Please help me give advice to my brother about a chemical engineering phd
June 23, 2011 6:44 AM   Subscribe

I'm worried my brother might be making the wrong decision about his degree. He has a fellowship and is well on the way to getting a phd, but he is thinking of stopping at a masters so he can get a job. The reasons he gives seem naive to me, but I don't know anything about this field. I'm worried he's going to end up being bored and unfulfilled because he's focused on short term goals.

My brother is in a chemical engineering program and is working on biofuels. He seems unsure about the future, and also seems overly concerned about making money in the short term. He took a test for a plant operator job this week, and is thinking he'll quit school so that he'll get experience and make money. He says his friends make 6 figures in that job (though I asked if that was with overtime, and he said yes).

When I ask him, he says he wants to improve his credit (why? "because employers check credit before hiring someone") and he can make more money if he's hired.

He also says that he'll get experience at that job, whereas he doesn't get experience working as a grad student. So he'll have better prospects if he works as a plant operator. But, it doesn't seem to me that he'll get engineering experience, so if he wants to do engineering work, he shouldn't get derailed. His take is that a plant operator job gets him "in the door" so that he can eventually get an engineering position.

That sounds really naive to me, but I'm looking at this from the point of view as a software engineer. And as someone who spent a lot of time in college living with physics grad students. I don't know if my observations from my job field and from watching physics grad students applies to the chemical engineering field.

I've seen this question, but I still don't feel like I have much insight.

I feel like I'm failing to be supportive. I've been pointing out that he should question his assumptions about the career possibilities of starting as a plant operator if he really wants to do engineering. I've pointed out that he shouldn't make decisions because he feels panicked about his credit and about his income right now. I've pointed out that ultimately he should follow the path that leads to him having a happier life, which includes all kinds of factors, like how much free time he'll have, or how much time he spends on doing things he likes. (I mean, watching other people in academia, some might spend a lot of time in a lab, but they also might find it fulfilling).

I also told him to ignore fake deadlines (like when he says that he shouldn't date people until he has some amount of income, etc.)

sorry for the rambling, but I am having a hard time articulating this.
posted by bleary to Work & Money (45 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It is so much harder to go back to school after you've been out. One of my big regrets in life is not going straight through. (And I went to work for all the same reasons he says.) He can always look for some kind of internship to get experience.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 6:50 AM on June 23, 2011

I feel like I'm failing to be supportive.

With all due respect, there is a good reason for you to be feeling this way.

Your concerns are coming from a good place, but this is your brother's life, and thus his choices are his to make. You've given him a lot of information, but it sounds like you are further expecting him to process that information in a specific way.

Having that expectation, however, disregards the fact that your brother is a different individual with a different set of priorities, and thus will have a different way of processing the information you're giving him. And the most supportive thing to do is to respect his right to draw his own best conclusion about the information available to him, and make his own best choice based on the available information and his own personal priorities.

Sure, he may be making a mistake. But you have done all you can to keep him from making it, by giving him all that information -- and the choice is now his to make, and if you truly want to support him, respect his own mind. Be the soft place to land if things really screw up, but respect his own decision. Because it is his life.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:51 AM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Unlike Green Eyes up there, I am glad I didn't go straight from undergrad to grad school. Grad students who hadn't worked for a few years seemed to be lacking some perspective. They were worried about grades and how well they were doing in the program. I was there to learn and get a notch in my resume. I think I had more fun as a result, so YMMV.

He already has an undergrad degree, which is enough to succeed in engineering. Plant operations is interesting (some folks might even say fun) and concrete in a way getting a PhD isn't. It's also expected in a lot of places that engineers can continue (or begin) a PhD while working full time. This is not the end of the road for him.

He'll be fine and it's his decision to make anyway.
posted by pjaust at 7:03 AM on June 23, 2011 [7 favorites]

Completing a Ph.D. requires a huge commitment ... with sometimes little pay-off to show for. It is a daunting task, too often underestimated by people that go dreamily into it. Perhaps your brother is realizing this, at some level, but feels ashamed of saying something that would make him appear as not being up to the task.

Regardless of his (true) reasons, now that you have stated your "objections", you should respect his choice ... and be ready to be there to commiserate with him if his choice turns out to be the wrong one..
posted by aroberge at 7:03 AM on June 23, 2011

Quitting your program with an MEng instead of a PhD is not necessarily the wrong choice. The only thing he should consider is to see if the school will give him a leave of absence for a year or two so his options are open. After that, let it be. I don't know anyone who regrets leaving their PhD program without the doctorate.
posted by jeather at 7:10 AM on June 23, 2011

Response by poster: In case it wasn't clear, he's in grad school right now.
posted by bleary at 7:43 AM on June 23, 2011

I know a bunch of physicists who left grad programs midway through with a master's instead of getting the PhD. They almost universally are happier people now. And a physics master's isn't even useful for employment the way an engineering one is. If he's sick of grad school, he shouldn't be there any more.

Bonus points of course if he can manage to not close doors when he goes; he might be able to take a leave of absence from his program to work for a year or two while still getting automatic readmission.
posted by nat at 7:51 AM on June 23, 2011

Best answer: I have a friend who was a very talented physics major in college, and I asked him why he was going straight into a PhD program upon graduating. He explained that in his field (I don't know if this was physics in general, or a particular sub-field) there was an expectation that you go straight through, and that not doing so can hurt your grad school admissions chances and career opportunities. Is it possible that your physics grad student friends experienced the same pressure? From what I can observe, it's a fairly unique situation--time off between undergrad and grad school, or Masters and PhD, seen as a negative rather than neutral or even positive choice--that is not especially relevant to other grad school programs and careers.

Also, your brother doesn't owe you a good explanation for doing one responsible thing (taking a Masters and getting a job) rather than another responsible thing (getting his PhD in chemical engineering). Frankly, he wouldn't owe you an explanation even if he were dropping out with no degree to go work at McDonald's. The less you push him to explain himself and justify his choices, the better. He has some odd worries regarding his credit score and dating as a grad student? OK. If he asks you, "Do you think I should be worried?" you can say, "No." But until then, he's not hurting himself or anyone else. Say he takes the job and finds out you were right: he doesn't get to do any engineering. OK. He can talk to his supervisor and see if there's a way to transition into a different role, or he can quit and go back to school after having gotten some work experience (any is better than none) and made some money (he seems concerned about his finances). Either way, it's fine. He'll be fine.

I'm not criticizing your heartfelt concern for your brother, I'm just suggesting you take a step back. He's heard your point of view: it sounds like he's just not interesting in taking your advice on this.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:29 AM on June 23, 2011

Response by poster: EmpressCallipygos: "[...] Your concerns are coming from a good place, but this is your brother's life, and thus his choices are his to make. You've given him a lot of information, but it sounds like you are further expecting him to process that information in a specific way. [...] "

Well, exactly. I'm trying to be careful about that. I've erred on the side of not giving any guidance before, and I'm trying not to make that mistake.
posted by bleary at 8:36 AM on June 23, 2011

As somebody in academia, I always tell prospective grad students that they should only do a phd if they cannot imagine doing anything else with their life. Although less so in chemistry, a phd is a lonely pursuit where the amount of work often doesn't predict the amount of reward. I wouldn't encourage somebody to quit when they're very close to finishing and simply frustrated, but I think that it's perfectly reasonable to leave a program after getting a master's degree. In fact, making leaving easier is one of the reasons why programs give a master's degree after people finish their coursework.

Instead of trying to change your brother's mind regarding dropping out, maybe focus on convincing him to take a leave of absence from his phd program. If this is possible, he can try to the job and then go back if his passion is really in lab research. There is, however, absolutely nothing wrong with leaving the program before he finishes the dissertation.
posted by eisenkr at 8:41 AM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Meg_Murry: "[...] I'm not criticizing your heartfelt concern for your brother, I'm just suggesting you take a step back. He's heard your point of view: it sounds like he's just not interesting in taking your advice on this"

But I haven't given him direct advice. I don't want him to stick with a phd program if that's not what he wants to do. He also loves(?) working on cars. If he loves that, and doesn't love research, I think he should do what he loves.

So far, I've pointed out that there are things to keep in mind when deciding what to do, and sent him links to

How to be happy

The Psychology of Happiness: 13 Steps to a Better Life

Because they give concrete examples of things people do that contribute to life happiness.

My attitude is to present concrete things to consider while he's making decisions. He has a lot of friends involved with building cars so he can make good observations about that field, but fewer friends involved in chemical engineering and academia so he doesn't have as many observations to draw on.

The idea about a leave of absence is pretty good. I appreciate that suggestion, and passed it on to him as a possibility.
posted by bleary at 8:47 AM on June 23, 2011

Best answer: I think that some of the answerers are kind of missing the nut of bleary's question. If her brother were to quit with a Master's and get a job working for a biofuels startup, I doubt she'd be asking this, but her brother, a trained chemical engineer on the cusp of getting a graduate degree in the field, is planning on quitting to get a job as a plant-operator, making what is presumably an hourly wage (not a bad job by any means, in an objective sense).

Yes, your brother's perspective is naive. Yes, he's choosing the allure of "quick" money over something that might be more professionally, intellectually, and probably financially rewarding over the long term. He doesn't seem to have much idea of how Chemical Engineers get jobs. I'm guessing there aren't many engineers in your family and that he doesn't have many friends in his field. Possibly he didn't get very many internships in his field, opting maybe for summer jobs in construction/lifeguarding/etc. that were close to home that paid well.

But that's his value system. I'm guessing further that he chose chemical engineering because he looked at a list of "college degrees listed by average salary after graduation" and saw that Chemical Engineering was the highest.

The best advice you could give him, I think, would be to tell him to apply for a high-paying chemical engineering job that would possibly even pay more than the plant operator job.

I guess what I'm saying is two things: your brother has a different set of priorities than you do. I suspect that if he could have gotten a plant operator job without going to college, he would have taken it. Second, if you are concerned for his professional future, appeal to his desire for money and point him in the direction of well-paying ChemE jobs.
posted by deanc at 9:02 AM on June 23, 2011

Response by poster: deanc: "[...] I'm guessing there aren't many engineers in your family and that he doesn't have many friends in his field. [...]"

Yes! that is the problem. We come from a working poor background and I have a CS/Psyc BS degree and a programming job (not *real* engineering) and he has the Chem E BS and can decide to get a Masters or get a Phd. My dad dropped out of highschool, and my mom doesn't have any college.

He doesn't have much input at all from the rest of us in the family, and my experience is only vaguely related.

Thanks for the insight.
posted by bleary at 9:24 AM on June 23, 2011

He doesn't have much input at all from the rest of us in the family, and my experience is only vaguely related.

As a software engineer, you could point out that you don't generally become a software architect by "getting your foot in the door" taking a job in system administration. Just like you don't end up in corporate management by "getting your foot in the door" as a secretary. Another good bet would be for him to talk to someone in career counseling at his university to give him a better idea of what his options are.

I totally see what your concerns are, but it sounds to me that while he's clearly a smart guy, he's may not really be interested in the intellectual/professional/personal/cultural rewards of a career in engineering. His friends are plant operators (I'm guessing they were not his ChemE classmates), and he sounds like he'd be happy making what he sees as "really good money" as a plant operator.

I guess my question is, how much does he really want to be an engineer vs. how much does he just want to make a middle class salary? If Chemical Engineering and biofuels are his passions, and he likes working with other Chemical Engineers, point him in the direction of his college's career office who can show him what good, well-paid ChemE jobs are available for him, right now. Or he could take a leave of absence and do a year-long paid Chemical Engineering internship with a company he's interested in (maybe one his advisor is collaborating with). But if he doesn't really care, he's probably just happy to have a good take-home salary that allows him to live much better than the way you guys grew up.

In any case, he's naive now, but generally if you want to, you can figure out how the world really works by the time you're 30, and he can probably work out his life at that point. But he may well just be satisfied with what he's choosing.

There also seem to be some interesting social class dynamics going on that are really beyond the scope of your question.
posted by deanc at 9:53 AM on June 23, 2011

As a new engineer without any plant experience, it is pretty tough to get decent jobs out there right now. I'm pretty much in your brother's shoes right now. When I got my bachelors degree in May 2009 there were 5 of us out of 25 total with job offers. These 5 had done several internships and co-ops while in school. Some of us got job offers down the road in the neighborhood of 35-50k, which is bottom dollar for chemical engineers. I decided that kind of money is a slap in the face and that getting offered 30k a year and almost all my tuition costs covered in grad school would be a better option. While it could be "dangerous" to keep going to school without any type of engineering experience, my conclusion was that this was one of several of the better options before me.

I also make money working on cars, so I can work on cars on the side when I am in a bind. I, too, also decided to go into a PhD program, mainly because the pay was 1k more a month than the Masters program and my tuition was covered. I have gotten my PhD core classes out of the way and passed the qualifier with flying colors. I am working on a couple papers right now. My adviser sees about 5 papers necessary to complete my PhD, as we have a pretty good map of what to do. Now the market for refining and chemicals is getting a little better in my area, and I decided to get a Master's in Chemical Engineering. I basically have to write a Master's Thesis and will be done. I really don't have any life goals here, other than getting established and well-respected in the engineering community. So whatever it takes, whether it be a BS, MES or PhD....I really don't care. I know even a BS is good enough to live a comfortable life. When the getting starts to get good for jobs and getting experience, it may very be well a great idea to go get experience.

As for an operator job, it is a pretty good deal depending on the schedule. Many engineers work overtime without getting paid for it, and many people have different versions of what they like as far as scheduling goes. The operators I know work a series of 8 12's, where they have a few days off in a row, and once a month they have 8 days off in a row. If this is something your brother likes, it is a good way to get a foot in the door in the plants. Operators are also making more than entry-level chemical engineers, and many engineers I've talked to have said it is a good idea to consider a job as an operator.
posted by mikesrex at 9:55 AM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: mikesrex: "As a new engineer without any plant experience, it is pretty tough to get decent jobs out there right now. I'm pretty much in your brother's shoes right now. [...]"

It is not cool to be disingenuous like this here. Please respect the community.

To the rest of the crowd: I pointed my brother to this thread, and I did not expect him to sign up and be coy about his identity. I apologize.
posted by bleary at 10:08 AM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

haha I got snitched out. It's cool I just wanted to see if someone would figure it out. I also think I would get more genuine answers if whoever read this didn't know I was me lol. Anyways back on topic.

I just don't see the point in taking bottom dollar for an engineering job to get experience when I can take good money to get the same experience that will help me get a decent engineering job in the future. I don't see an operator job as "easy money" in the short term, although it is what it is. I see it as a better stepping stone to an engineer job in the future when compared to the BS they try to offer us right now. I'm also applying for some engineering jobs that I would want to take, but I'm just not sure if I want to move from this area just yet. My parents are old and my father is getting close to that time where he can retire. I would feel much better knowing he is settled in and retired well before I move away.

Fact is I come from a poor family. I've worked real jobs since I was 16 and even worked before that to make money mowing lawns, fixing stuff...whatever it took to get money to buy what I wanted.

I honestly feel out of place among most of the engineers I went to school with, because they are, for the most part, guys and girls who haven't an ounce of common sense or had to work to earn a living. Most of them have engineers as parents or come from rich families. They are there because their parents forced them into it. I'm not one of those guys... I made the Chemical Engineering program look easy while all of the "smart" people struggled through it. I took the PhD core classes and passed the qualifier with flying colors while some of the "smart" people failed. I like figuring out things that are hard to figure out. I like solving puzzles and making things work better.

As for my PhD, well I was hired on as a grad student to work on a fuel cell project. I thought it was a cool project. After being hired I was told I would work on a biofuels project. Well guess what, I really don't like the principle of making fuel from food, and I also don't like the principle of having to write proposals begging some government entity for money on a project like this. If biodiesel plants didn't get huge government subsidies they wouldn't exist as they currently do. Sure, I think it's good to subsidize some industries so we have food and essential things we would need if we went to war, but some things are just not needed. My research would be good enough to get a run of the mill PhD and prove to potential employers that I can do an independent study, but that's not what I want. If I get a PhD I want it to be based on some research I think is cool and something I can say is my "claim to fame" not some run of the mill stuff.
posted by mikesrex at 10:29 AM on June 23, 2011


You're making some really good points that I often hear from first generation college students. I'm not going to say if you should stay or go, I'm going to suggest to you what my organization focuses on for all of our students: making sure that you are making a free decision/informed choice (FDIC). Free, in that you are conscious of all of the internal and external factors that are influencing your decision, like family concerns, or feeling like an outsider at university, of your friends, or your personal frustrations, or the desire to make money. Informed, in that you fully understand the full range of career choices available to you if you pursue a MS or if you have a PhD. You've looked at job descriptions, both for the next job you'd take with either degree, as well as what jobs open up for you five or ten years down the road. Personally, unless there is a research area you are committed to pursuing, or it's obvious that there are career paths that you want to pursue where a PhD degree is required, or at least will command a significantly higher salary, I don't think a PhD is the right path for people.

Really, ignore how 'smart' your fellow students are. University at its best is also about being a venue where you can inform yourself because you have access to the resources and alumni to inform yourself. Just make sure you have sufficient information to make that informed decision, either by talking to people in your field, or looking at job descriptions, or online research, etc., to be able to explain to someone else what career paths are for a PhD level engineer vs a MS or BS level engineer. Before you move in either direction, ask yourself if there is additional information you would like to know before you make a choice, and resist any internal or external pressure to make that decision before you have sufficient information. Take a leave of absence, and work, AND use the time to figure out if it is worth returning. Use the time to ask five later stage PhD level engineers in different career paths what they think a the pros and cons of the MS vs. phD. Figure out what type of work you like to do, and then figure out what skills and experience and education you need to have to experience that. So don't focus on the degree, focus on informing yourself about whatever you might be missing about optimal career paths, and then let that shape what degree is right for you, and if it is worth all of the bull a person has to go through to obtain the PhD.
posted by anitanita at 11:24 AM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

The PhD route can be a very tough one to follow. I am in a similar circumstance of trying to navigating the course of my academic career.

Bleary: One thing that has been mentioned is the course content of a good engineering curriculum. What separates engineering from Physics or Chemistry is problem solving skills and tool utilization. From mikesrex's posts, I can see where he is coming from. A lot of people go through there undergrad and sometimes even grad life without learning or embracing these skills. Most treat it as a content curriculum like a hard science when in reality it isn't. I have found skills learned in engineering can be applied to ANY field and in fact applied very effectively. What you start realizing is that it is not so much the content that matters (electricity, chemistry, civil, etc.) because content can be learned relatively easily. What matters is the problem solving and multi-dimensional optimization tricks that a good student should pick up on.

Furthermore, PhDs are NOT worth it if you don't have a 100% interest in what you are researching. It's a long hard road and there is not usually a set benefit from choosing M.S. vs. PhD. Essentially, you should only go that route if you are 100% interested, as I mentioned before, and you are willing to make the many sacrifices that PhD programs require. Maybe he doesn't want to go to his 10 year high school reunion without ever having worked yet. Maybe he just doesn't care about research. The fact is that no college vs college is not the same argument as M.S. vs PhD.

However, it is also good that you care for him and are concerned about his future. Sometimes though, people are more intentional then they let on from brief conversations. That's why sometimes it is important to give your advice with no strings attached. If it is completely off based, well, then you will learn something new about the person. If it isn't, then are helping them along. Win-win situation if you ask me.

mikesrex: I know exactly what you mean about many engineering students being clueless. Most of them are very good at "school" which makes them perceived as "smart." They do the homework, get the grades, etc. but have no real concept of what they are actually doing. As I said above, most people learn the content but glaze over what engineering is really about: the problem solving skills. If you can recognize these, you are well ahead of the pack. This single idea is what separates your rank and file engineer from the people who really do groundbreaking work and make a difference.

I am track to graduating as a EE. Will I become an engineer? Probably not. I might apply the tools and skills I learned to some other field where I am not playing with oscilloscopes everyday. If I were to engineer an efficient company using the tools I have learned, does that make me any less of an engineer? I say no. Engineering is a set of tools to complete projects and advance ideas. What these projects and ideas are can be irrelevant at some point. Many engineers switch between different majors because they have seen this point. There is a lot of overlap and the experience tends to be the same.
posted by mungaman at 11:27 AM on June 23, 2011

bleary: please back off, it's your brother's life --- not yours! --- and your brother's decisions to make.

mikesrex: go forth, have a good life, and make your own decisions.
posted by easily confused at 2:13 PM on June 23, 2011

thanks for all the input everyone. i love listening to others' perspectives

the one thing that makes me LOL is that you guys suggest I take a leave of absence. I have bills to pay and need these things called food, transportation and a place to live. I don't want to be homeless LMAO. I work 7 days a week as it is right now just to live comfortably. If I'm not in my lab I'm building motors, fabbing up turbo kits, tuning cars, etc..... I don't know what this thing called "a day off" really is LOL.
posted by mikesrex at 2:29 PM on June 23, 2011

the one thing that makes me LOL is that you guys suggest I take a leave of absence.

A leave of absence is where you go "on leave" from graduate school and get a job, and then return to graduate school if you choose. (I did this. I did not become homeless and starving because during my leave I worked for a consulting company. A friend has been "on leave" from his PhD program for more than a decade-- he's not starving, either, or, for that matter, going back to grad school).

I realize that you feel you have a better handle on things than your fellow graduate students and probably some of your professors, but it may help to start talking to your grad students and postdocs to see what they did, what they're planning to do, and how they got to where they are. You say you love listening to others' perspectives-- this is your chance! Talk to people who were in a PhD program and left after an MS to get a job. Talk to people who took a year or two off between MS and PhD to work!
posted by deanc at 2:37 PM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Going on a leave of absence from one's graduate program is not just taking time off and doing nothing. Usually people have a job lined up, say, for example, working for a cool startup. Or, people may choose to do a year-long internship in a company.

I do agree that you need to talk to people in your department further along the PhD (and beyond). I think the concern that many people, including your sister, are expressing is that you are not doing a full cost-benefit analysis regarding whether to finish your Ph.D. It would also be good to talk to alumni from your program to get an idea of what they are doing and how the graduate education helped them (or not) get where they are.

And, one's dissertation work is rarely one's "claim to fame." In a lot of fields it's simply your "hunting license" so you can go on to do research that you find exciting, because other people will give you money to do so as you have proven your ability to do research by obtaining your Ph.D.
posted by needled at 2:47 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

The people in my department say "go to work" if I get a good job offer. Job experience is the key to being established in my area.
posted by mikesrex at 2:57 PM on June 23, 2011

The people in my department say "go to work" if I get a good job offer.

We are encouraging you to develop a greater understanding about what a "good" job offer is, rather than getting distracted by the first shiny object that comes along ("ooo! decent salary!").

anitanita is 100% right-- this is all about making a "free decision/informed choice". AskMeFi has a long history of warning about the consequences of doing a Ph.D., so no one is encouraging you to stay if that's not what you want. What the advice here tends to be about is, "understand what you want to do with your life and what your career path is."

One of the best things I got out of my long academic career was the chance to have a lot of friends and colleagues who made a lot of different career decisions, so I had an idea of what all the possibilities were. Situations where I felt where I could have made better decisions were because I didn't know what other options were available: the world is a big place.

Job experience is the key to being established in my area.

Is job experience as a plant operator something that gets you established in the kind of chemical engineering job that you want? (I don't really know, it's not my field, but I don't remember any of my ChemE friends doing that) That is the question you should be asking your department friends and colleagues. If someone were to quit graduate school because he wanted "job experience" in his planned career as a software architect or researcher but told me he was taking a job as a sysadmin, I'd take him aside and advise that he consider other job possibilities and put more effort into finding out what leads to the career path he wanted.

There's something one of my high school coaches told me, which was, "practice doesn't make perfect. perfect practice makes perfect." Generic "experience" doesn't get you the career you want. The right experience leads you to what you want.
posted by deanc at 3:30 PM on June 23, 2011

I've been told by people looking for experienced engineers that operator experience in a plant will help land me an engineering job. Whether it's true or not who knows.

I just want a steady income where I can do what I want to do. I enjoy building and tuning cars, and that is not the type of business to have a steady income unless I have a huge customer base. It helps get me by while in school, but I am not at a point where I am comfortable depending solely on that kind of income to survive.
posted by mikesrex at 3:58 PM on June 23, 2011

I went to grad school directly out of undergrad (well, 9 months after undergrad). Mechanical Engineering. The primary reason was because it was 2002 and I couldn't find a job. I found an advisor at the local (large) state university that offered me a research assistant position that6 came with a monthly stipend. Barely enough to live on, but it paid the bills.

I wasn't particularly passionate about the research subject, but I slogged through it. I didn't hate it, but I didn't particularly love it. However, there were some really interesting days and finishing my Thesis is still something I'm proud of.

I was offered to stay on to get my PhD, but I turned it down. I didn't have a job lined up, but I knew that the longer I stayed in grad school, the more narrow my focus would become and I didn't want to get stuck in a specialized field that I had no passion for. Also, I was tired of not having any money.

Personally, I don't think a grad degree is really required for engineering, especially chemical engineering which is usually one the higher paid degrees. For me, the degree basically gave me a couple years of credit experience-wise, which helped out a bit at salary time.

If you just want to work, I don't know why you'd want to stick with the PhD. It's a LOT of work and honestly, I think you have to really want it to keep going. If you don't know what you want to do or you definitely want to get into a nice research and development position, I think the PhD can help with that.

I had so many sleepless nights trying to determine if I wanted to stick with the PhD or not and in the end, I realized it just wasn't for me.

So, to answer the question, I don't think it's naive to not pursue the PhD, but I *would* finish out the Masters since even just having the Masters would be beneficial and allow you to reap that investment (rather than abandoning the work prematurely).

for what it's worth since people have mentioned it (not sure why it matters) but I'm also first-generation college-bound in my family, but I don't think this fact affected my decisions.
posted by johnstein at 5:42 PM on June 23, 2011

and it looks like I partially misunderstood the question. I read 'plant operator' as a plant management position, but I think it meant working on the line.

Most of my comment still stands. Finish the Masters and decide if the PhD is something you'd really want to pursue. If you don't want the PhD, there's no point suffering out of obligation, especially if you have a plan on getting a job, saving money, and working toward your ideal job.

Just don't be surprised if your operator job doesn't lead to your ideal engineering job in the same plant. That shouldn't be a factor in the decision.
posted by johnstein at 5:45 PM on June 23, 2011

I'm almost finished with my Master's Thesis, and I graduate either in August or most likely December. I just don't see the Master in Chemical Engineering helping me much, but I think it's a good idea to have something to show for my time since I got my BS degree. As for the operator job, it is IMO a great way to get paid well and get my foot in the door to the world of working in the plants. Hopefully I get the job offer so I at least have the option to choose for myself.
posted by mikesrex at 5:57 PM on June 23, 2011

Mikesrex, I don't work with chemical engineering, but I do work in a manufacturing plant, and I wouldn't necessarily count on a line job turning into more later. My current company is pretty good at promoting from within compared to most, and still I'd say less than half of salaried jobs come from within the company. Most of them get hired from the me. I'd say only 2 of our management has worked the line.

There's nothing wrong with an operator job, but if you take it, be prepared for the possibility of STAYING on the line. I wouldn't say you need to stay and get your doctorate, but I think you can probably do better than straight out operator. With a masters there's no reason you can't look for Engineering, Maintenance, QC or other jobs that will give you a better chance of spinning them into a career. Or at least better perks.
posted by Caravantea at 7:15 PM on June 23, 2011

who said i would have to stay with the same company? while it would be great to get an operator job and then move into an engineering job when it's open, i can't count on it. i have to do what is best for me for the long term.
posted by mikesrex at 9:32 PM on June 23, 2011


Before you decide that the MSCE doesn't help you much, you might want to also reach out to some area professional associations for engineers, and not just academics. Look up some companies that are doing interesting work, see if you can find contacts inside them, and ask them about their jobs, what entry level positions might lead to them, and what those sorts of entry level positions pay. That will give you a better sweep of data to make decisions.
posted by canine epigram at 8:11 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: mikesrex: "who said i would have to stay with the same company? while it would be great to get an operator job and then move into an engineering job when it's open, i can't count on it. i have to do what is best for me for the long term"

Before I started this post here, I had mentioned to you that in my field, one would have hurdles to overcome to go from, for example, Q&A to engineering. The comments people have made here about moving from system administration to architect are even better analogies.

To take that analogy further with what you've just said -- I am not as likely to hire someone who only has system administration experience if I want a programmer*. You're better of if you have experience doing what you want to be hired for.

But one of the reasons I started this thread was to get feedback from people outside of my field, since giving advice based on an analogy is a bit weak.

(* I'm not going to say it is impossible. I've made weird career moves like that, and I know other people who have, but it is not common or easy.)
posted by bleary at 9:12 AM on June 24, 2011

companies want engineers with experience on what goes on in refineries and chemical plants, experience that you can get as an operator.
posted by mikesrex at 9:44 AM on June 24, 2011

Response by poster: mikesrex: "companies want engineers with experience on what goes on in refineries and chemical plants, experience that you can get as an operator"

I don't think the analogy breaks then. People doing sysadmin work know "what goes on in" running a software shop and can most likely read the source code, etc.
posted by bleary at 10:55 AM on June 24, 2011

Best answer: companies want engineers with experience on what goes on in refineries and chemical plants, experience that you can get as an operator.

It would be a mistake to turn this thread into an argument with you. The best anyone can do is just lay out the facts of the professional world, and you have to decide yourself whether that's what you want.

It sounds a lot like you are making the assumption that being an operator can give you the experience you need to get a ChemE job. Do they post ChemE jobs with the listing "preferred: 2 years of plant operator experience"? (I don't know-- if they do, then you're putting yourself in a good position)

But this sounds from my standpoint outside of ChemE a lot like a mining engineer getting a job as a miner in the hopes that he can get an engineering job with a mining company or working on a car assembly line in the hopes of getting an automotive engineering job-- both of which I can picture might be fine things to do in a tough economy where someone needs to support himself until a better-fitting job comes along, but isn't really the normal career path.

In an earlier era, those who didn't have education did find a lot of success "working their way up": you work in a restaurant kitchen doing scut work, then graduate to sous chef, then become head chef, then open up your own restaurant. There's always the classic story of an executive who "started out in the mail room." Professional, white-collar jobs don't really work like that-- everyone's on a "track." More power to the people who manage to hop from a lower track to a higher one -- I think that's great when people have that kind of drive and ambition, and I wish those options/opportunities were more available for people -- but if you want an engineering job, you go on the engineering "track." In engineering school, the pattern is usually that you get summer jobs in your field and use that experience to get a full time job after graduation.

The thing is, which I tried to tell your sister, is that I don't think you really care-- I think you want a decent job that you enjoy that affords you a good lifestyle and a good living, and you don't need it to be "dressed up" with being "a Chemical Engineer," and a plant operator job gives you what you want. You sound like your identity is tied up into the idea of having a job where you're "on the ground getting your hands dirty" rather than dealing with "people with no common sense who never worked hard." But the truth is that your classmates who you're so much smarter than are the ones who are applying for and are ultimately going to end up in chemical engineering jobs. Think about that for a moment: why are they going to waltz into the ChemE jobs while you are talking about getting an hourly-wage line job in the hopes that one day a ChemE position might open up. What I'm trying to say is that you can still be that hard-working guy without taking a line job that might isolate yourself from the "engineering track," if that's what you want.

If you want a ChemE job, I would talk to your advisor and maybe other professors in your department doing work that you're actually interested in. Ask them if they know who in those fields are hiring. Talk to the people in your ChemE professional society club at your school. On the other hand, if you don't care that much and just want a job that pays you what you want to be paid that you'd be satisfied with until the right ChemE job comes around (or even if it doesn't), then enjoy the opportunity to make decent wages at a job you can leave at work at the end of the day.

As I said, the best we can do is lay it all out there regarding how the professional world works, and you have to figure out what you want out of life.
posted by deanc at 11:50 AM on June 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: deanc, that's a really well thought out answer.

Thanks, everyone, for helping with the discussion. I will go ahead and mark this as resolved, not that I want to keep anyone from discussing things.
posted by bleary at 12:16 PM on June 24, 2011

I don't think you get what I'm saying. I know for sure that experience working in a chemical plant or refinery as an operator will help get a chemical engineering job in a refinery or chemical plant. It's obvious that experience as an engineer in a plant will be better than operator experience, but the operator experience is still good enough to get a job. I've posted this like 5 times in this thread already...

These are tough times, and I will do whatever I need to do to survive.

One thing that I LOL at is that this whole discussion is based on a "what if" scenario, since I am waiting for a job offer. The way I see it is that I will get what I get and I will be happy with it. There is no reason to sit around and be butthurt because of an Obama economy or because I don't get things to go exactly the way I want them to go.
posted by mikesrex at 10:39 PM on June 24, 2011

I know for sure that experience working in a chemical plant or refinery as an operator will help get a chemical engineering job in a refinery or chemical plant. It's obvious that experience as an engineer in a plant will be better than operator experience, but the operator experience is still good enough to get a job. I've posted this like 5 times in this thread already...

I think what people are trying to politely point out to you is that you don't really know for sure, and given your experience at this point, aren't actually in a position to be so certain. Further, a number of people are also pointing out in that similar industries, the (modern) vast gap between hourly and salaried positions makes what you believe you are certain about somewhat unlikely, or at least, very much of a gamble, but that you probably also have the resources to not have to take this gamble if you so choose.
posted by advil at 9:10 AM on June 25, 2011

I know a lot of engineers, operators, welders, pipefitters, etc.... and have a good idea of what kind of experience they are looking for. My area has people living here because of all the refineries and chemical plants around it, so it's not like I'm doing a google search to get this information. If I wasn't sure I wouldn't say so.
posted by mikesrex at 9:18 AM on June 25, 2011

mikesrex, as I said, we aren't here to argue with you. We're here to lay out the situation and let you make the decisions from there. Your sister posted this question because ever response you give to every point is not, "hm. I should look into that," but rather, "I KNOW and I'm SURE what experience people are looking for." As I said, you should be consulting with your advisor and colleagues and career office about who's hiring. Pipefitters, welders, and operators might not have the same perspective as the engineers and the HR people looking to staff engineering positions.

As I implied earlier, I think your sister and the rest of us are speaking as cross-purposes with you. We're answering the question, "what should someone in engineering grad school do to put himself on a good engineering career path?" and the question you're asking yourself is, "what can I do to get a good job at a decent salary in the area I live in?"

If it matters, I left grad school after my M.S. to take a job in a field (IT Consulting) much different from my research area (mobile computing). I did it for a year, saw what it was about, and left to go back to doing what I was more interested in. The year wasn't a big deal, and I saved money, and I saw what a totally different field was about. What I did learn is that when you ask someone about their job, they obviously think it's great and provides you with lots of opportunities, because that's what they're doing. The people hiring for the position tell you what a great opportunity the job is because they want you to work for them, not because they care about what good it will do you if/after you leave. (and it was a perfectly good job, it just didn't lead me on a path that I wanted to be on)

Do the listings for the jobs you want point to "plant operator experience" as bonus considerations, which will get flagged by HR when it appears on your resume? Do your classmates/colleagues take plant operator jobs on their way to engineering jobs? If so, then you're doing the right thing for someone looking for a professional engineering career. If not, then your job is more likely to be a "tide you over until you find something better" thing. These are the questions you should be asking yourself.
posted by deanc at 12:19 PM on June 25, 2011

the listing for jobs point to experience in a particular kind of industry, for instance a refinery, a polyethylene plant, a pulp processing plant, etc.... some jobs point to specific experience performing certain tasks, but the jobs I would be taking would basically be entry level engineer jobs which want basic plant experience. I'm also looking at jobs that want experience with analytical chemistry and certain pieces of equipment in the lab, which I think I have a great chance at getting.

I'm going to take the best job offer I get, considering all of the things that I think are important about the job.

one thing I've learned over the years is there is no such thing as a sure thing. I will do whatever it is I need to do to be where I want to be. I enjoy getting my hands dirty, so to speak. I like working on stuff, fixing things, figuring things out. The last thing I want to do is have a job behind a desk all day long. That would be totally boring for me. Although I don't particular care for my research (which is why I decided to get out with a Masters instead of PhD) I still enjoy working in my lab figuring out problems and issues. There are plenty of good jobs out there that make great money and are still hands-on jobs that I am looking to get.

as for whoever said that the "not smart" people in my class will be making more money and have better jobs than me in the future, the people I'm talking about that graduated with me in 2009 with a bachelors degree are working as security guards, waiters at restaurants, making bottom dollar doing stuff that gets paid less than what I make on the side building/tuning cars. I also get paid to go to school.
posted by mikesrex at 3:57 PM on June 25, 2011

The general consensus with the engineers and professors I've talked to so far is that I should take any job I can get right now. They are mostly doom and gloom when it comes to the economy and know how difficult it is to get a foot in the door right now.

I'm not as pessimistic because I realize that I get an opportunity further my education past anyone in my family for basically free while staying in the same area to help look after my aging parents. Yeah it sucks that the economy went to crap, but I've been making the best of it. I have bought a good welding machine, gotten better at welding and fabricating stuff. I have bought more stuff to use to tune cars and gotten a whole lot more experience tuning cars than I had before I finished my bachelors. I've made a lot more friends and contacts from being in the world of chemical engineering research and racing. Things could be better, but I feel I am doing ok.

The way I see things is that I am investing in new tools and learning how to use my current tools to make money in a bunch of different ways. I feel this is a good strategy in a piss-poor economy. Some may think I should focus on getting an engineering job for experience, even if I have to take a 40k a year offer.... and I can respectfully agree to disagree with that. The economy sucks, these places need engineers, and I will not do business with these guys that want to take advantage of the bad economy and offer bottom dollar. It's not the way I do business plain and simple. If they want my help they need to offer a fair rate for my skills.
posted by mikesrex at 4:26 PM on June 25, 2011

Well, this turned weird....

I'm mildly concerned by the number of people claiming that stopping at a Masters degree is career suicide.

The longer you study, and the longer you work, the more firmly specialized you become. That will certainly guide your future career path, whether you want to or not.

Right now, you have the most flexibility that you're ever going to have. Use it wisely.

With my degree (Physics), a PhD makes any employment outside of academia very difficult to come by (and finding a job within academia? Ha!). You're overqualified, but have no experience. It's a catch-22. I'm not sure I buy into the notion that a PhD is necessarily going to make you more employable, especially if you're looking to get your hands dirty.
posted by schmod at 9:38 PM on July 7, 2011

Finally somebody gets it lol
posted by mikesrex at 5:47 PM on July 21, 2011

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