Many students pursue a chemical engineering degree because of its versatility, allowing them to contribute across a broad range of subdisciplines. This flexibility is one reason that a bachelor’s in chemical engineering is more widely accepted as a terminal professional degree than a bachelor’s in chemistry or other physical science. Although chemical engineers may not necessarily need advanced degrees to enjoy lucrative employment, it is becoming increasingly common for young chemical engineering professionals to pursue further education to either secure a promotion or gain technical knowledge needed to enter a new area of interest.
If you are thinking of returning to school, the transition after being away from academia can be daunting. You might also be wondering about your options as far as financial aid and balancing work and school. Fortunately, some employers offer continuing education support to full-time employees who are enrolled in part-time graduate programs that align with business needs. The curricula and flexible scheduling of these academic programs allow working professionals to complete coursework during evenings and on weekends — typically within 1–2 years — without sacrificing employment.
Some advanced technical degrees, however, require a full-time commitment for several years or more, such as a thesis-based master’s or doctoral degree. The transition from working professional to full-time student presents a unique set of challenges that students entering graduate school immediately after undergrad do not face. If you are contemplating this course, consider the challenges, but also the potential benefits.
You’ll be forgoing a salary and work experience
In terms of both time and money, the opportunity cost of leaving a secure job in pursuit of a full-time graduate degree is high. While a master’s thesis can be completed in less than two years, doctoral degrees do not typically adhere to a definitive timeline, often taking 4–6 years to complete. In addition, if your ambitions include becoming a faculty member or medical doctor, you need to factor in several more years of postdoctoral study or residency after graduation.
Most engineering graduate programs offer assistantship or fellowship positions, which subsidize the cost of tuition and provide a salary stipend. ChE graduate stipends are among the highest, enabling students to obtain an advanced degree and maintain a reasonable standard of living. Professional degree programs, such as medical or law school, however, may require you to finance the entire cost of attendance.
Reestablishing academic momentum is difficult
A key advantage to choosing graduate school immediately after your undergraduate degree is that you maintain the continuity of being in an academic environment. Not only will you be accustomed to working as a student, but also course topics are still fresh in your mind. Returning to the classroom after an extended absence and attempting to solve partial differential equations is like trying to run a marathon when you are out of shape. The first semester of graduate school after time away from academia can feel much like boot camp, but with proper focus, organization, and tenacity, the duration of this discomfort can be minimized.
The mindset is different
The 80/20 mindset, also known as the Pareto Principle, states that approximately 80% of the benefit is derived from 20% of the effort. Most practicing engineers are familiar with this concept because it is useful for maximizing efficiency in an industrial setting where the primary focus is profitability.
Graduate school demands a different type of rigor to maximize knowledge gain and examine problems at a deeper, fundamental level. Earning a PhD in particular requires patience and a love of research, because the objective is to become the leading subject matter expert in a particular area of specialization. Although your niche is narrow, you need to dig as deep as possible to contribute new knowledge that advances the field beyond the current state of the art.
Despite these challenges, having work experience and developing an independent perspective before entering graduate school offers some distinct advantages.
Your vision and path are clearer
Working prior to graduate school not only provides you with technical expertise, but also life experiences that can sharpen your focus and enhance your drive to research the topics you are most passionate about. As a young professional, you’ve had opportunities to grow in numerous dimensions that your peers within the protective cocoon of academia have not. This perspective will help you to formulate a clear vision of what you want to achieve, as well as the path to get you there. A definitive vision and path can help to shorten the time it takes for you to earn your degree.
Your professional skills offer a solid foundation
The skills you obtain through on-the-job engineering experience are highly transferable. Proficiencies such as consistently meeting deadlines for project deliverables, analyzing and interpreting real data, and effectively communicating results through oral presentations and written reports are crucial to success in graduate school and can differentiate you from the competition.
In addition, proper attention to process and laboratory safety, hazard analysis, loss prevention, and environmental stewardship is often dangerously lacking at the university level. Prior experience in these areas as a working engineer can help you to positively influence the culture of a graduate program, helping you and your fellow students to conduct world-class research in a safe and responsible manner.
You are more employable
The competition for research jobs and faculty positions in academia has become increasingly tough. A combination of previous work experience and subject matter expertise can set you apart from other candidates. Unlike other majors, however, chemical engineering graduate students do not have to depend solely on universities for employment. Master’s and PhD programs provide students with advanced technical skills that can open doors to more specialized opportunities in private industry and government laboratories.
Don’t fear the road less traveled
Going back to school as an experienced professional can be a formidable undertaking, especially if it requires leaving an established career to enroll in a full-time program. While there are obstacles, your technical and professional preparation and independent perspective equip you with the tools needed to successfully navigate these seemingly insurmountable challenges. By identifying your objectives carefully, planning efficiently, and managing your time wisely, it is possible to embark on this path to achieve your goals.
This article originally appeared in the Young Professionals Point of View (YPOV) column in the January 2019 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at aiche.org/cep.