Paulette Clancy

Paulette Clancy

Title
Professor and Director School of Chemical and Biolmolecular Engineering
Organization
Cornell University
Location
NY
Paulette Clancy
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Answers by Dr. Paulette Clancy

Hi Tabitha:

I was born and educated in the UK, so I feel some kinship with you there. Of course, I haven’t been in the UK undergraduate milieu for decades, so be aware that my answer is true for the U.S. and may or may not be true for the U.K. However, I think there’s a good chance that the answers would be much the same in both countries.

Yes, chemical engineering is an obvious choice for someone interested in engineering and making products you can eat! Who doesn’t like that….. The only other strong alternative is to choose a degree in Food Science. Indeed, there are a lot of Food Science faculty members with a formal education in chemical engineering. The Food Science senior lab class in what are called “unit operations” (UO, such as distillation, think beer or whisky, or extraction, think decaffeinated coffee, etc.) is essentially the same as a Chemical Engineering U.O. lab (only cleaner, since you are making food or drink).

The other big factor to consider is how confident you are that you know exactly what you want to do as a future career. If you are sure that your future lies in food and drink, then either Food Science or Chemical Engineering programs will be a perfect fit between your interests and an engineering or engineering-like (i.e., Food Science) degree. If you aren’t sure, then chemical engineering is a less specific major and would have more potential applications (from oil and gas, to pharmaceuticals, to food, to electronics) to allow you leeway to change your mind sometime between your first and final years. A halfway house might be to start out as a chemical engineering student and, if you don’t like it, transfer to a food science program. It can be harder to do things the other way round.

In terms of what are college programs looking for, there are some obvious things like a good record at A level (in the UK) [or High School GPA and SAT scores in the US]. The personal statement is your chance to show your personality (completely missing from the test scores) and your maturity (i.e., your readiness for college). Strong letters of recommendation from people who know you well as a student are important (not sure if they are required in the UK). All engineering schools will be paying close attention to your mathematics scores; you will be miserable suffering through an engineering program if you have a weak math(s) background. For chemical engineering, they will also be looking at your chemistry scores. In terms of the letters, the admissions folks will be looking to recruit a diverse body of students. Diversity here is a very broad concept; it can mean gender, geographical home town, personal traits, interests and experiences. Think of creating an orchestra, it sounds better when you have violinists, cellists, pianists, trombone players, etc., rather than all flute players (even if you love flutes!).

Finally, I was educated as a chemist, but I learned along the way that I love to solve problems, and that is probably the best definition of an engineer: we love to solve real-life problems in a practical way.

Good luck with your A levels and good luck making a difference in the food and beverage industry or whatever you end up doing.

Paulette Clancy

Dear Sarah (from Detroit)

If you love Calculus and AP Chem then you are certainly on a classic path to head towards Engineering, and especially Chemical Engineering, as a major at college.  Given that you love make-up and hygiene products (and who doesn't!), you should know that, for decades, Chemical Engineers have been hired by all of the major U.S. companies whose businesses are focused on those products. I am thinking about Proctor & Gamble, L'Oreal, Clorox, Unilever, and many more.

Make-up and hygiene products offer a rich set of problems for engineers, from surface chemistry (to reflect light away from skin imperfections, for instance), to biochemistry (clearing up acne), to materials engineering (balancing a soft but strong toilet paper.  The key core competencies are chemistry, engineering, and math (you have to model and analyze the product designs you are considering).

As a chemical engineer I may be a bit biased, but I would recommend that you consider a chemical engineering program.  First, packaging is a more narrow focus and it is not a major at many universities.  Second, post-college, you will have a career spanning about 45-50 years and you need a broad-based education to make sure that you have the background for whatever you do over that long time (and it's not likely to be just one job).  Third, many people come into college with one career aspiration and then get inspired to do something else. So you want a degree that allows you the breadth to prepare you for any changes you end up making in your focus without having to change majors.

With respect to environments, this will depend on where you are in the design chain. You may be in a laboratory if you are more focused on the chemistry of these products. You may be working in a pilot plant, running your own tests on a small-scale  and then analyzing them. Or you may be working on the (large-scale) manufacturing process itself and having to trouble-shoot quickly as problems arise (rather like being a first responder). Each of these environments are quite different and will reflect the activities relevant to that stage of the process, from lab bench to full-scale production. Then hopefully, some day you see the product you worked to produce on supermarket shelves- how exciting.

Finally, as any one who reads my answers to Engineer Girl knows, I also recommend that you ignore the salaries. You need to do what you love first and foremost. Love what you do. No amount of salary can make you love your job. You clearly already have passion, harness that instead.

Good luck and keep up those math and chemistry classes.

Paulette Clancy/Cornell 

Dear Sara:

Let me answer the second question first as it is easier.... No, you don't need to have a post-graduate education in chemical engineering. BS graduates in chemical engineering are highly sought after by industry and other employers. This degree is essentially a "pre-professional" degree and you will graduate with all the tools you need to be a contributing member of the engineering community at work.

However, roughly 15% of a typical graduating BS class of chemical engineers will choose to undertake a post-graduate education. This is typically either in a professional degree program like the self-funded 1-year Master of Engineering degree which helps by either broadening your engineering skills or deepening them in one area of your choice. Some of the 15% will choose to apply for 5-year fully funded PhD degree programs so that they can dedicate themselves to mastering the ability to design and conduct independent research.

Now to your first question: "what average do you need to be successful in ChE?" I expect that by "average" you are thinking of a GPA.  The truth is that almost all BS graduates in ChE will be successful in their post-graduation careers, regardless of GPA. Those with high GPAs may get job offers more quickly or get more job offers, but there is much more to success than just an undergraduate GPA.

Here are some of the other factors that lead to success post-graduation and few of them show any correlation with GPA:
(1) Your personality. Careers of any sort require that  you have the type of collaborative personality that make you easy to work with. Be a "can do" person.
(2) Your ability to lead. Few are born leaders but you can seek out experiences at college that will sharpen these skills.
(3) Broadening experiences. Industrial internships can help you get that important first job post-graduation. But employers also value volunteer work and outreach activities that show that you care about community-building. Consider international experiences to demonstrate that you are aware that there is not just one culture in the world and that you can appreciate and thrive in other cultures.
(4) Communication skills. You can be the best test-taker in the world with razor-sharp math skills, but if you cannot communicate your ideas, experiences and vision to others then you will not be as successful as you could be. This is a critical skill to acquire. Most universities have excellent courses in written and oral communications.
(5) Mentoring and training abilities. No matter what job you do post-graduation, you will end up mentoring others or training others. Seek out experiences within and outside your major to learn how to help and train other people.
(6) Do what you love. You should be excited to get up every day and do your job. Keep this in mind at college. If you find that your major does not make you feel that way, then find a major that does. Your heart will tell you when you find the right one. And remember that dictum in life and you will be a happy and contented person.

I hope this helps. Keep up your math skills and sharpen your enthusiasm for understanding how the physical universe works and you will be a great engineer some day. Good luck

Paulette Clancy

Hi Christine I am a chemist by training too, so I understand this transition well from personal experience. No, you don't have to go back to college to get a ChE degree. There are professionally oriented master's degree programs that, while not a substitute for a BS in ChE, will give you a good foundation in the engineering side of the chemical industries. At Cornell, for instance, a chemist can complete a Master of Engineering (Chemical) in under two years (4 semesters), depending on the courses you took as an undergraduate. I've attached a file that gives you a brief description of the M. Eng. program at Cornell in Chemical Engineering. If you want more details there are two points of contact on the last slide. Being an engineer will certainly broaden your career options and significantly increase your starting salary relative to that of a BS chemistry graduate. It would help a lot if you were able to take some courses in your final year to help prepare you and cut down your time-to-degree . I hope this helps. Paulette Clancy

Dear Margarate, I am delighted to hear that you are considering Chemical Engineering as a major in college and perhaps as a career. As you might expect, Chemical Engineers spend a lot of time learning the fundamentals of chemistry, especially physical and organic chemistry. They also take a lot of mathematics courses (usually four) and they learn some physics and biology before specializing in the fundamentals of chemical engineering (courses like thermodynamics, fluid mechanics and chemical kinetics, but also process control, separation processes and heat and mass transfer). When you graduate, you will find that a degree in Chemical Engineering is valued by a broad range of potential employers: pharmaceutical companies, chemical companies, semiconductor and electronics companies, consumer products, and oil and gas companies. But chemical engineers graduates are also hired by some companies that you might not expect, like banks and other financial institutions, consulting firms, and food companies. Of course, safety at work is an issue. But there is not a reputable industry that I know that hires chemical engineers that doesn't have employee safety as their most important concern. The safety of workers in the chemical industry is, in fact, much better than the average manufacturing job in the U.S. But chemical engineers work in so many industries that, if safety is a particular concern, you can work in a department or in an industry that does not involve exposure to hazardous materials. Chemical engineering is a wonderfully versatile degree to have and we make important advances in the production of products that make life better. It's a very fulfilling career path and one in which safety concerns should not be the deciding factor in your choice of study at college. I hope you keep working at your studies and fulfill your dreams, whatever they may be. Paulette Clancy