I don't want to be evil.
December 28, 2007 7:21 AM   Subscribe

I'm a junior in college currently pursuing a chemical engineering degree...but what can I do that won't have me working for evil companies or make me part of Big Pharma or the military-industrial complex?

Currently, I'm having a pretty large crisis about what to do with my life. I had a pretty awful semester, which certainly isn't helping any. And now I have to think about summer internships, which I failed to get last year, despite having a high GPA and lots of leadership, if not work, experience.

The problem is... I don't really know what I want to do. I know what I don't want to do. I have no interest in biology and I suck at organic chemistry, so that throws pharmaceutical companies out the window. I'm not really interested in materials research, or academic-type research at all, really.

That doesn't really leave a whole lot left, it seems. And then there's my current extreme dissatisfaction with the state of the world, with how the upper echelon trades the lives of the lower class for money in their pockets, how social mobility is on the decline, how completely messed up the US is, etc. I don't want to be a part of something that helps perpetuate that.

Also, for years I have had a secret desire to become a teacher. Probably a math teacher because after being burned by orgo, I don't know that I really want to be doing chemistry forever, and I think teaching calculus would be fun. I am a natural teacher, and I am very good at explaining concepts to others. However, there's the money issue, and the money to be found in chemical engineering jobs is very alluring.

Switching majors at this point is not an option. I would not be able to graduate on time if I did. The curriculum in my major is extremely strict, and as a result I can't really take the classes I want to take, which is not so much fun. Combine this with a high-stress and high-pressure environment, and I am pretty miserable, but I will just have to suffer through it.

I have tried explaining my moral qualms to my dad, but his response was pretty much, "Get over it."

The career office at school is extremely unhelpful, so that is not an option either.

I just don't know if I can be a slave to corporate America for the rest of my life and be okay with that.

So, what do I do? What sorts of jobs can I look for that fit my pretty narrow criteria? Beyond that...what do I do with my life?
posted by liesbyomission to Work & Money (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know that it's worth it to graduate on time if you're not doing something you enjoy. Assuming you don't come up with a good alternative career in chemical engineering, I would definitely consider just staying at school another year or whatever and getting a major in something you want to do.
posted by DMan at 7:44 AM on December 28, 2007

if you have a burning desire to be a teacher, please look into it. in my mind, that should be a prerequisite for being a teacher and it would be a blessing for my daughters to have a calculus teacher in the coming years with a passion for their job. that being said, being a teacher appears to me to be one of the hardest jobs there is. it may look great to you from a distance, but really not be what you think it is.

you will probably have to come to terms with the fact that maxing out income potential in your field is going to mean corporate, unless you can find a niche and start your own business.

what do you mean by slave to corporate america? you will be dealing with organizational politics whether you work for evil corporate empire, your local university, a non profit or especially the govt. More and more companies are socially and environmentally concious. conversely, just because an organization does great things in the world doesn't mean it is a great place to work. think about what gives you satisfaction - money, helping people, solving problems, being intellectually challenged - and let that guide you. corporate america can only make you its slave if you let it.

money isn't everything and right out of college is the time to test that theory.
posted by domino at 7:46 AM on December 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I imagine with chem there's a lot of latitude to switch into environmental engineering applications, particularly water supply / treatment. You could work for the government, or do a lot of good in poorer nations with EWB or something? All my friends who chose chem want to kill themselves, so you have my sympathy.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 7:47 AM on December 28, 2007

I am a chemical engineer, although I do work for big Pharma and have previously worked for the oil companies, too, so take what I say with a grain of salt! The beauty of a chemical engineering degree is the versatility with which it allows you to direct your career. The rigidity and structure of the curriculum is fairly standard across most schools, and I do realize that you are probably learning many topics which are not interesting and you might not need for your work upon graduation. However, the degree is an excellent curriculum for leaning how to think; that is, learning the thought process for discovering, investigating, and ultimately solving an engineering problem. I know many chemical engineers who have gone into a variety of fields; process engineering for Kodak, unit operations for Dow, managing the pyrotechnic chemicals in Hollywood, consulting as HazMat experts for construction cleanup projects (EPA), and I know a few more who ultimately went into patent law. If your computer-inclined, leaning and managing the process control systems can be quite lucrative). I am also doing some side consulting helping a start-up bio-fuel company develop their technical business plan, so if that doesn't count as a positive use of chemical engineering, I don't know what does. Also, just to clarify, my role (and many chemical engineering roles) in Pharma require little if any organic chemistry. Think of the role of a chemical engineer as a plant orchestrator - we know enough about the entire process that we are usually chosen as the ones to manage the overall operations and supervise the experts (e.g. chemists, biologists, electricians, mechanics, etc.). Bottom line, chemical engineering is one of the hardest majors to complete in college, but I do believe one of the most rewarding, too. You'll have the opportunity to suggest and make changes at the source; you can directly impact the 'evil' thinks like pollution, CO2 waste, and inefficiency. I'm proud of the fact that I helped reduce my Pharma plant's energy consumption by re-designing the process. With a chemical engineering background, you can make a huge impact because you'll have the tools and knowlege to do so. Hopefully this helps to give you a few points to consider. My e-mail is in my profile if you'd like to talk more. I'd be happy to give you specific stories and examples or just offer some guidance. Best of luck!
posted by galimatias at 7:48 AM on December 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

Upon re-reading my post, I noticed way too many spelling and grammar mistakes. I promise, I'm literate!
posted by galimatias at 7:50 AM on December 28, 2007

It's a Bachelor's degree, you're dad is right. A bachelor's is the new high school diploma. You could pretty much do whatever you felt like after graduation. Join the Peace Corps if you still really need to discover yourself, you can even be a teacher.

You can always get a masters in education, yes, even if you studied chemical engineering, and there is a huge need for good math and science teachers out there! A great thing about studying for an MEd if you want to be a teacher in a local area is that there are programs at tons of different colleges that will qualify you just as well as the next. You don't have to go to Harvard and be stressed about if your summer internships were the right summer internships when you were back in your BA/BS days if all you really want is to be Mr. Liesbyomission, super cool math teacher at Millard Filmore Jr. High in Podunkville, USA and change the lives of the kids you teach so that they might break out of the downward spiral. Money is not all it's cracked up to be.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:55 AM on December 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Finish the degree and then do Teach for America. (TfA is pretty competitive, but with the incredible demand for math/science teachers, you've got a good shot.) They'll help you get teaching credentials wherever you're placed.
posted by katieinshoes at 8:10 AM on December 28, 2007

Two words: Cellulosic Biomass.
posted by Gungho at 8:17 AM on December 28, 2007

My father's a chemical engineer. He got into it because it was the only degree at his school that didn't have a language requirement. He's worked for Big Pharma about as long as I can remember, but on the process side - he builds the plants that all this stuff is made at. So, no o.chem needed... from what I gather it's a lot of dynamics/flow, reactor sizing, etc. So many years on in his career he now is managing the construction of a new site for a pharma startup.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:27 AM on December 28, 2007

i was a chem major as an undergrad, by junior year i knew i wasn't going to be a full-time scientist, yet it was important to me to graduate on time and get that b.a. after i nailed that down, i took a year off to work, then went to law school. a chemical engineering degree is no impediment to a career in law or teaching, and it could be an advantage if you end up teaching science or doing patent law.
posted by bruce at 8:36 AM on December 28, 2007

If you have a burning desire to teach, but want to finish your major, could you teach chemistry for awhile before moving over to math?
posted by Pants! at 8:38 AM on December 28, 2007

Engineering degrees are not the new high school diploma. That may be true for your average liberal arts degree, but an engineering degree from any halfway decent school should give you plenty of options.
posted by electroboy at 9:07 AM on December 28, 2007

If you want to teach, teach. If money is an issue, teach at a private school or work as a tutor. Or, if your concern about money has to do with student loans, you could look into programs like this.
posted by joannemerriam at 9:08 AM on December 28, 2007

Go into green industry. There are tons of industrial processes that produce harmful byproducts or are energy intensive. Some end products are really harmful (industrial solvents, etc). Your degree should put you in a perfect position to help develop greener products, processes, and plants. It's still in your field, but it has a strong social justice impact: remember that most environmental problems disproportionately affect the poor. Plus, you'll still probably have excellent earning potential ahead of you. It's what I would do in your position, at least.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 9:09 AM on December 28, 2007

I was a chem major who developed similar feelings once it came time to look for a job senior year. I didn't think my path out much, but I knew that I wanted to work in an academic research lab in order to sorta feel things out. It was by chance that I ended up in a lab doing human metabolism research in a nutrition department and it really opened my eyes to all of the other things I could do with my chemistry degree. It also started me thinking about the bigger picture of what effect I wanted my work to have on the world given that I knew I didn't want to work for Dow or BP or that sort of thing, so that's how I ended up in public health (specifically, environmental health). You won't make as much money, but depending on the path you choose, you can end up doing some interesting worthwhile work and, if you want to, still use that chemistry education.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:12 AM on December 28, 2007

Previous responses are all correct.

1. It's just a BS. It will help you get into grad school or get a lame technician job but it's pretty much useless otherwise. Don't consider yourself to be a professional chemical engineer.

2. If you want to apply ChE knowledge to something non-evil, learn a little biology and get into bioprocess design or metabolic engineering. This isn't "biology" per se so don't let it scare you.
posted by rxrfrx at 9:39 AM on December 28, 2007

I know a couple of chem engineers who work for the government as diffusion of innovations experts. This means they help innovations (technologies) be adopted. So, if there's a new kind of technology out there, they help academics, researchers and companies move through the stages of getting it out to society. Many of these innovations are more environmentally friendly and the companies give back to the community by providing jobs, value-added innovation, tax dollars and so on.
posted by acoutu at 10:15 AM on December 28, 2007

Hey, senior in Biochemistry here. Not an engineer, but I've have the same soul-searching issues, and probably more.

My first piece of advice, and arguably something useful for your entire life: be cool. You're a junior. You have a lot of time to think about work--you have your whole life. I have a lot of time, too, and I have absolutely no idea what I'll be doing in 5 years. Nobody our age does; and I am a firm believer that 95% of all the courses you've taken will not be of much use in the future. So if you failed every exam in Organic Chemistry II (like I did), that doesn't mean you can't be a scientist.

Secondly, your major is not your job. I hope you've heard this one before. You can do whatever you'd like after college; if your dream is not chemistry and chemical engineering, follow it elsewhere. Your undergraduate college experience will not be a waste of time if you decide to do something else--I hope this seems pretty obvious, too.

At my college, about 35% of the engineers are actually hired by business groups and high-ranking investment folks who think engineers can think better than business students. Don't sell your future short just because you've studied chemistry all your life.

Likewise, you should never even entertain the idea of working in a big company if you don't want to. There are all kinds of start-ups and non-profits that may pay less for the same skills as a a Big Pharmaceutical Company but may be more rewarding. And if there's one thing I've learned in my post-college career search, it's that there are government jobs available for everyone, temporary and permanent.

And becoming a teacher is completely possible, too: many private schools request students majoring in specific fields to teach to students. I know there are dozens of opportunities like Teach for America out there, too.

Just ask yourself: what do I REALLY want to do? You've got some time left in college: audit a course, talk to professors and other students. Nothing, not even the strictest curriculum, can stop you from pursuing what you love.
posted by BenzeneChile at 10:17 AM on December 28, 2007

Mechanical engineer here, serving in the capacity of a project engineer alongside numerous chemical engineers.

I didn't know that many engineers who knew what job they wanted prior to their internships. Most have a revelation at some point during their first (or perhaps second) internship. It usually consists of "This is absolutely gawdawful" or "I can't believe I get paid to do this." Before you completely jump ship, I'd recommend seeking out an engineering internship and giving it a try. As you're a junior now, you should have completed enough coursework to get a real engineering project, if you choose your job carefully. If you're disinterested after that, there's still plenty of time to go down the path of teaching. I can say from past experiences that working for oil companies is not what most people would picture as "engineering." So if you're afraid of the stereotypical "engineering job" and can overcome the image of the industry, that might be appealing.

As a semi-related sidenote, at least at my own alma mater, it was fairly rare for engineering students to obtain summer internships after sophomore year. Let's face it, statics, elementary dynamics, and thermo I are just not enough background to do any value adding work.
posted by conradjones at 11:34 AM on December 28, 2007

My SO is a Chem Engineer and she works in coatings. Coming out with her BS she had her choice of fields from utility companies to adhesives as well as oil corps. and pharmaceuticals . The honest truth is that there is a reason Chemical Engineers are the highest paid right out of college, they can ply their trade in just about any major product producing company. Her friends who graduated with Chem E. degrees went to work for companies dealing in food manufacturing companies to technology hardware producers.

The flip side of this is that in my opinion, a BS in Chemical Engineering is not the "new diploma." While I can see how most other degrees easily fall into this category (more of a certificate proving that you made it through college), a Chem. E degree opens up opportunities that only a fraction of the world's population are competent enough to accept and for this reason should not simply be regarded as any ol' bachelors.

Bottom line, if you're serious about chemical engineering and graduate with a decent GPA, the professional world is your oyster.
posted by Smarson at 12:44 PM on December 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this helps or not, but I felt the need to speak up. I am a Chemical Engineer, graduated about 10 years ago. I also found myself doubting my degree program midway through. I finished and stumbled into a job I love. I work at a food plant where the process is both chemical and biological in nature. In the past 10 years, I've trained many people, both salaried and hourly. I have touched day-to-day and yearly planning; worked on process improvement teams; worked a 4 day union work-stoppage; hired a million (not literally) new employees; fired 2 employees; lived in different areas of the country and traveled a little. My job is perfect for me. It keeps me busy but I am usually not bored.

Having said all that, I do work for a very large company. I am comfortable with the way they treat their employees and the direction they are heading enviromentally. Neither are perfect, but they are working to improve all the time. Their safety record is excellent. All those things combined make it easy for me to work for a big company.

My advice (for what it is worth) - graduate with a chemical engineering degree, try out a position in your field. If you hate it, quit. Teaching will always be there. You may stumble into a chemical engineering job that you love.

Good luck!
posted by beachhead2 at 12:59 PM on December 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

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