I'm a ChemE and You're Asking Me to Do What? How to Roll with the Punches and Embrace New Opportunities

Back in school when I was in the weeds of topics such as process design, kinetics or mass transfer, I'd imagine myself in a chemical plant someday designing huge equipment, wearing a hardhat and addressing day-to-day emergencies. When I started my first job out of school and my boss told me that I'd be a project manager leading a software development project for petroleum engineers and geologists, I thought, "Excuse me? Where are my chemicals?! Does this guy know that I can hardly turn my computer on?" I definitely had some growing pains and learned some lessons that I believe could be useful for others who find themselves in a similar position.

Keep Your Cool

If you're ever given a role that you don't believe fits your background, my first advice is: do NOT freak out. Sit back, breathe, and think about why you were placed in that position. Perhaps a wide gap exists in your company where you'd be able to provide more value to the business than you would have in your previously assumed job function. In today's economy where jobs can be scarce, you may potentially have to compromise your interests and accept the opportunities that are available. As far as job security, it's much easier to sleep at night when you know you are serving a role that brings value to your company.

Broaden Your Boundaries

Take this opportunity to push your boundaries. I hear all of the time that what you learn in school is miniscule compared to what you will learn on the job. By assuming a role outside of your comfort zone, you enable yourself to continuously expand on your knowledge and add more skills to your tool belt. Within just two short years in my project management role, I obtained various proficiencies such as programming and data management, project management, facilitation, presentation skills, and the list goes on. These skills, which I now value, may not have been so easily obtained in a role I was familiar with such as process engineering.

Look Beyond Chemical Engineering

Next I'd like to ask, who said you had to be a chemical engineer? Likely, you chose that major when you were only 18 years old. At that age, I had trouble deciding what shoes to wear much less a 40-50 year career. If you're anything like me, after taking a few classes and realizing how tough it was, your addiction to challenge and love of chemistry/math/physics etc. kicked in and convinced you to stick with it. While traditional chemical engineering is a wonderful career path which I may try to pursue someday, try your best to keep an open mind and be willing to branch off if the opportunity arises. Nothing says that you would not be able to return to a more traditional role later in your career if you so decide.

Consider Your Network

Also, consider this a chance to expand your network. For instance, I now have relationships with many of my colleagues within our IT department that I likely would not have built if I had been placed in a typical engineering job. I plan on keeping these relationships for the duration of my career. And who knows how we'll be able to help each other out someday, whether it's teaming up to solve a complex problem for the company, or suggesting one another for a new job. In closing, if you're ever given the opportunity to take a job outside of what you pictured yourself doing, before making any decisions, consider the positives that may come out of it. You never know what kind of doors may have just opened for you until you walk through them.

What unexpected turns in your career later brought opportunity?

Photo: Woman in Hard Hat; Shutterstock


Great article, Katie! An excellent followup to mine http://chenected.aiche.org/professional-career-de... It's true that careers ARE serendipitous to a degree. Certainly turning down an assignment can derail an otherwise promising career. As you tackle different assignments outside your comfort/experience zone, you gain a broader perspective. and that prepares you for management, if that's where you want to go. Subject matter experts (SMEs) are deep and narrow and that's also good if you like that. I personally prefer the "jack of all trades master of many" path that you get when taking career risks. Good luck in your career! Tom Smith

Katie Horner's picture

Thanks Tom! I enjoyed your article as well. So if you could start over, would you do anything different with the career choices you made? Or has everything sort of fallen into place for you?

May's picture

Thank you so much for the two great ideas of an excellent topic. It's interesting to see the two perspectives. I agree with Tom, I like to get my hands into as many different opportunities as possible to 1) satisfy my love of learning 2) to broaden my horizon and future opportunities.

Robert S's picture

To add a (belated) real work example. I recently was given a project with expanded technical exposure, troubleshooting, and customer relations. A areas that I am interested and have been trying to get more into. A great opportunity to get a heavy dose of operating experience. The drawback? I get to play manager for a crew of 4 people. Great resume experience, but I didn't get into engineering to manage people. You can't always climb a single ladder. In the end I got a lot of technical experience and my first experience with management from the other side. I learned a lot and definitely expanded some boundaries. What I learned will make me a better engineer and, since I won't likely be able to avoid it, hopefully better manager some day. Opportunities for new experiences should rarely be turned down, even if it isn't exactly what you are looking for.