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A New Graduate View: What Is Chemical Engineering?

I remember the time when I'd just finished my pre-university course and wondered, "what career do I want to do?" I was a brilliant student, business and accounting were NOT for me, and I knew I wanted to go into something science-related but I didn't want to be involved in research. Be a doctor? Nah I'd probably accidentally kill someone. Be a teacher? I lack the patience and the passion for that.

I came across the term "chemical engineering" and decided to do some reading on that. I had trouble understanding what it pertains to and I wished that someone provided an explanation about it back then! I took a risk accepting an offer to study chemical engineering and four years later, I'm grateful that I took that chance! So here's my count down on the top 5 things that make up a chemical engineer!

1. You don't have to be a chem whiz

  • Chemical engineering requires a basic understanding of chemistry, physics, math. You're not required to memorize formulas, it's more important to understand the principles and learn how to apply them to solve a problem/improve status quo. However after a few semesters, your brain WILLremember many formulas!
  • You do need to be analytical and have the ability to think critically. You must be able to look at the problem from a bigger viewpoint but you must also be detailed in your analysis! Problem-solving is a key component in engineering because it is, after all, about making things better for the human race and the environment.
2. Speak up!
  • A chemical engineer will have to communicate with various individuals: their superior, their colleagues, their project team mates, their counterparts from other disciplines, vendors and even the client! It's imperative to communicate effectively not only to ensure accuracy in the information distribution but to also create a comfortable and smooth working environment. Train yourself to have good interactive and communication skills because these are important assets to a chemical engineer.
  • Some useful advice I heard at a seminar recently was that junior engineers should not be afraid to speak up. We tend to think that because we have less experience than senior engineers, our ideas don't matter much. They DO. A chemical engineer must be confident with his/her justifications and be able to present it winningly to the rest because if the idea is a good one, it's worth a shot. Don't be afraid to criticize/be criticized. Every discussion/debate will change your perspective and you'll gain more knowledge.
3. It's a big, big world
  • One of the reasons why I was drawn to chemical engineering was the fact that everything around us has, in one way or another, come in contact with chemical engineering. Raw crude oil is taken from the deep underground reservoirs and processed by chemical engineers to produce commercial products like petrol for our cars and asphalt for our roads. Chemical engineers ensure that propylene undergoes catalytic reaction to produce acrylic acid, a raw material for various products, such as resins and even baby diapers!

  • The fact that so many things around us come from chemical engineering is proof that there are various fields within this discipline. A chemical engineer can feel right at home in biotechnology, oil and gas industry, wastewater treatment, plastic manufacturing and petrochemical processing! Don't be fooled into thinking that it's all about science: it's good to know the economics of your work. An optimized solution is always the best one. Opportunities are boundless so it is good to explore different fields to find your calling.
4. An ethical profession
  • A chemical engineer will be directly/indirectly responsible for the lives of the technicians, operators and other staff working at a chemical plant/laboratory. A mistake in equipment design, or a careless judgment can cause serious injury and sometimes (unfortunately) death. It takes one death to turn a finely crafted project into a disaster. Safety always comes first and it's the priority of every chemical engineer to provide a safe process/product for everyone else!

  • A chemical engineer also has a duty to protect the environment: that's why so many of them are working hard to reduce the impact of the industries on Mother Nature. Pollution is a severe problem and everyone knows it has negative impacts on the ecosystem and human health. Recycling and converting a waste product into a useful one are principles commonly incorporated by chemical engineers to fulfill this duty.
5. There's always something fresh
  • An important facet to chemical engineering is innovation. There's always a new product or a new method in the works. Technology is always evolving and a good chemical engineer always keeps track of what's hot and what's not! It's important to have a strong desire to learn new things. Knowledge is every chemical engineer's weapon and updating it will sharpen the blade to find a today's solution for yesterday's problems. It's comforting to know that the old guys are still actively contributing ideas to the profession!
So are you thinking about being a chemical engineer? It's definitely a fun, challenging and exciting career. It takes brains, guts and heart to be a good one. It's a job that ultimately aims to make this world a better place! This is the low down from a girl who took a risk and spent four years of her life studying an enjoyable course. I hope students out there find this article useful!

Chris Haslego
Oct 05 2010 05:01 PM
Congratulations on your first blog posting! I'm glad that you wrote this and I think all can tell that it's from the heart. Now, I'm just wondering if I'm one of the "old guys" at 35!
Thanks! 35 is not old in my books, the old guys I see are 45+ & they're like gods! :P

It's just an article I wished I had when I was 17; I know many youths who are interested but don't quite know what it's all about! Hopefully the readers will get the gist of it! ;)

The way you decided to choose your profession seems to be very promising and straightforward - that's quite an important thing for a process engineer, in my opinion: to keep everything sane & simple.

During High school years I used to prepare myself for the Literature studies, and had never been interested in science and engineering. All my grades continuously swinging between D and E - except for the Literature subjects. Then I came across a short story about a laboratory assistant who wanted to make a wedding ring for his fiancee, made of Iron from his own blood. That sounded very much scientific and artistic, and somehow I had found myself entering ChE University which was the only institution accepting all applicants since there were so much more open slots than applicants. Funny thing.

And yes, 35 seems to be quite different than 25 or even 30. It looks like entire ages are in between. And the more the time passes, it's getting better.

Good luck with your life,
Funny thing indeed! Initially I wanted to be a concert pianist then I realized I didn't have the discipline to consistently practice so I switched my ambition to being a piano teacher. During this time I paid little attention to my studies; I was scoring B's on a good day! So when my piano teacher got married & gave up her job, I decided to pay attention to my studies lol..then my ambition swung from being a National Geographic researcher, then genetic engineering, then haemotology, even actuarial science...then finally chemical engineering fell in my lap :P

I remember taking all the free career aptitude tests online to find out what would be compatible with me haha..chemical engineering was on the list so there were signs back then :D

I think a lot of my juniors took up this course not really knowing what's out there when they complete their studies, I try to connect them with other seniors I know so that they get a better view of the industry (than I did haha).

Thanks for your comment, Zauberberg. I'm certainly enjoying everything I've learned so far! ;)
Padmakar Katre
Oct 11 2010 10:05 AM
Dear All,
I think then I was crazy about chemical engineering during my school days. I always wanted to be a chemical engineer and even i had the road map for ChE career when I was in my last year of school. I opted a diploma in ChE after school and then bachelors. I started with operations though I was getting some software jobs as well engineering consultancy jobs, just to get the feel of the operations. And I am quite satisfied about my time to time decisions in past. Good luck to all.
Sounds like you were very focused on what you wanted to do even at a young age!

Again, a very good post. Really useful for me who just graduated and seems to be a bit lost of the career pathways after graduation. I hope you don't mind, if I copy paste this article for my reading collection. I will acknowledge back via this link.

Keep on sharing. All the best! :)
Gopal kumar jha
Feb 21 2014 05:21 AM

This Post of yours give me new way thinking about the chemical engineering and a positive note will motivate me.I am proud to be a chemical engineer

BE POSITIVE and BE LEARNER all the time it will appreciated me as well as it will motivate you

keep on sharing,best of luck

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