Is a Nontraditional ChemE Career for You?

By Victor A. Manrique, University of Pittsburgh

The rapid growth of technology, globalization, the changing demographics of the workforce — all of these factors have eliminated the former notion of a linear career path. Modern-day employment requires workers to be adaptable to any and every change that may come their way. Chemical engineers are very attractive to company recruiters, even at companies that are not associated with the chemical process industries (CPI), because the ChemE curriculum emphasizes critical thinking as well as scientific knowledge.

No chemical engineering student should feel that all that awaits him or her after graduation is only a job in a chemical plant. A chemical engineering degree makes you more than ready for a wide variety of careers, including those that are usually considered nontraditional.

If you are thinking of transitioning to a nontraditional career, consider the following advice. 

Nontraditional careers can be found at any age

Pursuing a nontraditional job opportunity is not just for students and recent graduates. More-experienced engineers also have many options for moving into less-traditional roles.

For example, my friend’s father worked in a petroleum plant for ten years, until office politics made the job unbearable. He heard of an opening at a college for a philosophy teaching position. Now, a decade later, he is getting ready to retire from his post as the head of the literary department. Never pass up an interesting opportunity just because it’s not the norm.

Use your hobby as a springboard

Consider everything you like to do outside of work. Even the most tangential hobby, when combined with the strong science background inherent in a ChemE education, is in some way connected to a real profession.

For instance, if you enjoy writing in your free time, technical communications may be a good career for you. Chemical engineers are valuable in this field, because they can accurately convey the latest research topics and scientific developments to the general public through articles in newspapers, magazines, and websites; they may also have a hand in creating videos, producing podcasts, or even designing scientific graphics or art to help explain a complicated topic.

Find a mentor

A career counselor or mentor is an invaluable resource at the start of any job search. I went to my city’s career center when I was job hunting two years ago, and my assigned counselor helped me evaluate each of my research projects and internships. As I went through my previous work, she saw that I had a passion for science and could break down complex ideas and explain them in simple terms. That made me consider a future teaching career — one of the reasons why I decided to go to graduate school.

Don’t rely on blind luck

When searching for a fulfilling job, the more time you spend researching all of your options,  the more likely you’ll find a satisfying position. If you find a field you would like to pursue, talk to people working in that field to learn what their job is like, the current trends and needs, and how your skill set fits into that field.

One of my current labmates at the Univ. of Pittsburgh has a fascination with law, as well as engineering. After meeting with people in the law department at our school, he became interested in a post-graduate career as a patent agent. He recently took the patent bar, an exam required for those wishing to enter into the field of intellectual property.

Learn how to stand out in a crowd 

When it comes to applying for your unique dream job, your battle cry should be “Only I can do this!” Convey clearly, in your resumé and the interview, exactly what your skills are and how they apply to this position. Also convey your passion for the job; this is why using your interests to search for new fields is key, as is talking to current workers in that field.

When Elizabeth Guenther, past chair of the Young Professionals Committee (YPC), wanted a career change, she applied for an opening at a nearby Mack Trucks manufacturing plant. At the time, she only had batch production experience, while the plant utilized line production. She had to sell her current skill set as translatable. She reminded recruiters at interviews that chemical engineering is all about processes: input, output, waste, energy balance, etc.

View things from a different angle

Before you make any major changes, you may want to expand your horizons at your current company or job. This could involve taking technical courses, webinars, or seminars to learn a new skill. Or, it may entail going to graduate school part-time to earn a Master’s or MBA.

One of the best ways to break out of the mold is to rotate positions, which will allow you to see the industry from many different perspectives. During an internship with Eastman Chemical, I saw that rotation was the norm, not just for the co-op students but for some of the newer hires as well. Changing your viewpoint and learning something new may allow you to find your nontraditional niche.

In today’s workforce, nontraditional careers are becoming the norm, not the exception. As long as you can display your passion for the business, and the key traits that you (and only you) can bring to the company, you stand a good chance of landing your dream job.

Victor A. Manrique is a graduate student at the Univ. of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology in 2012.

This piece originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of CEP Magazine