired?
I would believe that I was hired because I tend to take on lots of responsibility, don't fear something not working and am always willing to try or learn something completely new. This is all very important to my current assignment.

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Does your job offer any social activities? Softball leagues, picnics, etc?
We have no shortage of social activities. We have people involved in all sorts of clubs and leagues as well as volunteer positions all over. The new hire program is nice, too because they plan some social events for us to get to know one another. There is also an e-mail alias that lets everyone keep in contact and get to know others.

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Did you have to relocate to start your job?
I did have to relocate halfway across the country. It sometimes seems very far from home.

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What was the most difficult part of relocating?
Getting all the paperwork filled out! Honestly, filling out lease forms, changing over all my billing addresses and sorting out all my relocation expenses was pretty hectic. Of course, the next most difficult thing was finding my way around for the first month. I carried a map at all times because I would get lost going everywhere. Thank goodness for MapQuest.

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How did you find an apartment?
I had a special trip out to the company about a month before I was moving just to do apartment hunting. My company connected me with a real estate agent they use for most of the new hires in my area.

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Do most companies pay relocating expenses?
Most of the ones that my friends worked for either paid for full relocation expenses or offered a pretty good compensation package.

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Does being a chemical engineer require any ongoing professional training/enrichment?
Yes, absolutely. It can be in the form of employer-provided on-the-job training, short courses (1 to 3 days) provided by organizations such as mine or colleges or companies set up to do training, attendance at technical meetings to hear speakers present papers on technical topics, self-study, advanced degree coursework, and so on. This is a must for virtually any professional, engineer or not. It's also important to keep up-to-date on developments in the industry in which you work so you'll know what topics to get ongoing training on. (AIChE offers a wide range of continuing education courses throughout the year.)

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Are there good opportunities in this field? Why or why not?
There are not many technical editor positions like mine. Chemical engineering in general offers many, many very good opportunities in a wide variety of fields of specialization and industries.

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What are the opportunities for advancement?
You can move into management, or you can move laterally into other areas of chemical engineering. The chemical engineering degree is very versatile and if you "sell" yourself well, it can get you into many different types of positions and fields. I believe that a chemical engineer degree is great for opening doors.

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How many years do people typically stay in your position?
From what I understand, anywhere from 3-5 years is pretty standard.

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Where do you see yourself about 5-6 years from now?
5-6 years, I honestly do not know yet. I am still trying to figure out what I enjoy most.

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Special thanks to the following AIChE engineer members:

  • Cindy Mascone, Editor-in-Chief, Chemical Engineering Progress
  • Joseph Lussier, Baby Care Division, Procter & Gamble
  • Sean Pipkins, Production Engineer, Pharmacia Corporation