What it was Like to Major in Chemical Engineering

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The chemical engineering major experience as told by a recent grad. Engineering students look at red and green chemicals in two glasses.
What I thought chemical engineering would be like.

I majored in chemical engineering at UC San Diego (UCSD) between 2014-2018. Going into college, I had some ideas about what it would be like to major in chemical engineering. I thought I would stay up all night studying chemistry then spend all day in a lab mixing chemicals together. When I actually started college, I found out how far off my expectations were from reality. Here’s what it was actually like to major in chemical engineering.

What is Chemical Engineering?

Chemical engineering is all about process design. As the engineer, you look for ways to create or improve a production process using engineering principles. The typical job title of a chemical engineer is a “process engineer”. If you look around, almost everything that you see had a chemical engineer involved at some point in its creation. The processors in your phone went through many processing steps (cleaning, etching, baking, etc.) to create the tiny circuits. Your toothpaste was produced through the correct mixture of sodium fluoride, water, glycerin, and other chemicals. It’s actually hard to make a list of things that did not have a chemical engineer involved in their creation. Feel free to try me in the comments.

Lots of Math, Science, Chemistry, and Engineering

I started my first year with standard math, physics, and chemistry courses that almost all STEM majors have to take. Many of them were required for other courses I needed to take later. At UCSD, I didn’t get to take any pure engineering courses until my 2nd year.

Once I got into my 2nd and 3rd years, I started taking advanced chemistry and chemical engineering courses. The chemical engineering courses come as a series, with each course being a requirement for the next. Each course goes over one aspect of process design, such as process modeling, heat and mass transfer, and control systems.

With the chemical engineering courses, I had to take a few classes in “an area of specialization”. These courses belong to a discipline other than chemical engineering, but somewhat in the same scope. My focus was microelectronic devices and materials.

Overall, I took on average 4 classes per quarter, including the general education classes all UCSD students take. For a full list of the curriculum with specific course numbers, you can go to UCSD’s nanoengineering department. I roughly followed their outline, but took some classes a little bit earlier.

You Get Some Practical Experience, But Not Much

Hands-on lab experience is the first thing that many employers look for when hiring chemical engineers. They want to see that you have real-world, practical experience. Most of the stuff you learn in class almost never directly transfers to what you will do at work. Even if it does, you will probably have to look it up again anyways. At UCSD, we had some hands-on coursework, but not that much. UCSD required me to take 5 hands-on lab courses in total to graduate with a chemical engineering degree. This is enough to say that you have some lab experience, but not enough to stand out from the competition.

In my 4th year, we gained some real-world experience working on our senior project. These projects came directly from open-ended competitions hosted by an organization or a company. For my group project, we designed a high temperature corrosion resistant recycling system for NaNOx gases. At the end, we created a poster and presented it in a small in-class poster competition.

Overall, I got enough experience to say “yes” when someone asked if I had lab experience. But, it was hard to convince them that I know what I’m doing in lab. If I could go back, I would have tried to take more lab-based courses where possible. An even better option would have been to work on a wet-lab research project for one of my professors.

Majoring in Chemical Engineering was Not as Hard as People Said

Many people warned me about how chemical engineering is one of the hardest engineering majors. My dentist told me, “people will worship you as a god for finishing a chemE degree”. One of my upper classmen told me, “fluid dynamics is just as hard as everyone says it is”. He also said, “I started hallucinating in class because of sleep deprivation”.

In my experience, studying chemical engineering was not as hard as people told me. I never had to pull an all-nighter (but did stay up late doing work once in a while). I still had time to do other things like side projects, research, chinese lion dance, and church. It all comes down to time management. If I waited until the night before to study or do an assignment, then of course I had to stay up late. Overall, I didn’t have to do anything extreme to graduate with a decent GPA.

The classes themselves were not that hard either. In fact, the chemical engineering courses were actually easier than the chemistry courses. It all depended on the curve. In engineering, many people weren’t too concerned with getting high grades. Many just wanted to graduate and did enough to get by. In chemistry courses, there were many pre-med students who depended on high grades to get them into med school. These students set the curve much higher and I had to work harder to get a decent grade.

Career Prospects for the Chemical Engineering Major

Most of what you learn will not translate to your actual job (as with most majors). However, a major in chemical engineering will build a strong foundation for you in math, science, and engineering. This will help you learn anything you need to learn for any job pretty quickly.

Because of the breadth of skills in the sciences, you have a lot of career options. You can do physics, chemistry, math, bioengineering, patent law, investment banking, and more. You could even get into law school, med school, business school, or a coding bootcamp if you wanted.

While you do have many options, you will still have to work hard to be a competitive applicant. Just having a degree doesn’t make you stand out anymore. Everywhere you go, you will face competition (regardless of your major). You will have to go above and beyond the degree requirements to prove your worth to your employer.

On another note, your job options will be restricted if you want to stay in an area of your choice. This is especially true if you want to get into a certain industry. Typically, companies doing this type of work have production plants. These plant locations are sometimes restricted by environmental regulations and state laws. Because of this, you might have a hard time finding a job in silicon valley, LA, or your hometown.

Final Thoughts on the Chemical Engineering Major

Looking back to my college years, majoring in chemical engineering was a worthwhile experience for me. I enjoyed the variety of classes and the many career options I had. The coursework was tough, but not impossible. The coursework developed my critical thinking and problem solving skills which can be applied anywhere I go.

In terms of career prospects, I did find companies hiring my major. However, the location choices were limited compared to other fields and the competition was somewhat high.

Would I major in chemical engineering again if I had a choice? If it were just for learning purposes, yes. If it were for finding a job, I would probably pick a major that has more job opportunities. Probably computer science. The job prospects aren’t that bad, but there are better options out there.

If you enjoyed reading, subscribe to pokethejoe and you will be the first to know when I post something new. If you majored in chemical engineering yourself, let me know if you had a different experience in the comments.

Joe Wong

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