We are, we are, we are the engineers
September 27, 2011 10:26 AM   Subscribe

What's so awesome about engineers?

I have a B.Sc in chemistry from a decent school. I'm currently job hunting, but for maybe one company that I can see possibly wanting a science person, I get about 10 (at least) who wants an engineer more. (To be fair, they look a lot for process/electrical/mining engineering than they do about chem; I guess chem isn't in demand.)

Speaking specifically about the chem vs. chem aspect: when I skim through job descriptions, it seems that the skill sets they want isn't terribly far off from the science version (analytical skills, problem solving, blah blah), but they always specify they want engineers, often with "please show proof of enrollment in applicable engineering society" or some such. I would usually just ask engineers exactly what they did in school that was so different from the science version, but I had one engineer I was friends with, and she told me stuff like "we're the most logical people there are! We're engineers!" and "Unlike the rest of the world, engineers make stuff work." which is not helpful at all. (She is now an ex-friend for other reasons, but I sure don't miss these kind of statements.)

So I turn to the you, experienced MeFites. What makes engineering (in general, so not specific to chem vs. chem eng) so in demand?

(Bonus question: for a B.Sc. grad who's done a whole bunch of R&D (organic synthesis) but doesn't want to go back to it, and very-routine environmental analysis job which is also unappealing, what direction would you advise to look in for further employment, and/or what field of additional education would you recommend to improve employability? Only thing I've thought of is QA so far...)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (29 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
There's engineers and then there's engineers.

Some are people who go to meetings then decide to outsource all the work--they call it engineering.

But there really are a small subset of people who actually figure out new stuff and fix how the old stuff works. Many of the engineers I know started lower in the food chain and acquired their skills along the way.
posted by AuntieRuth at 10:30 AM on September 27, 2011

Engineering had the highest course load and a very high attrition rate in my university. It could be that the company thinks that, if you survived that, you can survive the rigours of the workforce.

Alternatively, it could just be that the ad was written or specified by an engineer. Engineers tend to hire engineers. They're a cliquish bunch. I have experience; I'm an engineer, but a bit of an odd one.
posted by scruss at 10:35 AM on September 27, 2011

Just guessing here--I have an M.S. in electrical engineering, but only a tiny bit of industry experience. Lots of practice designing precise artificial systems (input, output, feedback) using layers of abstraction and mathematical specification? It *is* a very particular way of thinking and creating, I think...

If you're applying to jobs, maybe emphasize school projects and classes where you created some kind of deliverable as part of a team?
posted by zeek321 at 10:37 AM on September 27, 2011

Bonus question: for a B.Sc. grad who's done a whole bunch of R&D (organic synthesis) but doesn't want to go back to it, and very-routine environmental analysis job which is also unappealing, what direction would you advise to look in for further employment, and/or what field of additional education would you recommend to improve employability?

Chemical engineering.

There's a general belief that a basic science degree trains you to do bench research, but an engineering degree trains you to make stuff. Plus, engineers tend to have a bunch of internship experiences where they have actually worked side-by-side with people in the jobs they're applying to, so they tend to have more work experience. Also, their lab classes tended to be focused more on creating and delivering projects.

This isn't always fair: two people can be working in the same field of polymers, perhaps working in the same lab, one getting a Ph.D. in the chemistry department and the other in the Chemical Engineering department, and the one with the PhD in Chemical Engineering will have offers of high paid jobs in industry while the person with the Ph.D. in chemistry will get offered a bunch of postdocs.

It's really that the person with a basic sciences degree is considered to be studying that field in preparation to do something else, while an engineer studied engineering to prepare for a specific career/job in engineering after graduating.
posted by deanc at 10:38 AM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sometimes recruiting is about running numbers: the HR people can only screen and interview so many people, so they have to increase their odds of finding good candidates from their pool of CVs (doubly so in a bad job market). So if they believe that they are more likely to find good candidates from a pool of engineering CVs, they will specify that. That doesn't mean that scientists aren't good problem-solvers or that engineers are the bomb (I am an engineer myself though, so I think we are :-)

As someone who screens a lot of CVs: that's what a good cover letter is supposed to do: instead of rewriting your resume in letter form, point out what part of your experience makes you a good candidate for the particular job: it should significantly increase your chances of getting past the 'plausible candidate' filter.
posted by costas at 10:48 AM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Along deanc's comment, as a Chem E told me: a chem major knows how to formulate chemical reactions and equations to create an end result. The Chem E knows how to scale that into production and how to shave off things to create higher efficiency and yield.
posted by k5.user at 10:51 AM on September 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

Unlike the rest of the world, engineers make stuff work." which is not helpful at all.

But that's how I've heard it described: the scientists discover some new capability, or principle, while it's the engineers who adapt the existing (or create new) technology that actually exploits that principle in a way the general population can utilize it.
posted by Rash at 11:01 AM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can tell I'm going to get in trouble with this question...I'm going to stereotype broadly, never fear I know geniuses in both the sciences and in engineering :)

If you like science, you need a PhD. The salary differences (and job opportunities) switch completely once you have a PhD. In my opinion: Science is about creativity and problem solving. Engineering is more about rigor and problem solving. As you advance in your career, creativity and problem solving often becomes more important.

I would never use a complex system designed solely by a chemist (PhD or not) - but I would also not ask an engineer to brainstorm a completely new way of solving a problem. These differences change with experience of course, but "out of the box" chemistry and chemical engineering use and emphasize two very different skill sets.

If you don't want to get a graduate degree, try to find something that you like - I expect if you really are a chemist (and not an engineer trapped in a chemist's body) you probably would not like a job which requires you to do lots of engineering...

If you just want a job, I would look more on the biological side. QA is one thing, but the major pharmaceutical companies hire lots of chemists...
posted by NoDef at 11:02 AM on September 27, 2011

The amount of money spent on corporate and industrial R&D is dwarfed by the amount spend on production. Scientists tend to get slotted into R&D, engineers into production.

The biochem/medical sector is the only place where it's close, and even then a lot of the brain-sweat is done by government or academia. Consequently, there's a lot more demand for biochemists than physical ones. Analytical chemistry tends to be very routine and low paying.
posted by bonehead at 11:06 AM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

One thing you don't have as a Chem BSc vs a Chem Eng is the knowledge of heat transfer, fluid flows and thermodynamics that they do. These this are critical to process design and the production side industrial chemistry. On the other hand, Chem Eng people tend to be very weak on physical/theoretical chem and don't know things like spectroscopy or synthesis as well as you do.

I also agree about grad school. An MSc is very much the sweet spot for new hires right now; a PhD can take you farther ultimately, but the payoff is less certain and delayed.
posted by bonehead at 11:11 AM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have been in the computer engineering field for many years now, but I think the culture is similar to other engineering fields. For companies that make or design products (as opposed to those that mainly do research) it is important to management that employees have the ability to understand and make trade-offs (cost/performance/size/weight/power/maintenance/etc.) throughout a project's lifespan.

When I am working on a project that is really over budget and features need to be cut because some interesting technical issue is preventing completion then the inner engineer has to say "stop" and the inner scientist says "you have to figure this out".

Also, engineering is all about comparing multiple solutions for the most efficient (in terms of investment) and practical solution.
posted by n-palmer at 11:19 AM on September 27, 2011

Bonehead makes a good distinction. Engineering is sort of a field of its own, with various specialties added on. During my brief run in engineering at the university, I found that there was immediate emphasis on process and ethics and liabilities. (One of the reasons I ran for the hills...)

Obviously, reality is much fuzzier, but another way of putting it is that a person with a straight BS knows more about the pure science, while an engineer knows more about the practicalities. Theoretical versus applied.

Another possibly useful analogy: A computer scientist writes programs, a computer engineer makes computers.
posted by gjc at 11:54 AM on September 27, 2011

Following up on rash's comment, as an engineer son of a physicist (the latter was disappointed in my career choice), I've always thought the distinction is along these lines: considering some interesting or unexpected phenomenon, a scientist says "hmmm, that's interesting. I wonder why that happens?" Whereas an engineer says "hmmm, that's interesting. I wonder what I can make with that?"
posted by spacewrench at 12:03 PM on September 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

Just answering the bonus question -

You might consider Materials & Process Engineering. Most major manufacturing companies (aerospace, automotive, medical equipment, toy companies, etc) have some M&P department, and within that M&P department there will be a group that handles paints/coatings/chemical cleaning/lubricants/hydraulic fluids/etc that will employ a mixture of Chem E and Chemistry graduates.
posted by Edward L at 12:04 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was put on a project with some very good lab chemists trying to make a new process work. They'd come up with the idea and done all the brain work. We needed to make tiny black and white spheres that were positively charged on one side and negatively charged on the other. The chemists had the process at about a 5% yield after 5-10 years of work and were slamming their heads against the wall trying to fit theories to the problem.

We (a couple of dumb manufacturing engineers without any real experience with polymers) had yield over 75% in a year. How? Record every goddamn process parameter (dozens and dozens of them) and do some statistical analysis to optimize them.

We had no theoretical framework for *why* it worked, but by god it worked. That's engineering.

After the process was so nailed down that the chemists could go back and review the data for patterns they figured out the theory stuff. Later on they used that model to come up with a new process that fit within their framework. That's science.

Engineering, broadly, is about knowing a bunch of solutions, tailoring those solutions to a problem, and adding a dash of creativity if necessary. Science is about taking existing knowledge and using that to find brand new knowledge. Knowledge that may or may not have any practical use.

The distinction between permeates the way academic programs train you, even if the specific material is sorta similar. Culturally that creates a big difference between basic science folks and engineers. None of this is to say that engineers or scientists have more intrinsic value, but they aren't interchangeable out in the real world.

Most companies don't do science. As bonehead said, it tends to get left to government funded projects. It's hard to make a financial case for investing in "hey, go find me something new!" Industry steps in when they can see a clear path to market, and that's where you need an engineer. So, yeah, if you want a job outside academia, your best bet is an engineering degree.
posted by pjaust at 12:12 PM on September 27, 2011 [12 favorites]

Engineers get stuff done! :)
posted by Fuzzyness at 12:36 PM on September 27, 2011

When people talk about STEM jobs, they really mean technologists (technical educations of of various types) and engineers. The science and math types we generally have an oversupply of, except in health and medical sciences. It's really more sTEm than STEM.

The big scam begin sold right now is that a BSc in most other fields is necessary. In many cases, BSc's are being hired to do the jobs that a two- or three-year technical college certificate would have done a decade ago. Entry jobs for BSc's are thus lab and production tech wages, as you've discovered in your environmental chem experience. There's a whole legion of young folks with Bachelors' degrees in low-advancement jobs doing EAs and phase I/II site assessment work for less than post-doc wages.

That's why I recommend the MSc, though an MEng would be a great choice too.
posted by bonehead at 1:00 PM on September 27, 2011

I can only speak for my group, which does not deal with chemicals or chemical engineering. There is a perception here that "pure scientists" with bachelor's degrees (in our field, computer scientists) don't tend to have useful on-the-job skills. Engineers are more likely to have a general understanding of project management concepts like scheduling and budgeting (either as part of a senior project or as part of an engineering internship). There is a worry that computer scientists, if given a month to finish something, will deliver mostly-untested code at midnight of the last day of the month, not understanding that there's a whole process that has to occur between "code written" and "code delivered" (granted, this assumption from my bosses is based on some real-world experience, but IMO this has happened with inexperienced engineers, too). Also there is an assumption that computer scientists are more concerned about the best solution, when really what we need to find is the most cost-effective solution. There is also a sense that computer scientists can't do hardware, while hardware engineers can do enough programming to get by in this job.

Now, I disagree with almost all of these assumptions about computer scientists vs. engineers, especially the last one. But this kind of institutional prejudice is what a pure scientist is up against at a firm full of engineers. Even though our best employee is a computer scientist who has saved this company more money than he's earned.
posted by muddgirl at 1:52 PM on September 27, 2011

I agree with costas that a good cover letter can make your resume with its B.Sc. as acceptable as a resume with a B.Eng. That is the true purpose of cover letters.
Some of these other explanations about different approaches to problem-solving (emphasis on rigor vs concept, for example) and what people perceive as the difference between scientists and engineers will give you good fodder to tackle the letter. Each of these characteristics is a spectrum - where on that spectrum do you fit? If you keep finding yourself far off in chemist-land, it's possible that you genuinely wouldn't be a great fit in some of these engineering jobs. However, it's likely that some of the reasons you're not wanting to go to Chemistry grad school could be the very things that make you a better fit for these jobs. Think about what aspects of chemistry-thinking and chemistry-doing you like and excel at. In your letter, state these preferences in as non-judgemental a way possible, and explain how those preferences and skills match to the position they're hiring for. As well as making a case for your value on a technical level, you'll be demonstrating good communication skills, which are much rarer than a B.Eng.
posted by aimedwander at 1:58 PM on September 27, 2011

I will freely admit that I am biased because I have an engineering degree, but I do not believe that a chemistry program teaches problem-solving the same way that an engineering program does.

One meaningless anecdote: a colleague of mine is a former bench chemist. He now writes software routines to produce data reports. He is proud of the fact that his latest project took 20+ iterations of code (and associated testing, done by other people) before the reports produced the correct data. For him, those iterations prove how hard the problem was to solve, and therefore are a measure of the project's importance. To me, that project was practically a failure because he was inefficient in his use of resources and the project took 3x as long as it should have. I would have spent a lot more time upfront working out the right approach before diving in.

In terms of careers for science-minded people, how about software testing? It's a way to test the waters of the software industry and see if you have a mind for that kind of work.
posted by cabingirl at 2:04 PM on September 27, 2011

Some gross generalizations:

For every financial strategist a company needs, they also need 10 accountants.

For every marketer a company needs, they also need 10 salespeople.

For every scientist a company needs, they also need 10 engineers.

For every Ph.D. a company needs, they also need 10 MS/MAs, and 10-20 BS/BAs.

In general, all of this is because the first category is a position that proposes potential paths, and the second is a position that explores, maps, and reconnoiters those paths. At least, that's the perception I have seen in my career.


Adding to this mix, you are in a notoriously high-contrast educational niche. Chemists & Chem-E's at my alma mater had much higher starting salaries, but very low placement. That is, of the 30% who had job offers at graduation, they were making on average 25% more than my EE classmates were (who had 80% placement).

Some of each college were headed to higher degrees, and so weren't even looking for work immediately. To be fair: Chem/CEs are more likely to get MS/Ph.D. than EEs... but not that many more!


You posit the notion that you can probably do the work of a ChemE. No doubt you probably can. I've always preferred working in depts with mixed degrees; 90% EE and 10% Physics, for instance, seems to provide a broader knowledge base than a purely EE-degreed EE dept. However, you'll notice I didn't suggest 50/50... The Physics majors almost invariably must learn to adapt to an EE "mentality": "process, document, produce, move on...".


Can you sell yourself on ChemE-like work experience? Minimize any pure-research bullets in favor of process/result bullets?
posted by IAmBroom at 2:04 PM on September 27, 2011

To me someone with a BSc in Chemistry is ready to just begin to learn chemistry. A Bsc in engineering is someone who is ready to begin to do engineering.

I (medicinal chemist) make things that have never existed before, and I also choose which ones to make because there isn't enough matter in the universe to make one molecule of everything. Once I've made it and tested it and it works I would hand it off to a process chemist who would improve the route and get it working on a large scale. Then they would pass it off to a chemical engineer who would develop a plant to improve the yield from 54% to 54.4%
posted by koolkat at 2:43 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I always end up pushing this blog....

Derek Lowe's "In the Pipeline" post-mortem of a chemical plant explosion - more specifically, this comment - gave me my first real grasp of the kinds of differences that exist between chemistry and chemical engineering. Several people have touched on it here, bonehead among them.

The engineers are working on safely and efficiently scaling chemical processes up for production. And unless you're dealing with patent-protected science that nobody else has, it's the safety and efficiency, not the underlying science, that make your factory profitable. Hence, greater demand for engineers than scientists.
posted by richyoung at 3:18 PM on September 27, 2011

To me someone with a BSc in Chemistry is ready to just begin to learn chemistry.

This is where the OP is running into trouble with his job hunt. It's basically assumed that if you have a B.S. in chemistry, you're not really "a chemist" until you've finished your PhD.

Biology has a similar dynamic. Someone with a B.S. in biomedical engineering has likely built a few components that prepares him or her for joining a medical device company. Someone with a B.S. in biology is at best qualified to do basic technician work in a laboratory working for practicing biologists with Ph.D.s.

As someone with a B.Sc. in Chemistry, you are assumed to know "about chemistry." You're not really assumed to know how to do anything outside of what's on your resume. Your career path needs to be, "I can do X, which is augmented by the fact that I know about chemistry." Or, "can you train me to do Y, given my quantitative skills and background in chemistry?"

Just as a point of reference, I went through my alumni directory and looked up everyone in my college graduating class that I knew personally who got an undergrad degree in chemistry (maybe I knew about 6 out of 35). All but one either got a Ph.D. or an MD afterwards. I have no idea what the other one did with her life, but none of the rest of my chemistry acquaintances stopped with a B.S.: it's simply not a degree that gives a clear career path afterwards, unless you developed some other skill (eg, teaching, programming, business analysis, a Master's or Ph.D. in engineering) that you leverage into a career that is augmented with your knowledge of chemistry.
posted by deanc at 3:25 PM on September 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I hire Engineers(EE, ME & ChemE) and Chemists and IAAE, so here's my perspective.

Scientists create scientific knowledge, engineers turn scientific knowledge into technology.

Much(most) science is very interesting but only a portion can be turned into useful technology. For the most part technology can be turned into dollars. Jobs follow dollars so Engineers really have a much higher hit rate at generating dollars as opposed to Scientists who tend to consume them (grants etc.) Industry is about generating dollars at the end of the day. This is why Engineers are special snowflakes, we are also better at games of chance.

So what is a BSc Chemistry grad to do? I second the comment about needing a PhD in science . I don't have a PhD (I'm a BS EE) and feel for the most part they are way overvalued by the folks that do have them. As far as I can see this is mainly because of the huge BS they had to put up with to get one. So having a science PhD IMHO doesn't make you that much better a scientist then a BSc, but it does show you have the required dedication to the discipline to deserve to do science. So while I'd be all gun-ho to hire a BSc Chemist for my lab, my Chemistry PhD CTO would feel that you were only good to work as a lab technician (at a tech pay scale) and would require a PhD for an actual "Scientist" title. Of course he has no issue calling BS EE "Engineers". Seems unfair to me, but nobody said life was fair.

So if you want to do science, even in an industrial setting which I suspect is a little more laid back about this kind of thing than academia, then consider an MS/PhD.

Chem Eng is not the same as Chemistry and I would not hire one for the other. The Eng part means scale up of process, yields, cost reduction etc. nothing like the synthesis R&D & materials characterization I would expect out of a Chemist.

Lastly, I would point out that cleantech and alternative energy are basically about developing MATERIALS to solve really big important problems. We need lots of smart Materials Scientists (aka Chemists) working on these problems so there are many opportunities opening up (at least here in Silicon Valley).
posted by Long Way To Go at 11:42 PM on September 27, 2011

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks, MeFites.  I have to admit, the many responses were enlightening (re: differences), surprising, and more than a little disheartening as well.  And the following may be more derailing into my own job woes than the original question posed...

Reading through all these responses, I have to admit I still think I chose the right degree for myself back then; my math is shit and I probably wouldn't have survived engineering.  And I was more interested in the 'why' and not as much as the 'who cares, just bloody make it work', at least back then.

All that said, I am actually quite surprised at the value a B.Eng seems to command, since the rumour-has-it that their coursework are insanely difficult (so were a couple of mine, though; I spent as much time on campus as any engineering student, although I loaded myself with research and labs so I may not have been typical) and there's a lot of solidarity and homework copying and flunking exams together and major scaling at the end.  That happened in my faculty too, no doubt, but we hadn't the engineering network uniting every single one of us.  I had lost count of how many times times that ex-friend told me about blowing an exam because there was only one person in the entire class who halfway understood the course and they just all copied off him/her for the homework (or copied previous years' students').  This turning into a graduate that's "ready to do engineering" vs a science student's "ready to learn science" is astonishing to me.  My experience and hearsay may not be representative, but I did go to a large (and good) school.

My R&D was both in pure organic synthesis (how do we make this type of bond?  Publish it!--I've co-authored a paper, if that's worth anything) and some medicinal chemistry; industry experience was environmental analysis (which I'm currently employed at).  Everything but the analytical stuff was pretty much on my own; I've never had to deliver chem projects as a team before (unless you count partnered labs, which weren't really projects and more like data we collect together).  More teamwork and coordination is involved in the analytical stuff, but honestly, a trained monkey can do my job.

I had previously balked at going to grad school in chem precisely because the high-pressure of academic research (never quite felt like I was smart enough/keeping up with the cutting edge), the ridiculous hours (I outstayed my PhD PIs...), and a feeling of disconnect from my results (I mean, at the end of the day, making This!Special!Bond! doesn't really mean much to me as, say, making a prototype of some medicine), but all your responses are, while disheartening, also making me reconsider that proposition.

My many thanks again.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 12:17 AM on September 28, 2011

All that said, I am actually quite surprised at the value a B.Eng seems to command, since the rumour-has-it that their coursework are insanely difficult (so were a couple of mine, though; I spent as much time on campus as any engineering student, although I loaded myself with research and labs so I may not have been typical)

Don't let anyone tell you engineers are more hirable because their in-school workload is greater. IME, music majors worked far harder than you or I did - yes, really. And certainly Chem BS students work their tails off.

Just trying to keep you from focusing on depressing red herrings.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:30 AM on September 28, 2011

OP, your comments about copying, curves, etc., are interesting and probably not totally off base. While not an engineer myself, I work in the presence of undergrad engineering students at a university. I don't see much overt copying (I don't think they would be so blatant) but there's frequently discussion of how to do the homework. To me, it looks more like tutoring and collaboration than copying. I occasionally hear them talking about huge curves applied to tests because "only a few people in the class understand it", so there definitely is some grade inflation going on, too. But overall, they work very hard and seem to have substantially less free time than I did in college (as a double-major in humanities disciplines).

Not all firms that hire engineers expect them to do engineering work - sometimes the degree is used as a signifier for dilligence, math aptitude, etc. But to do actual engineering in the real world, you have to pass the Fundamentals of Engineering exam (on your own, with no curve!), and serve under a P.E. for a while, then take another test to become a P.E. yourself. That path might explain some of the differences you're seeing in demand.

Also, this "scientists discover, engineers apply" paradigm is not as clear-cut as we're making it sound. A lot of our faculty are doing research. It may be that you'd enjoy chemical engineering after all - and your BSc might get you into a grad program with only a little remedial math work.
posted by richyoung at 7:56 AM on September 28, 2011

I am a Chemistry major who works primarily with engineers. Anyone fresh out of school, whether Chemist or Engineer, doesn't know a whole lot that's valuable to an employer. Internships help but not as much as some of these posts imply -- after all, they usually don't last long (3-6 months per term). I have been around a long time -- when I got hired we Chemists had pretty good chances although even then Engineers were 'preferred.' What matters most is how much passion you have for your job. If you're an Engineer and you hate what you're doing -- you won't be very valuable. I work with people who don't have degrees but who have a passion for their work and they contribute much more than some of the Engineers I work with. Some people I work with have degrees but not in the physical sciences (or in engineering), and they do just fine. So will you if you really like what you do! Concentrate on that and accept that you may have to work a little harder than others. I wish you the best and hope things work out for you.
posted by gilast at 5:07 PM on September 28, 2011

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