The Second Phase of ChE Education

What you learn in a ChE degree program is powerful - but once we start work, every chemical engineer finds out they need to learn even more. It's independent of what degree you received, what kind of job you take, or what area you specialize in. New process engineers face it. New faculty face it. New ChEs in tech service face it, and so on.

An important part of the learning is having your eyes opened by experience. How different valves are different. The importance of good writing and concise, audience-appropriate communication. How to work with staff and craftspeople. Pre-graduation experience can help with that, whether it is a co-op or a post-doctoral position or a summer job.

More formal instruction and guidance is required for other aspects. When you have a work task to accomplish, your self-study of school texts or reference materials takes on a new dimension. You probably have or had a mentor, formally assigned, informally adopted, or simply seen as a role model. Short courses may be called for, in-house or offsite or on the web. Many BSChEs decide to get MBAs, while some will seek law, medical, or other degrees.

What is the factor in common? Nurturing your skills, talent, and expertise to go beyond what you've learned already: "Lifelong learning."

Why is a BS, MS, or PhD not enough?

ChE is far too broad for any undergrad or graduate program to be able teach everything a new professional needs. There are so many different industries and fields. The BSChE covers a number of valuable, explicit skills with a lot more powerful concepts to build on. In MS or PhD research, you achieve much greater depth and insight into your chosen project and its field, yet inevitably you will need to broaden and deepen your knowledge as your career progresses.

For example, schools can only teach the basics of a few separation processes. You have to learn a lot more detail and nuance to work with those processes. If you work with a separation process that wasn't covered - or didn't exist then - you have to learn about it using what concepts and analogous methods you learned before. In addition to ChE technical aspects, other areas where ChEs often require a step change in sophistication include safety, communications, and budgets/accounting.

Hear it from new professionals

In this series, you'll hear from a number of new ChE professionals, each about one to two years past graduation. They'll describe the type of work and responsibilities they've had in their work to date, as well as the skills or expertise they needed or had to learn that go beyond what they learned as students. You'll also hear from their mentor or a senior person offering their perspective on the skills or expertise that new professionals must learn.

Some of the people you'll hear from include Lane Daley at Eastman Chemical, who is working with reactive distillation; Mariam al-Meer of Shell Qatar, who works with the Pearl Gas-to-Liquids process; Jon Haughton of Ingredion, a food ingredients company where he works as a product manager/marketer; and biotechnologists, fab engineers, new faculty, astronauts, attorneys, physicians, and people working in government.

If you are a ChE student or new employee, you will see topics that you'll need, as well as important ideas - and also that you aren't alone in this need to learn.

You'll also enjoy seeing the professional breadth and accomplishments of chemical engineers and chemical engineering. We tend to see what people around us are doing, but we take a remarkable diversity of professional directions.

What skills did you have to earn that you didn't learn in school?


We're interested hearing about technical, communication, financial, management, and other other skills you've needed to learn.

Phil, Excellent post! I will be covering the concept of lifelong learning in the December CEP Career Corner column. I've interviewed engineers, HR folks and engineering consultants. One thing was very clear was how serious they all are about the value of lifelong learning for themselves and their companies. The column will cover some of the ways they're making lifelong learning happen.

Asad Sahir's picture

Prof. Westmoreland, Your blog post is thought provoking and inspirational, as it provides a framework for rethinking some current academic practices. The effort being made by experienced professionals in sharing a perspective on Lifelong Learning through ChEnected is sincerely appreciated and may be extended to the classroom. My personal opinion is that current academia and AIChE at the Local Section Level can help foster in the young generation a spirit of “Lifelong Learning”. For example: •When faculty members introduce a subject to the undergraduate student; will it be worth their effort to take 10-15 minutes to share a personal anecdote on the significance of “lifelong learning”? It may inspire some students to think about the course beyond the content and the grade which they earn. •To the graduate students, during Seminar or a Distinguished Lecture could a faculty member share their journey in investigating a particular line of research for five –ten minutes; rather than only focusing on their area of research expertise. •At the AIChE Local Section; could experienced professionals be encouraged to give a talk on “Why Lifelong Learning is important; and how it influenced the course of their profession or research investigation?” Your sentence summarizes the issue very well: “New process engineers face it. New faculty face it. New ChEs in tech service face it, and so on.” Here an opportunity for building a bridge between the experienced practitioner and the emerging professional exists which needs to be built and its pursuit worth exploring.

June's picture

Skills I didn't learn in school include leadership, business development, marketing, teamwork, presentation shkills, economic evaluation, to name just a few.