Chemical Engineer Career Interview
Dr. Joe Cramer has been a chemical engineer for nearly 45 years, and currently he is the Director Emeritus of technical programming for the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).
Chemical Engineer Career Path
Based on his love of math and science, Joe has had lifelong interest in chemical engineering.
“In high school, I couldn’t decide between becoming a physicist or a chemical engineer,” he says. “I don’t exactly remember why, but I picked chemical engineering. I liked it, so I stayed.
Chemical Engineer Experiences
Joe received his Bachelor of Science and his PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. He also earned his Masters in Chemical Engineering Practice from the MIT Practice School.
He worked as an environmental engineer, project manager and program manager at Stone and Webster Engineering. Joe also worked as the air quality engineering department/group head at Bechtel and Brown & Root.
Since 1994, Joe has worked as the director of technical programming for the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AlChE).
Chemical Engineer Degree Programs
The required education for a career in chemical engineering depends on the setting in which you work.
“For research and development,” Joe explains, “you generally need a Master’s degree, a PhD, or both. To work in operations, you only need a Bachelor’s degree, although many engineers earn advanced degrees later on to move up.”
Although not all chemical engineers need a PE license, it’s always a good idea better yourself with additional education.
“Both AlChE and myself personally recommend that every degreed chemical engineer makes the extra effort to become licensed,” says Joe. “The main practical reason is that you never know where your career might take you, and having the PE gives you more options.”
He continues, “In addition, taking the FE and PE exams early in your career is generally a lot easier than doing it later on. I would recommend that all seniors in Ch.E. programs take the FE (Fundamentals in Engineering exam) and that graduates take the PE exam in Ch.E. (or in another specialty like environmental engineering or nuclear engineering if more appropriate) in about 4-6 years after attaining their last degree.”
Chemical Engineer Job Description
As the director of technical programming for AIChE, Joe has a number of responsibilities.
“I work with hundreds if not thousands of AIChE volunteers who develop content for the national meetings,” he explains. “I work with our meetings department to develop the nuts and bolts of the meetings, and I am responsible for guiding/interpreting the technical content.”
Joe also has a secondary responsibility to interpret technical problems to non-technical people on his staff that might not understand everything about chemical engineering.
“I get to deal with individuals and solve problems that involve people, not just technical problems,” he continues. “I like that aspect of a chemical engineer’s job, although not all chemical engineers feel the same way.”
“I’ve been mistaken professionally at various times in my career for an ecologist, meteorologist, marketing professional and lawyer based on all the work I do,” he adds. “This opportunity to stay well-rounded is what I like about chemical engineering.”
Chemical Engineer Daily Routine
Depending on the environment in which a chemical engineer works, a normal day’s routine may vary but will usually include long hours
“If you’re working in a plant, expect to work for about 50 to 60 hours per week,” says Joe, “which is also true for those who work labs, offices, and the field.”
In a plant, a chemical engineer works in a lab, production area, or pilot facility, and uses various chemicals, materials, and equipment to create and analyze products, but that is just one field for chemical engineers.
“Whether you work in R&D (research & development), production, marketing, or management, you are going to spend a lot of time on the computer,” Joe explains. “The type of work depends on what function you are working with, such as operations, process development, and sales and service.”
Today, computer is a necessary tool of production, development, R&D, marketing, or management, although depending on your function you will use the computer for very different things
“Several thousand engineers in the country also work in academia by teaching, leading research efforts and writing about their findings,” he adds.
“All chemical engineers put in long hours, but we are pretty well compensated and professionally respected. Chemical engineers can expect to do a lot of international work, too. I receive emails from all over the world with engineering questions. It’s not a 9 to 5 job. It’s tough and demanding, but also extremely rewarding and satisfying on a professional level.”
Chemical Engineer: Steps to Success
“You need a desire to see problems actually solved as we are results-oriented,” Joe explains, “as well as an ability to solve problems and a fascination with the process of solving. Chemical engineers have a background that makes them good at looking at an apparently insolvable problem and reframing the problem question in a way that facilitates a solution.”
“Chemical engineers also need to be able to communicate and write well,” he adds. “Developing this tool can really set you above the average and represent a great boost to your career.”
Chemical Engineer Job Opportunities
Based on the amount of work that goes into becoming a chemical engineer, Joe believes that it is difficult to start off, but at the same time, it is extremely exciting to be in a profession that is expanding to so many new fields of study.
“We are moving into the area of biology,” he says. “In the long run, I think that the prospects are good. It’s going to be a profession that’s around for many years. We deal with chemistry, biology, and physics, and they are not likely to go away.”
Chemical Engineer Favorite Aspect
While Joe loves the technical aspects of the career, he also enjoys the interaction with people.
“I love diagramming things,” he says, “but I also like the challenge of managing and dealing with people. I don’t like to just sit down and do calculations, but on the other hand, I do love numbers. I am always finding myself using numbers and facts to relate to people.”
Chemical Engineer’s Future Ambitions
After almost 45 years as a chemical engineer, Joe is nearing the end of his professional full-time employment, but that doesn’t mean that he’ll be done with chemical engineering.
“I want to continue to do volunteer and consulting work,” he explains. “Most of us are involved in chemical engineering from the point that we graduate until the day we die.”
Advice for Prospective Chemical Engineers
“First of all, you made a great decision in going into chemical engineering,” says Joe. “It’s broad enough, it’s challenging and ever-changing, and it offers many different career paths. Chemical engineering is a great undergraduate degree for going into medical, law, or business school.”
Joe also recommends taking a few years to decide which path you want to go down on the chemical engineering highway.
“It wasn’t until I graduated with my PhD that I realized that I like interacting with people the most,” he explains. “I liked the challenge of dealing with people.”
“If you like mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, and you like people and making a difference in the world, you can combine all of them in chemical engineering,” he adds.