Working in the food industry

Hi there, I have some questions that hopefully you will be able to shed some light on. I'm currently doing Chemistry, Maths, Politics and Product Design at A levels. I'm now moving on to choosing the universities I want to go to.
In terms of career path I want to go into the food and drink sector,doing engineering, working with the processes in the making of products. Whether that's making then more efficient or environmentally friendly, through to designing new machinery. Do you think that chemical engineering would give me the path into this career? Another question I would like to ask is what do you like to see in a potential applicant in terms of attributes as well as personal statements?
Also, slightly different to my previous questions, why did you decide to peruse a career in Chemical Engineering?
I don't know how different the US schooling system is to the UK, so I hope this makes sense.
Thank you so much for your time.
Kind Regards,
posted by Tabitha, Downham Market, UK on August 10, 2014

Answer 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