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Job Skills Chemistry vs chemical engineering in MS and PhD

  1. Mar 22, 2016 #1
    I used to be a chemical engineer for a bad company that treats its employees very poorly. Ever since leaving that place, I've been trying to transition in to the tech industry, because it's where all the new, and exciting stuff happens. I'm particularly interested in battery technology, because I believe renewable energy is very important, and energy storage technology is the bottleneck right now, but it's gaining more and more traction in the tech industry, so getting the skillset and know-how in device manufacturing, particularly batteries, will probably be more and more valuable (at least that's what I think). Right now, my ambition is to work in research and development that helps improve energy storage technology in companies like tesla, intel, samsung, panasonic, etc.

    I have a BS in chemical engineering, and I have the opportunity to join a pretty good chemistry department, doing research for a professor in chemical engineering. If I go, I would be on the path to a MS in chemistry, but the professor wants me to do super awesome and have me go straight into a PhD. (I didn't apply to chemistry, I applied to Materials S&E, but they won't let me in for stupid reasons, so professor wants to pull strings to get me in the chemistry department)

    Sorry for the long background, but here are my questions:

    Truth be told, I don't want to spend 5 years in poverty. I love science, but not enough to do it at minimum wage. If getting a MS is adequate in finding a decent research job, then I'm all for it. However, I've been told that a PhD is usually necessary for jobs that I'm going after, and that MS research jobs will have problems moving up. In addition, I think a MS in chemistry will certainly not help me when I already have a BS ChE.. What do you guys think?

    In terms of graduate degrees, I've been told that a ChE will have more merit than chemistry. I mean you see it with BS level jobs, where engineers get to be project managers, and chemists get to run QC procedures all day long. Will this hold true, somewhat true, not really, for graduate level positions?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 23, 2016 #2
    I'm puzzled by your use of the word "merit" when comparing Chemical Engineering and Chemistry degrees. Is this ultimately about money? An interesting career? job stability? I'm not sure what mix of these you're looking for.

    You can find many jobs as a chemical engineer with just your current degree. It can be meaningful, fulfilling work. The more advanced degrees do tend to focus you toward more research-oriented fields. While those fields tend to pay more, the job security may not be as good. Disclaimer: nobody can predict the job market well, let alone a single person's prospects.

    One presumption I'm reading in your post is that you tried working as a Chemical Engineer (was it a large petrochemical business?). So you're basing your choices over one poor experience. I have pointed out in other posts that while technically interesting work is a compensation all of its own, so is the day to day work social life. If you can only do this sort of thing by tolerating nasty people, you won't feel all that good at the end of the day.

    Chemical Engineers are supposed to take lab creations and put them in to large scale production. Their jobs are mostly oriented around process and control system designs. It can be a lot of fun. Chemistry jobs are broader and can cover a wide range of possibilities from water quality, to testing paint, or designing new batteries.

    I sense, however, that you're not marketing yourself too well. More education is always interesting, but it may not always pay for itself. A Master's degree probably wouldn't hurt your bottom line; but unless you know exactly what you want to do with a Ph.D, I think you'd be dissatisfied.

    Allow me to point out that as a Controls Engineer working for a large water and sewer utility. I have a larger impact on the environment than most people will have over several lifetimes. If you really want to have a positive effect on the environment, you can do more by working on the inside, instead of wearing the cause on your sleeve and parading about it on the outside.
  4. Mar 23, 2016 #3
    Money, interesting career, stability, all of the above. The biggest driver for me is fulfillment in my career.

    I used to work in utilities at my chemical plant - old boilers, cooling towers, etc. I knew this wasn't the line of work I was interested in. Thought out college, I did research, and I was way more into it than my chemical engineer peers. It seemed that the natural progression was grad school, but it didn't really work out until now. I think you're right that I probably don't market myself very well. But then again, Im 2 years out of school seeking get to break into an industry I have no experience in and don't want to go back to oil/gas. Ive tried networking, reaching out to recruiters but to no avail. This seems like the best path forward right now, to get back into school, try to secure some internships and experience.
  5. Mar 24, 2016 #4
    I don't know how it was with your previous employer, but where I work, you're a "newbie" for at least two years. In fact, it takes about three years before we're comfortable giving a project to an experienced engineer to work on independently. We have one new guy among the ten of us. He's very bright. He's been here about a year, and I expect he'll be on that same track.

    While this is a technical field, we are also a very conservative bunch. We try new concepts, technologies, or methods one at a time so that we can understand how it behaves and learn what failure modes to expect. Even then we get surprises. Because I work for a large water utility, we have a very long term outlook. The costs of a screw-up can be very high and the impact upon public safety is usually a big topic for the news media. However, other venues exist for chemical engineers. Just don't be those guys.

    Your answer to my question as to what driver you're seeking for "fulfillment" indicates that my question was poor. Allow me to rephrase this:

    What kind of lifestyle are you aiming for? Are you single and you'd like to travel? Are you seeking adventure? Are you saving to buy a house? Are you an entrepenurial risk taker or are you risk averse? Are you thinking about starting a family? Do you have social obligations keeping you in one part of the world? Do need to care for someone in poor health or perhaps a younger sibling?

    I'm not asking these questions to pry in to your personal life. To be honest, I really don't care. Nevertheless, these issues are integral in setting realistic goals for a longer term direction in your career. You don't have to explain to the world what your life is like. Merely use the answers to questions like these to give yourself a sense of direction on what will be feasible at what time in your life.

    Naturally, things will change and so will your goals. But you should still have a sense of direction of what you'd like to do. Your posting gives me the impression that you're drifting without a rudder or even a sense of where you're going. Find one and make plans.
  6. Mar 24, 2016 #5
    I'd like to enjoy what I do for a living, and be always learning new things. I feel like with most BS jobs, one reaches a learning plateau pretty quickly. For instance, as a process engineer in oil/gas, there usually isn't much new stuff going on. It's the baby boomers teaching the younger guys how it's done, and leaving it in their hands. Very rarely is a new technology implemented, where something goes from the laboratory, to a pilot, to full scale. I would like to be part of the laboratory side of things in the tech industry because technology is always changing, and there's always new realms to explore, even if not every idea works out. At least that's my vision.

    One reason I see to pursue a Masters right now is to gain skills of the trade, gain market value as a potential employee from the attained skills, and try to secure some internships, some of which won't even look at my resume when they see that I'm 3 years out of school. Even with 2 years of experience, I feel like I'm not being judged as an entry level engineer, and with no prior relevant experience in device manufacturing, I have nothing to offer other than my intellect. I've not had any luck with tech companies thus far, which is why school seems like the best option right now.

    You're not the first one to tell me that I don't seem to know what I want or where I'm going. You're probably right. But how many 25 year olds really know what they want to do for a living? I feel like the majority of engineers my age are satisfied with something that pays the bills. I think I differentiate from that group by taking a step back and asking myself "what do I REALLY want to do?"
  7. Mar 25, 2016 #6
    I think you're missing some big aspects of the work place. You seek high technology. I suspect it was right there in front of you and you didn't recognize it. Not everything looks cool on a computer, goes bang, or goes really fast. Engineering can be very subtle.

    In any case, seeking a Master's degree is not a bad thing. Nevertheless, you should get the degree with some idea of where you'd like to work. Where do you want to be?

    It may sound silly, but when I went to school, I wanted to play with some high tech communications. I wanted to work with spacecraft. And then the economy for engineers took a turn for the worse. I looked at what I was doing and realized that I was working with some interesting technology that wasn't "rocket science" cool, but nevertheless was very essential. Meanwhile, my brother who really was doing "rocket science" working on one of the Reagan era Star-Wars projects was out of a job. I chose the field I'm in and I haven't looked back.

    You don't have to do everything you want to do professionally. I have done a lot on the side as well as a ham radio enthusiast. You can do the same. Small scale chemistry experiments can be quite practical --especially these days when you can order virtually any reagent or metal you might want online. Your job doesn't have to be the love of your life all the time. In my 30 year career, I've had ups and downs. Sometimes the work was just a way to pay for my other activities. Other times it was the coolest place I could have been.

    YOU are the one who makes your workplace what you want it to be. All you need are some friends who you're willing to work with as both a leader and as a team member depending on what interests you share.
  8. Mar 25, 2016 #7
    high tech.. where i worked. Ha... if by high tech you mean ancient chemistry developed in the 60s, then sure. to my knowledge, today's high tech in that part of my field largely revolves around automation of said technologies. I don't think I missed much... The water treatment guys I worked with were fantastic guys. They showed me a lot about water treatment, and a lot of these chemistries were probably developed in recent years. And they echo your sentiment when they told me that there will always be jobs in water treatment, and they're right, but it's just not my cup of tea, even though it has a broad impact on society. Besides, we pretty much only learned about these techs. It was an entirely different matter getting approval to pay for them; in fact, that was most of my job, getting approvals and pushing paper - it sucked. And I wholly agree that you and the people you work with are huge factors, hence why company fit is a huge factor in candidate selections. I just feel like I can find more like minded people in the tech industry (and research).
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2016
  9. Mar 26, 2016 #8
    You have much to learn, Spectastic. The SR-71 was also developed in the 1960s. Would you say that it wasn't high tech enough for you? Many ideas were originally theorized decades and in some cases even a century or more in the past. Look at those who designed the first working helicopter. The original idea was first suggested by Leonardo Da Vinci. Would you say that Igor Sikorsky was not in to high tech aviation?

    Just because the chemistry is "ancient" doesn't mean you can't improve upon it. As a junior engineer you are not going to be given the reigns of a research project with new chemical processes developed last week. You have to have seen how people fail at stuff first. Any idiot can design something that works once. It takes a very experienced, smart engineer to design something that will work in all expected conditions with safe outcomes for every adverse failure.

    You are not there yet. You're not even close. Your education was just enough to get your foot in the door. Now you need to build experience and learn about safety and security systems, failure analysis, instrumentation design, and so on. I'll give you another news flash: you won't learn those things by getting a MS in ChE. You'll merely be better educated in theory. Engineering is not about the theory. It's about the negotiations, the practicalities, and the practice. Theory is only your starting point.

    Believe me, there is a long way between understanding electrical circuit theory and managing a grid. You can spend years studying the former and still not know a damned thing about the latter. Likewise, you studied the theory of Chemical Engineering. You still haven't seen anything yet. Have you studied the CSB videos? If even one of these videos doesn't elicit a "Gosh, that could have been me" while watching these videos, you're deluding yourself. And in that case, perhaps you really SHOULD stay in the lab and study chemistry. You may not be well suited for the Engineering world after all.
  10. Mar 26, 2016 #9
    in the tech industry, there's this Moore's law that correctly predicted the doubling of a cpu's computing power every 2 years. People are recognizing that batteries have lagged way behind in comparison, and there is now a much greater emphasis on driving the price down and improving the energy density and cyclability of the li ion. How has oil/gas or the chemical industry changed in the last 10 years? Upstream and downstream are night and day... There is absolutely no comparison, and it seems so obvious that I don't understand where all of this lecture is coming from. I'm not trying to be hardheaded. I just have this feeling you think I'm some kind of hot head who's ready to dive into a PhD and start coming out with the next big thing. Don't think I don't know the value of experience. The graduate degree would more or less get my started and steer my in the right direction. I realize the long journey is ahead, and I've stated my ambitions in the first post. But here you are, listing all the reasons why you think I'm totally clueless about where I'm going. Everything you have said is based off of your 30 years of experience. Though I agree with some of it, I'm taking it with a grain of salt because I think you're very biased.
  11. Mar 27, 2016 #10
    Moore's so-called "law" was an observation of the power of economics. It is not an observation of technology.

    If you study the history of how a technology develops, you'll notice that certain decisions to take the technology toward a particular direction were really associated with making quick results with the best known and most reliable resources at the time. Those directions get pushed and before long you have an incredibly complex technology centered around what were nearly almost random decisions of what was discovered or developed first.

    That's what happened with battery technology. Engineering decisions got made on what was adequate and easiest to manufacture at the time. That's how the lead-acid car battery came in to being. As the demands on that technology grew, that battery saw further refinement until it became a pretty effective technology even though fundamentally better technologies were bypassed. Keep in mind that it is usually easier to refine something well understood and already in production than it is to throw it away and build something entirely different.

    Today, everyone is looking back toward lithium based batteries. Eventually, they'll find tweaks that will make such batteries a suitable replacement for lead-acid. Why? Because the infrastructure and experience exists to improve on Lithium technology. Fuel cells are interesting, but there isn't much infrastructure on that approach --YET.

    You used the term "high-tech." The term "high-tech" is marketing. For an Engineer, there is adequate technology to meet the needs of getting the job done on schedule and on budget. The stuff that impresses most senior engineers are the subtle tweaks that make incredible performance possible. You sneered at a chemical process developed in the 1960s. What's wrong with it? Do you know of a more efficient process that does the same thing that could leverage the existing infrastructure? Do you know why that other process is not in use? If you do, I encourage you to pursue them.

    You sneered at things that "don't change" for ten years or more. The reason they "don't change" is because there is no economic force for them to do so and because the sunk investment costs are so high that nobody can afford to.

    Back to Moore's "Law": The thing that made the computing revolution possible is the pent up demand for computing performance. This resulted in the incredible effort to shrink the computing hardware power needs and sizes. It also doesn't require a whole lot of infrastructure to build. Thus, the power of economics takes hold. The market is world-wide, the demand is high, and the transportation costs are negligible. All of these things work to create a nearly perfect example of economics in action.

    But back to the refinery: we don't have the ability to shrink a refinery to a smaller size. We have environmental laws preventing most smaller scale efforts. We do not have any other technology that currently offers the energy density and storage safety that this technology has. Until we do, there will be no motive for moving away from the current models.

    You have not acknowledged that this is in fact all about money. It is about what things cost, both in societal terms and in practical resource costs. You seek to change the world. You use Moore's "Law" as a reference datum, and then question why we can't do everything else at that rate. Well, someone has to pay for it. Where is that money going to come from, what technologies will you exploit to make this work, what market would it serve, and how will you handle the disruption on society?

    That's why I think you missed one of the big lessons of the work place. This isn't a college campus of big ideas. This is the real world of getting stuff done. If a big idea works, great. But most of the things we do are relatively small things. Just remember that visionaries like Nikolai Tesla never did live to see most of his ideas in their true glory. He died a pauper.
    Last edited: Mar 27, 2016
  12. Mar 27, 2016 #11
    let's clear up some things here.. you were the one who brought up the terms "high tech," or "change the world," or "campus of big ideas." I never referred to any of these things, and I've got a glimpse of industry such that I'm not naive enough to believe in them either.

    you're right, the lack of economic incentive to change (and no way of getting around the laws of thermodynamics) is precisely why oil/gas hasn't changed. in fact, they almost certainly never will, because there is almost no more room for growth, and the next generation of engineers there will be doing the exact things as their predecessors. the higher competition and lower profit margins in downstream manufacturing that causes companies continuously seek ways to improve and innovate are what invigorates my interest to get into it. now, there is real incentive to move from gasoline into EV's, and btw, the lithium ion has already replaced lead acid in these respects. They are better in every way than lead acid or nimh, and their cost is coming down, with more money invested in R&D to make incremental improvements over the next decade. If you don't think that's more exciting than working at a refinery or chemical plant, chugging along with daily operations, then I don't know what to tell you.
  13. Mar 27, 2016 #12
    By the way, Tesla "died a pauper", but he made a lot of money with his patents. Unfortunately he blew it all financing his own projects. Regardless, he was a great success, in my opinion.

    spectastic: "I'd like to enjoy what I do for a living, and be always learning new things."

    That's great, spectastic, but "You can't always get what you want." If one enjoys half one's job, but the other half is just pushing paper and stuff like that, one is doing fine. If you aim for the top of the mountain you'll get part of the way there, at least; but if you aim for the stars you'll just fall flat on your face. At 25, your window of opportunity is closing. You've got 5-10 years to get on a good track. After that you'll have to take what you can get. In other words it's time to get serious.

    My guess is that chemical engineering is better than chemistry for jobs, but a PhD in Chem is better for the job you really want. However I've met PhD's behind the counter at Cumberland Farms. Consider mathematics. It gives you general-purpose skills that apply to any "STEM" job. Employers are always impressed by a math degree, even if it's not exactly what they're looking for.

    Battery technology is exciting, but don't get hung up on it. Look at the situation in medical technology. As soon as it became clear how "hot" it was (10 - 20 years ago) everybody and his sister got into it. There was an article in the Boston Globe 6 months ago about top med-tech graduates from the best universities unable to find a job due to intense competition. Meanwhile a nurse can get work anywhere just for the asking.

    If you have the option to go back to school, do it - now. Chemistry is fine, although Chem Engineering may be better, building on your previous experience - but really, it's not all that important. If you can't decide, don't mull it over a year or two: flip a coin! Work hard, make a great impression on both teachers and fellow students. I followed a similar course at your age. Left school for a "real job" too early, went back to finish (in Math), and it all worked out.

    spectastic: Truth be told, I don't want to spend 5 years in poverty.

    - I don't blame you, and hope that doesn't happen. But it's a lot better than, later on, decades in poverty - at an age where it's getting to be an intolerable burden, instead of a learning experience.

    spectastic: I used to be a chemical engineer for a bad company that treats its employees very poorly. ... I think you're very biased ...

    Wrong attitude. Never be argumentative, bored, or negative; polite, professional, positive outlook is the only way to go. You must have technical skills to be successful; but social skills are as important. Pretend you like everybody, and like what you're doing. If you don't - well, that's why it's called "pretending".

    At the interview, say "after 2 years contributing to the success of the fine Company XYZ, I decided I could make an even greater impact after completing my education in the field of ZYX. Researching your exciting company, it seems the perfect fit for my skills and interests. That's why I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this opening ...." Don't mention money, let them do it. If they ask you to make the coffee, say "I love making coffee! Do you take cream, sugar ...?" - and make the best d--n coffee they ever had. Exaggeration, sure, but you get the idea. Never tell them how smart you are; after 5 minutes conversation, they know.

    Don't think I'm putting you down; I was much worse. At 25, everybody gave me the same advice I, and JakeBrodksyPE, are giving you; but unfortunately I already knew everything, so didn't listen. Well, you'll learn someday; why not today?

    If you do, you'll make out one way or the other - guaranteed. 20 years from now you'll be doing something totally different than you aimed at, but be happy with it.

    Stop planning, start doing. Good luck spectastic!
  14. Mar 27, 2016 #13
    tesla also would've been much more successful had he not been screwed over by vicious sharks like edison or jp morgan, people who unfortunately has taken over the corporate world nowadays and who shape how people view capitalism.

    I don't mean to be negative or anything like that. I would never talk bad about my company in an interview as I would on an internet forum, or indeed reviews (:cool:), where I have no problem speaking my mind. And my comment about jake being biased stems from the fact that he has spent 30 years in one area. Someone who has spent 30 years in academia, for example, would probably share an entirely different philosophy.

    I agree with taking action now. I think what's giving me cold feet is that I made a bad decision staying with that company when I left school, and I may be overcompensating by thinking too hard about my future now... By this point, I've received advice that were all over the map... get a PhD, avoid PhD, get a Masters, a MS won't help you, do what you love, but be realistic. While it's great to get different viewpoints, it's difficult to listen to every single advice.
  15. Mar 27, 2016 #14
    Sorry, but that's how the world is. No law can stop it. If you think a socialist approach would have done better, you're gravely mistaken. As the old Russian joke goes, "In Capitalism, man exploits man; In Socialism the reverse is true."

    Ultimately, you should figure out what you'd like to do. I have doubts you're well suited for Engineering, but since I only know what you've written here, I could be very wrong about that too.

    I know you want to light the world up with new ideas and all that. But you have to crawl before you can walk. Go get yourself a Master's degree. Just understand that nobody is going to kiss your diploma and hand you a position of authority overnight. You need to earn credibility and authority. Nobody in their right mind will just give it to you because you graduated with a degree. You need realistic plans, and a notion of what sort of place you'd like to work in. Or, if you're really sure of the technology you'd like to bring forward, you can go raise capital and push the ideas yourself. Do note that for every venture like this that succeeds, many more fail.

    I wish you the best of luck, and I hope you find whatever you're looking for.
  16. Mar 27, 2016 #15
    Thanks for the kind words. I suppose there's not much more left to discuss other than enroll and start proving people wrong..
  17. Mar 27, 2016 #16
    Of course you can be negative here if you want, it's not a job interview. Note, older people love giving advice, and for some reason such advice is always sincere, even if their habitual mode is lying. Problem is, they're usually telling you, one way or another, what they should have done back then. May or may not apply to you. What I should have done back then: Keep at it, don't worry so much, and have a positive attitude. Probably applies to you ...

    EDIT: just noticed last post above ... go for it!
  18. Mar 27, 2016 #17
    secur, just know that the reason I give advice is because I received a lot of advice and mentoring from many whom I can never repay. If this advice helps, then I hope you pay it forward. If it doesn't then you're most welcome to call me anything you like.
  19. Mar 27, 2016 #18
    JakeBrodskyPE, sorry, the comment was not about you, but re-reading my post I see it could be interpreted that way. Spectastic has listened to many ("I've received advice that were all over the map"). The point of my comment: it's all well-meant, because even people who sometimes aren't sincere - not you, who don't show the slightest hint of that - become sincere when advising young people; that's just a fact I've noticed with amusement over the years. However, none of these advisers - you, me, anyone - knows definitely what's best for his particular circumstances. For example, as you pointed out, we can't know his ability based on a few posts. He should listen to all then make his own decision. Nothing to do with you specifically, whose advice is much more valuable than mine, given your experience in spectastic's own field. Rather my comment is generic advice about advice: meta-advice.
  20. Mar 28, 2016 #19
    Jake, I saw this today and it made me think of your contribution of this thread.
    HVAC Techs — Hackers who make house calls
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