What made you major in chemical engineering instead of chemistry, if that's what you did? In my case, a big reason was the ability to get a good job with a BS right out of school, while in chemistry you needed a PhD. In 1979, when I graduated with my ChE BS from the University of Rochester, my classmates and I all received annual salary offers in the $20,000 to $24,000 range. There were about two dozen of us, and as I recall, everyone had multiple job offers.
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A teacher that I had senior year at school was impressed with my math skills. At the time, I liked chemistry, so I thought I would combine the two chemical engineering sounded like a good option. It seemed like a very versatile field to get into and the jobs were plentiful.
I originally started out going for a chemistry degree. Then I found out that the chemistry department required you to memorize everything and they had closed book tests. The engineering department required you to know how to do things and where to find the information you needed to do them. They had open book tests. I have always had a terrible short term memory but am really good at figuring things out. Once I understood an engineering principle I could figure out when and where to use it, and if I needed to I could look up the formula. I was also good at math and physics, so I changed my major to chemical engineering and never looked back. Now that we have process modeling programs I usually don't even need to look up the formula. I have become an expert in process modeling, process control, and data analysis and enjoyed every minute of it.
Harold Reed, M.S.
Sirius Technical Services Contract Engineer
For Evonik Corporation
Wow – great question that struck a chord with me. As a kid I'd set up my chemistry set in my dad's ice fishing shanty which he parked in the back yard during the summer. For a while it was my favorite pastime right up there with fishing. For whatever reason, my dad had a small vial of mercury and I was fascinated with the little beads of the stuff. When I started learning chemistry in high school, it seemed like if you understood the science of chemistry, you understood how the world really worked.
But I liked math, too, and although no whiz I had a knack for word problems. When it looked like I was going to college and it came time to pick a school, I went up to my high school chemistry teacher with the dilemma: chemist, or chemical engineer? The conversation was brief and went something like this: me: "I want to pick a school but don't know if I want to be a scientist or engineer". Mr. Deshon: "What's your favorite subject now?" Me: "Algebra". Mr. Deshon: "Then be an engineer". The best advice I ever had. I never looked back. Thank you, Mr. Deshon.I went on to get an M.S. in 1981 - right before the job market went south. I would say that the one surprise at the time in looking for a job was the geographical limitations of ChE's in the traditional line of work. West Virginia looked enough like home that I took a job there.
In my case the choice was between physics and chemical engineering and yes coming from a blue collar family I went for the money. I guess I just couldn't see how I'd ever advance economically teaching physics and everyone who supposedly 'knew anything' told me chemical engineers made good money.
My path to becoming a faculty member in Chemical Engineering of 47 years followed an unusual path, but it helped me advise many young people about their education and career decisions. I started at Pomona College, a liberal arts school with no engineering, that had an arrangement called the "Combined Plan" to earn a BA at Pomona and a BS at MIT in 5 years. I remember in Physical Chemistry learning about thermodynamics and thinking "this is all very nice, but what is it good for?" When I got to MIT, I found out. Though my ChE PhD at Berkeley involved in molecular theory, I never really looked back to do science; the goal was always to use fundamentals for applications. Several of my classmates at Pomona stayed 4 years and then went to graduate school in ChE and also had fruitful careers.
I learned from my experience to tell advisees, "Life should be doing what you find fun - within the constraints." While the constraints normally involve a paying job, it's most important to define and enjoy one's "fun". (Some people call this finding one's passion.)
To me the difference between a scientist and an engineering is the former wants to "understand" whereas the latter wants to "do something about it, possibly without full understanding". The difference between those for whom chemistry is their science, or chemical engineering is their engineering, is if the molecular level of nature is what is interesting and empowering because reaction and transport are our basic phenomena.
In my high school years, I was very much interested and also very good in chemistry including laboratory work involving chemical analyses. At the same time, I was well aware of the fact that South Asian parents expect their children to be doctors, engineers, lawyers and so on in that order. My parents wanted me to be an engineer and I also experienced the constant pressure to be good in Science and Mathematics. I did just that and got admission into university engineering program. My interest in chemistry and the curiosity to learn how chemicals are manufactured made me decide to join the university Chemical Engineering program. I was and still am happy that I did. However, I was surprised to know that Chemical Engineering is more about engineering and with not much emphasis on chemistry. As a Chemical Engineer (now retired, but active with many professional volunteering activities) with a broad knowledge of various engineering disciplines and Thermodynamics (Chemical & Engineering), I was able to adapt easily in Chemical Physics, Nuclear Reactor Safety and Petroleum Production R&D for over five decades. I am still very much interested in chemistry, but am proud to be a Chemical Engineer and thank God I made the right decision!
I majored in Chemical Engineering on the advice of my father, a career chemist. He advised that a chemical engineer can do the work of a chemist having taken those courses (perhaps not all the analytical chemistry but that is resolvable) however a chemist can not necessarily do the work of a chemical engineer (due to the coursework that the engineer will complete). His advice has rung very true.
Richard Pudlo PE
I worked as a lab technician at a power station after having attended college for a year. My original major had been Pre-Med and I had taken Chemistry for the year but had not done particularly well. I had to leave due to a family situation and the year of college chemistry was what eventually got me a lab helper job. I was able to quickly rise to the top Lab technician position at the power station as others left or transferred, but I quickly realized that the job I was in was going to be a dead end in the future. Plants have a limited lifespan and it was not sufficient to build a career around. I was given the opportunity to help the plant Results engineers do tests and caught on real quickly. I was even able to do some rudimentary linear programming to be able to The plant manager believed I really should go back to college as he said while I was very intuitive, to really understand how things worked I needed to be educated in key things like thermodynamics, and physics. At the plant lab we shared space with the Company Chemists. They were the ones that planted the seed in my mind that I needed to be a chemical engineer. They also subscribed to Chemical Engineering magazine which I read religiously. Of course the chemist said it was because Chemical Engineers were paid a whole lot more, particularly if you went to work at the Oil Companies at places like the refinery that was just over the back fence of our Tulsa Power Station. I took their advice to heart, quitting my job at the plant and going back to school at Oklahoma State. While Chemical Engineers are trained in key things like Physical Chemistry and Organic Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics, it was the kinetics training that really set us apart from other engineers. Being able to predict how fast a reaction could take place.
However, over the course of my career I rarely utilized it. Instead I have had a very diverse career. I have been an engineer that designed and built natural gas and NGL pipelines. gas plants, LNG facilities, FPSOs, FLNG topsides, Deepwater topsides and subsea facilities. I have been an operations engineer for a world class helium/LNG extraction plant, a NGL fractionation facility and performed real time hydraulic modeling and leak detection for an interstate pipeline. It was the diverse education that I received as an engineer that facilitated all this. As engineers we were trained in all the basic engineering sciences. Thermodynamics, Physics, Electrical, Statics and Strengths, Dynamics and Materials. Each were fundamental in allowing me as an engineer to constantly recreate myself in a role that was needed by industry so that I could always be relevant.
What I have learned in my 39 years is that the most important training that we as Chemical engineers receive is what once Dr. McKetta at the University of Texas told a group of AICHE members was what set up apart from other engineers, "We can look it up faster". In the day of the information overload of the internet the ability to research and vet the data being presented for it's validity is even more important.
I wanted a career that integrated the disciplines of chemistry and chemical engineering. After getting a bachelor's degree in chemistry, I bridged into a graduate program in chemical engineering. The biggest obstacle I encountered in bridging was the high "activation energy"-the investment of time and money to take collateral courses required for admission into the chemical engineering graduate program. I had to take most of the junior- and senior-level chemical engineering courses required for the BS degree.
After completing my PhD and joining the chemical engineering faculty at Michigan State University, I began teaching one of two "bridging" courses developed at MSU specifically to accelerate chemists' transition into a chemical engineering graduate program. These courses (Foundations of Chemical Engineering I and II) cover the foundational theories and calculations of mass and energy balances, thermodynamics, reaction engineering, fluid flow, heat transfer, mass transfer, and separations, all at an accelerated pace.
Since these courses were adapted to a streaming Internet format about 20 years ago, hundreds of students have taken them online, either to bridge into a chemical engineering graduate program or to develop chemical engineering skills needed to advance their industrial careers. It has been satisfying to help others obtain the strategically valuable multidisciplinary training across chemistry and chemical engineering that I've enjoyed.