Career Paths for ChEs

Whenever I attend one of our NJAIChE events at Snuffy's in New Jersey, I am inevitably asked by students: What do you think is the best career path?

An interesting question with many possible choices. Hopefully I can boil it down for you here. Basically it comes down to deciding what you like to do, since you will be more satisfied if you like what you do. Did you select your college school because it was more theoretical or practical? Do you prefer working alone or with a team? How competitive are you? What is your financial situation?

Even excluding industries, some basic starting options you may be familiar with are:

  • Research
  • Development
  • Process
  • Project
  • Sales
  • Marketing

What does each path entail?

Obviously if you want to work in research or development, you may want to consider a higher level degree, even to a PhD level. Think of research as creating basic innovations and development as trying apply some research concepts to the real world. It is much harder to put the time in for a PhD if you are trying to work full time.

A marketing path may lend itself to a later MBA. Speaking of MBAs, it is helpful for a process, project, or sales paths too. And an MBA can be earned while you are working.

I'd suggest that development and process engineering require more engineering prowess, while project engineering is more people, budgeting, and schedule management. Sales and marketing are more customer relations. Marketing tends to be more analytical than sales. Each of these jobs require a different mix of extroversion, practical application, and competitiveness. So there are paths for everyone!

In my personal career I mixed it up, having worked in all of these areas. Personally I've found product development and project management to be the most fulfilling. If you are as lucky, you will be given the option to try different things to see what you prefer. If you are not sure about the right path for you, you can (and should) ask your boss about this from a career development perspective.

Since chemical engineers are good with math, there is no reason why you can't move into the financial side of the business, if that is one of your likes. Or how about IT, or HR, or supply chain (purchasing/logistics)?

What about later?

Are you interested in a step up to management? Today it is almost imperative that you have an MBA, or at least a master's to step on that ladder. Many people do not like the extra stress of managing other people, providing assignments, reviewing work, mentoring, and disciplining. If you are one of those, management is not for you! If you want to try it, ask your boss if you can help train some newer people, and you will get a taste.

The great news is that a chemical engineering degree is a fantastic starting point for almost any career. Of course, I'm biased!

What are your questions about choosing a career path?

Tom Smith, a brand new contributor to ChEnected, is Managing Director at Focused Solutions Group in Chatham, NJ, and can be emailed directly here.

Signpost photo: Sam Dal Monte via Flickr.


ehorahan's picture

I am in the project/supply chain side but I didn't know that it was what I liked to do until I got my first job! Some of it is like solving a great big logic problem. I am also working on my MBA - which is helpful when communicating with upper management about projects - when you understand better what they are worried about then you can speak on those points and communicate better.

You're right! Life is somewhat serendipitous. Things come to you. As Yogi Berra said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it!" Hopefully this article helps students decide which fork to take! Tom Smith

BS Daly's picture

As an engineer in the E&C area of the business, sometimes movement up to management is a necessary evil for career survival. I once had a boss in a company that was pressuring me to be a manager and when I expressed that I would be better suited in the design aspects of it. I eventually found myself laid off. Career paths in engineering sometimes means figuring out how you, as an engineer, are the most valuable to your company (or industry). Sometimes it means being opprotunistic as well as jumping out of your comfort zone.

Aurian's picture

Thanks for posting, Tom, as this really is one of the questions that students and grads seem to ask most often. My answer is always the same as yours –– What makes you tick? Is it numbers? Problem solving? Career path? Recognition? Being part of a well oiled machine? Once you know, *then* throw your ambition and enthusiasm at it. It’s that old saying that a rocket without a bearing is going nowhere fast. Thanks for a good first post!

May's picture

Thanks for the post Tom. This is definitely a topic that you can get alot of energy and feedback on! I guess career path is simliar to engineering -there's really no right answer. Sometimes it takes some exploring (trial and error) to find out. I agree with Brian in that there are situations where some risk taking is required (and may be rewarded!). I echo Elizabeth's sentiment in that I didn't know I like supply chain optimization until I got into one of those roles.