Starting a chemical engineering career in academia (Day 190)

Starting a chemical engineering career in academia (Day 190)

3rd December 2014

Research is an important part of chemical engineering, and chemical engineers going on to further study and completing a PhD make up part of that picture. The importance of chemical engineering research in being at the forefront of tackling many of the world's tough challenges is also emphasised in IChemE's technical strategy, Chemical Engineering Matters.

Graduate destinations data from Higher Educations Statistics Agency

In the UK, it is encouraging to see that more graduates are going on to further study within chemical engineering (see graph) than the other engineering disciplines.

So, what is is like to go into further study and start a career in academia nowadays?

I can certainly tell you what it was like back in the 1970s when I started, but I think that it's probably for the best that I hand the reigns over to a chemical engineer completing their PhD in the present day for today's guest blog.


Name: prefer not to say

Job: Further study/PhD

Course: Chemical engineering

Graduated: 2012

Employer: University/funding partner

Salary: £14,000 - 16,000

An opportunity arose when I was finishing my undergraduate degree to apply for a PhD within a chemical engineering field that particularly appealed to me.

It's interesting to note that before this, I hadn't really considered it as an option and thought that I would pursue a chemical engineering career as a graduate, working for a company within industry, as many of my university classmates have gone on to do.

But I saw this opportunity as a foot in the door to an industry I was interested in working in, so back when I started, my intentions were different to than what they are now. If I hadn't had pursued a PhD, I would not have known that a career in academia actually really suits me.

Currently, I'm just into the final year of my three-year funded PhD studentship researching degradation and stability problems in materials, as part of an optimisation programme for a large company. Basically, I'm trying to consolidate the scientific understanding that makes the safety case for these materials and build a more empirical picture of what's going on.

In terms of what I've found challenging, I wouldn't say that it was the technical side of my PhD but it's more the project management aspect of my work.

A decent literature review will determine the next steps of where my research is going but project management that incorporates people management like working with technicians in my department, ordering supplies, completing invoices and getting things done on time has proved the most testing part so far.

But it does mean I have learnt to deal with responsibility, including controlling the the financial budget of my research to make sure that I'm not wasting the funding I was given to complete my PhD.

When you start a PhD, there are a lot of different paths to go down, but as you progress further, you can define the direction of your project/research under the advice of your supervisor. And that's why mine veered towards materials.

I guess on a typical day at work, I'm finding solutions to things that have gone wrong the day before, or trying to understand results from experiments that were unexpected or dealing with other project management issues.

Throughout a PhD, its great to be proactive and develop yourself professionally. That's why I've been involved with teaching undergraduates at my university by helping out during tutorials and lectures. And I've even helped design/develop new course materials and an exam paper.

Another part of being proactive is getting my research published in peer-reviewed journals and for conferences - which is actually really important to me. I would say that each paper takes about six months to complete and I currently am in the process of writing four simultaneously. Of course, my aim is to get them published in journals with high impact factors.

If I look back to my undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and think about how much of it I use now - I would say that I don't necessarily use the direct knowledge gained throughout those years, but I do have to take an engineering approach to problems to find solutions. And I guess that's why, in part, I enjoy academia so much; I enjoy investigating new things!

My advice to those chemical engineering undergraduates thinking about the next step in their career, whether that be further study or employment, is to be sure of what you want. For example, if you want to go into industry, doing a PhD might not give you the leg up you thought it might have - I'm perhaps being controversial here but again, it's about where you want your career to take you.

Life in academia really suits me, I enjoy the flexible working hours and even though I get critiqued a lot about my research in my journal papers, I find it challenging and it drives me to achieve more.

I went into chemical engineering because at the end of the day, as a chemical engineer, you are part of a group of people who are engineering positive solutions towards society and the way we live and not many professions can say that.

So if someone were to ask me if I was proud to be a chemical engineer in academia - I'd immediately say yes, no question about it!!


Do you have a chemical engineering good news story or want to write a ChemEng365 guest blog? If so, contact me via the blog.