Finding the Right Career in Chemical Engineering

The author and his family in Thailand

I am sometimes asked how I got into this crazy business. What's so crazy about what I do? My title is straightforward enough - technical advisor - but what makes my job unconventional isn't what I do, but where I do it.

I work for UOP, which provides technology to the petroleum refining, gas processing, petrochemical, and major manufacturing industries, and in less than five years, I have traveled approximately 200,000 miles. This includes three circumnavigations and five continents (missed a sixth due to a paperwork issue). I have no permanent residence (though I still call Chicago home) and little in the way of long-term planning - often with days to get packed and moving. In short, my work is rarely boring, because every few months I get a new job with a new company and work in a new facility. You can read more specifics about what I do in this earlier post. You can also read about some specific assignments I handled in Taiwan and in Korea. But the reason for this post is to explain how it all started, and how I ended up where I am today.

I'd like to try it all, thank you!

It started with not knowing what I wanted to do. It is hard to pick one thing; I wanted to try it all. Looking at college applications as a dumbstruck high school student, I liked chemistry and math. I was asked, what do you want to major in? I thought, "Both? Can you even do that?"

The author on a walk in Jiuzhaiguo Valley in Sichuan Province, China

On a random campus visit, to a school I wasn't initially interested in, but eventually wound up attending, a sage professor suggested that I study chemical engineering. It would provide the most pathways after graduation. My dad was an engineer and that seemed to be working out well, so why not, I thought.

I went through school doing a fair job of picking up experiences in and out of the classroom. Among other things, I got decent grades, let some fellows convince me that it would be a good idea to keep the books for our house of 50 undergraduates, let a friend convince me it would be a good idea to go to Paris for a weekend in the middle of a semester (I still can't believe how cheap those tickets were - I swear there was a period of time where the airlines paid you to fly), got a co-op, and a taste of the engineering world.

Graduation eventually came and I still couldn't choose a single direction. I had found a lot of activities and challenges that I enjoyed, but a co-op or intern is not the same as a full-time job. A good co-op shows you all aspects of the company, and allows you to work with all stages of a project from the perspective of different departments. I really liked seeing the whole project develop through to completion and the different skills required to do that. But where were all the jobs that allowed you to work all the way from design to implementation? They certainly weren't the jobs I encountered when I started interviewing.

Learning to look ahead

It wasn't very clear to me what I wanted and where I'd find it, so I went through the motions of finding a job and eventually did. Over the next several years, I had couple of jobs. While the first wasn't very satisfying, the second was a better fit, but it still wasn't quite right either. It was at this point I was able to see the value in the experiences I had and see things from a new perspective.

Hong Kong Harbor from the peak

I looked to colleagues 5 or 10 years my senior, people I emulated, and saw that they were doing much the same work I was. Not bad, but if in 10 years I realized I was bored, there would be fewer options. After researching other firms, I had already concluded this was a premier firm in the area, so that didn't leave me much room to grow. I decided to try to get more technical work. This included making the case to my boss for training, getting involved in ongoing projects, and trying to find new business opportunities for the firm. I also worked on my soft skills, usually a differentiator in the engineering world, while I had access to excellent resources. Other pursuits included working with colleagues to learn about regulations, improving my writing and presentation skills, learning how a business is run, and getting my license, among other things. A couple years later I was a much more developed professional and doing more interesting work, but I was still thinking about the next level.

Is the grass really greener?

Then comes the hard part - is the grass really greener? Make sure you do your research. I had a short list of places I was willing to take the risk for. Fortunately, one of them accepted. This was a jump from a small firm to a very large one, trading one set of options and restrictions for another.

For me, preparing for the move was less work than getting in the job and making it work. To start with, I made the fairly rare decision to make a lateral move. But it paid off, because after learning the basics and how the company functioned, I was able to move into a position that I think I have been looking for since college. Ironically, I was actually offered a chance at a very similar position during my first job search out of school; I just didn't know I was looking for it yet.

What I've learned about building a career

Sanctuary of Truth near Pattaya, Thailand

As I've made my way through college and beyond, there are a few ideas that I have really come to believe in. Take advantage of opportunities, even (or especially) unconventional ones; take a leap once in a while.

Take risks, but consider them carefully. I'm not encouraging jumping blindly, but it's worth taking a risk for a true growing experiences if it makes you say, "I'm really ready for that" and you know it's what you've been looking for. Embracing new experiences and perspectives is how you keep learning and developing. This is a process that has significant momentum - once started, it can easily become a lifelong habit. And when you commit, go all the way. Meet all the new people that you can and learn all that you can about your new environment or activity. Ask questions. You never know where it will take you.

Take advantage of learning opportunities on and off the job. During the time I was laid off, I took a week long solo bicycle tour. I learned a lot about myself and on-the-fly problem solving. I talked about my trip and was passionate enough about it that others wanted to try it, and I wound up leading a group on some shorter tours. In other words, more problem-solving and figuring out how to lead a group of people through some challenges.

Regularly reassess where you are and where you are going. How is your work/life balance? What are you doing now? Is it where you want to be? Where do you want to be in 5 and 20 years? Your answers will all change over time. You may think what used to sound like a bad idea is now a good one - or vice versa. You may have a new passion. You may not need to get there right now, but you should always be moving in the right direction. Don't just hope everything will be great - make it that way.

These are just a few thoughts on how I finally made it into a job that is really a great fit for me, and often very satisfying. As you can see, I didn't take the most direct route - it's safe to say I made some true wrong turns. But even those wrong turns can help you see the right way. So whether you're still in school, just starting out, or several years into your career, I hope my experiences will help you find what you're looking for.

What "Now I get it!" insights about work or school can you share?


Nemoy's picture

I really liked this piece. It gives insight to people that are wondering if they will still be sitting and making P&IDs at firms like Fluor and Bechtel for the next 30 years.

Robert S's picture

Thanks, glad you liked the post. I hope that people make career choices instead of following the path of least resistance.

nicholastesla's picture

I graduated college and found a job within 6 months. I was laid off a month later. I'm still applying to careers in my field, but I find there's a sense of peace that comes with taking the time to collect off-the-wall careers. I worked in a candy shop for a week and learned how to make bourbon balls! I'm currently trying to convince a local coffee shop to hire me so I can learn to make better espresso.

Robert S's picture

That sounds like an excellent use of the opportunity. And handy skills for keeping your spirits up. When I was laid off I took a bike ride from Chicago to Iowa and back. It was a great week.

Kent Harrington's picture

One of my favorite posts. Really nice.

Robert S.'s picture


Olivia's picture

I am a chemical engineering undergrad from Chicago as well, and your piece on your life as a traveling chemical engineer was incredibly inspiring to me, as I've moved around a lot internationally as a kid, and travel is something I'd love to have in my job. It's a position I'd like to work towards, so if you don't mind sharing, what was the very similar position that you were offered on your first job search out of school?

Robert S's picture

I would love to help...but in the last few years our HR has become completely automated. Other than saying go to the website and sending in your resume (I know this feel like sending it into a black hole) I don't really have much. But my recommendation for Plan B is that you look in other places. There are some other large companies that have similar positions - the easiest might be looking for a company that has foreign postings. This would be something where you move to a location for a couple of years - this doesn't have the quantity of travel, but I am sure there would be quality and you can always find something "in the region" to travel to (for example it is a lot easier to travel around Asia when the first step isn't crossing the Pacific). Also hit your other sources (school contacts, local AiChe meetings, other networking events) start talking to people, ask what they do and what their companies do. There are some smaller companies that have positions that require travel. The similar position was in the same group and it was just an offer to interview. But they described the interview as being intense and the position....well i didn't have the confidence or motivation. I didn't have a clear idea of what I wanted at the time and a longer term commitment to a hard working role didn't sound like a good "learning" opportunity. I don't know if I had done it then if I would have been better off or worse. I would have been able to do it longer, but i don't know if I would have embraced the way I have...sometimes the grass is greener and sometimes it is just an illusion. I would be interested in your take on international travel as a kid since we have a 3.5yr old that we are currently dragging around. We hope he enjoys it. P.S. (not a comment to anyone specific) I occasionally get this question asked to me through other digital avenues. I am willing to answer any questions, but a recommendation to anyone looking to connect by social media (LinkedIn, fb, G+, etc.) I am open to connection requests but (and I am assuming this is true for many people) it would be helpful to edit the generic template. When I get a LinkedIn request, if I can not figure out how we are connected from your public profile I am hesitant to accept.

Olivia's picture

Thank you for your response, it does make sense that the first step across the Pacific would require the most work to make happen. I'll definitely keep my eyes open for opportunities and follow up on your advice (i.e. website, foreign job postings, networking events, school contacts). As for my take on international travel as a kid, I think what I gained the most out of my international travel was the ability to assimilate and take command of a new environment by finding similarities to my old one. While my dad didn't move as often as you seem to do (as a management consultant, his assignments would last for a school year, but perhaps it was something he requested), I was very often the new kid in school, and I learned how to make friends in new environments through common ground. It sounds fundamental, but it was a bigger deal back then because I was very shy. If there was a way for me to go back in time and tell my younger self a single piece of advice though, it would be without a doubt to tell myself to have the courage to stay in contact with my friends in different countries. This is obviously something much easier nowadays with social media websites, but my main method of correspondence back then was writing letters, and the more time that passed the more I got discouraged and I fell out of touch with a lot of friends. And I think I see what you're saying about the best path not always being a straight line from A to B. There was a time when my dad was contemplating taking an assignment in Shanghai, and while I would have attended an international school where English would be spoken, I was very adamantly against moving to China at all. I am Chinese, but my first language was English, and my Mandarin isn't nearly as up to par, and I was afraid of being embarrassed. The move didn't happen, but my dad used to (jokingly?) threaten me with sending me off to China by myself for a summer to force my Mandarin to improve, which is ironic, because now I've done a complete 180 and am looking for ways to study abroad in China. I'm not sure if the attitude change would have happened earlier or later if the move to Shanghai had happened or if I hadn't had international travel experience. I've pretty much accepted that there are, and will always be, a lot of things that I know zilch about, but I think I've grown past the embarrassment to always ask questions and to always try. Usually when I throw myself whole-heartedly into learning something I don't know, I find people who are happy to help. This became a way longer response than I expected to your question about a kid's view of international travel, but I hope some of it was interesting.

Robert S's picture

Thanks for the reply, I am always on the look out for some first hand experience. It seems that everyone reacts differently to being "thrown into the deep-end". Sometimes I think the only thing we (as parents) can do is encourage trying new things but it is hard to force something when it is not ready. I can imagine that being that transitional generation (I'm not but my dad is) can be difficult and confusing. It took us nearly 50 years to get him out and back to the "old country" and now he goes regularly without prompting. For me it was moving out for college. He was/is worried about his language skills to. I know I work with a ton of people all across Asia that have tremendous English but won't speak any because they are afraid of messing up. Practice works wonders...and quickly. I am terrible with all languages (remembering grammar and pronunciations - especially Mandarin) but I advanced more in a weekend in Paris than 3 years of French class. And after a year in China I can count. I can't guarantee any kind of length or location for my assignments, so we'll be hanging it up once it gets to school-time. Future traveling will have to be done on a strictly amateur basis. Thanks again - and good luck in your journey. I hope to see you out on the road there someday. P.S. I did remember one other idea. You might be able to look up UOP or Honeywell (or other company you find interesting) at local campus recruiting events or Career Fairs. Even if you don't go to that school, if you can get to the event you could meet a real person and that might help your chances.

Olivia's picture

I agree with everything you say about language skills. Last year, I wrote a study abroad program about granting me a possible exception to their language prerequisites as I was a "heritage speaker" (a.k.a. had gone to weekend Chinese school for 9+ years), and they sent me a placement test to gauge my abilities. I glanced at it and could barely read anything. I didn't bother filling out the test, since I didn't think I would pass. A week or so later, I took my university's Mandarin placement test as I was determined to better my language skills in order to study abroad. There was an extremely simple writing portion and a twenty minute interview conducted in Mandarin. As I took it, more and more of my Mandarin came back to me, and my conversational skills during the interview impressed the professor enough to tentatively place me two levels higher than I had expected. Encouraged, I went back to the study abroad placement exam and found the reading portion much, much easier. I guess moral of the story: exposure is everything. I just realized all the advice I gave was a for a kid internationally traveling while in school. I guess being in school for 13+ years makes you forget that there is a time before you started school, haha. Take lots of pictures, so that he can look back on them later if he forgets. They're experiences worth preserving. That is an interesting idea. The only thing I might second-guess is that schools tend check for school IDs to make sure you're a registered student at their school when you go to career fairs/recruiting events. Meeting real people would probably be a definite plus though, I'll keep my eyes out for any opportunities. I remember years ago, a guy at my aikido dojo was telling me that he worked with a lot of chemical engineers at a place called Honeywell when I told him I wanted to major in chemical engineering. I'll just hopefully keep meeting more and more people and foster genuine friendships. Thanks again for all your responses.

Robert S's picture

Yeah, they might check IDs. I haven't been to one in a while and I am sure each has slightly different policies. I guess you'll have to call ahead or something. This was a suggestion given to my by our hiring managers one time when I was looking for ways that applicants could get in touch with them. I am sure that the company would appreciate the extra traffic to their booth, but the school might have an issue. We have a running joke that we need to take those pictures of him eating in street markets and other random places to put into a "when your parents were cool" book to show him when he complains we don't let him do anything fun. One last "exposure" comment - we were trying to get him to interact with the locals (hotel staff and colleagues) to help foster some language skills...then he start telling people that they should speak English to him. Not exactly the response we were hoping for, but we'll keep trying. Last month (after being out of China for 4-5 months) he randomly counted to ten in Mandarin. Guess some of it sunk in a little.