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What does a chemical engineering degree get you?

Posted on February 22nd, 2016 by in New Materials & Applications


When I started graduate school in Chemical Engineering at the University of California Berkeley, I thought I would be a professor. I liked research, I liked my classes and most of all, I liked being in college. I figured if I liked being in college so much, it would only get better as a professor. Many of my fellow classmates felt similarly – most of us figured we’d become professors. After all, that’s what you do with a PhD, right?

It didn’t take me too long to figure out the flaw in my plan; I love science, but I am impatient.  Academic research doesn’t lend itself well to the impatient.  I was interested in what I could do today, not as much what I could learn and pass on tomorrow.  Given this realization, my thoughts turned to “what do I do now?”

My first thought was industrial research. I’d join a company making products in an area I cared about so then I could be sure that my research was going to impactful things in the real world. However, as I looked into that path and spoke more with industrial researchers, I again felt my impatient side would take over.  Research is an enormously important area, but it wasn’t what I needed to feel productive in my career.

So, after looking at all types of careers I “turned to the dark side”, as my academic colleagues call it, and became a management consult at McKinsey and Company. In some ways this was a total non sequitur in my career. I was no longer spending any time in a lab; I wasn’t talking about science all day long. In fact, I was mostly talking about how to run a business and what strategic decisions would make sense.  However, in other ways, it was a natural next step coming out of my PhD. I was using the logical and analytical training used in my PhD research every day. Instead of designing experiments, I was building businesses, assessing strategic paths, determining how to move forward to advance technical and industrial progress. Most of my clients were companies with a strong focus on technology and innovation. I helped them to navigate commercialization and business strategy development for those new technologies and innovations.  Science wasn’t gone from my life, I was now on the commercialization side of it.

Eventually, as many folks do, I found that consulting was leaving me eager for more – I wanted to be on the doing team rather than the recommending team. So I took the next step of moving to a company that combined my technical expertise with my business skills learned at McKinsey. I now work for a small company that develops new materials for difficult chemical separations. I am Head of Business Development, which lets me sit at the perfect intersection of technical understanding and commercial reality. I have to be technically adept to help determine how our products will fit in the marketplace and be useful for our customers. I also have to figure out what strategic direction makes the most sense for us to maximize our value.

There are more and more people earning PhDs and most of us do not become professors. Whether you end up in a career that’s directly tied to the research you did in graduate school or not, the analytical skills and logic training from an engineering PhD program are invaluable in whatever career you find yourself in. And while it’s a bit of a cliché, the chances that you will take a direct route through your career are pretty low. Enjoy the ride.

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