Is Chemical Engineering Right for You?

Ola Akinsunmade
Ola Akinsunmade

Chemical Engineer

Table of Contents


Is Chemical Engineering right for me?

This is definitely a daunting question to ask before pursuing a degree that will potentially determine how you spend the next few years of your life and professional career.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about how to effectively answer this question. I considered sharing my experience in navigating this difficult question but realized that my answer would be somewhat limited.

Answering the Question

Ultimately, the best way to answer this question is to get some perspective from others who have built and are building their careers based on their answer. 

I did some reaching out asking a few engineers at varying levels of experience to share their responses and I’m excited to share them with you!

We’ll also take a deeper dive into some quotes from their responses to try and paint a picture that you can pick out your own answers from.

The Engineers' Perspectives - Insight from REAL Chemical Engineers

Sergio Berretta, P.Eng

Sergio Berretta, P.Eng

Former Vice President and COO BC Research, Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia

“Is Chemical Engineering right for me?

For young individuals interested in math and science, and looking at a university education, answers to a couple of questions may provide guidance on the educational path to consider. These questions are:

  1. Am I interested in the understanding of why certain physical phenomena happen and/or how to push the boundary of what is known in science?
  2. Am I interested in the practical application of science and math? 

The answers to these questions are not mutually exclusive. However, a stronger inclination to the first question may indicate that a career in science may be of a higher interest. A stronger inclination to the second question may indicate that a career in engineering may be of a higher interest. In my particular case, I always had a strong interest in solving problems and using science and math to guide me through. Hence, an engineering career was an obvious choice. However, the field of engineering to follow is likely a lot more subjective.

Based on over 25 years of industrial engineering experience working with engineers from every field, I would argue that a young person considering an engineering degree and interested in solving real world challenges, learning to think laterally, leading and managing, starting new ventures, and/or working all over the world, should seriously contemplate a career in chemical and biological engineering. 

Chemical and biological engineers are at the forefront of solving many societal challenges facing us today. We find them working on the development of processes and technologies such as fuel cells, conversion of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to green chemicals, mining of electronic waste, vertical farming, new vaccines, medical devices, or conversion of wood to fabrics for clothing, just to name a few. 

These engineers are always pushing the boundaries of what is practically possible on very much everything that surrounds us, the outcomes of which naturally lend themselves to the formation and creation of new start-ups and ventures. Moreover, many of these challenges being worked on span the world over, driving Canadian engineers to travel and work in all continents.

The field of chemical and biological engineering is wide, diverse, and ever evolving.  Is chemical and biological engineering right for me? At a personal level, I can simply answer that after over 25 years in industry, I am more passionate than ever about this field of engineering, not just for what it has done for me, but more importantly for what it has allowed me to do for our society at large.”

Rana Ahmed Barghout

Rana Ahmed Barghout

Chemical Engineering Masters Student, University of Toronto
Recipient of 2021 UBC CHBE Award in Breakthrough Innovations and Engineering Leadership

I feel like chemical engineering gives me a lot of options as to what to do. There's a lot to do with chemical engineering that doesn't necessarily involve “typical” chemical engineering. It provides you with crucial skills in terms of problem solving, communication and working in a team.

From a technical aspect, you get a general technical education in learning about distillation towers, heaters which is the typical textbook chemical engineering. You learn the general engineering concepts such as fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, heat transfer and mass transfer which I feel are essential concepts which apply to any physical thing in our world.

Hessam Ziaei

Hessam Ziaei

Process and Research Engineer, Enerkem

In response to your question, I was very interested in chemistry during high school. Furthermore, my major was math and physics and I wanted to become an engineer. That resulted in me pursuing the chemical engineering field at university level to combine my interests.

A few things to delve into here. Whilst each answer is unique to the answerer, they share a notable similarity. 

As Sergio mentioned, one’s choice of which engineering discipline to pursue is subjective. Choosing chemical engineering as your discipline of choice and ultimately answering the question of whether it is right for you elicits you to answer the following questions:

  1. What exactly is Chemical Engineering?
  2. How do my strengths and interests align with the answer to the first question?

What is Chemical Engineering?

You have probably gotten a sense of what chemical engineering entails through some of the responses provided. Here’s a quick video by a friend of mine that I hope will give a more explicit answer to the question.

In a nutshell, Chemical Engineering is the study of design or operation of chemical plants designed to transform raw materials into a finished product through synergistically functioning processing units. 

As Shawn mentions in his video, “a Chemical Engineer is someone who oversees large industrial scale processes. Chemical Engineers are constantly thinking of how we can improve the processes we manage”

Chemical Engineering Industries

We have mostly been speaking in vague terms about what chemical engineers do and what industries they operate within. 

In the Engineers Response #1, Sergio offers a bit more clarity in this line from his response:

“We find them working on the development of processes and technologies such as fuel cells, conversion of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to green chemicals, mining of electronic waste, vertical farming, new vaccines, medical devices, or conversion of wood to fabrics for clothing, just to name a few.”

One of the most attractive features of a Chemical Engineering degree is its versatility. Its range of applicability spans virtually every sphere of life we interact with. 

I can say with certainty that almost every product you interact with on a daily basis (toilet paper, laundry detergent, plastic bottles) has a chemical engineer at the helm of its development.

To demonstrate this point, here’s a few examples of job titles held by individuals with a Chemical Engineering degree:

  • Process Engineer
  • Process Control and Data Science Engineer
  • Packaging Project Engineer
  • Wastewater Process Engineer
  • Research and Development Engineer
  • Technical Safety Engineer
  • Production Engineer
  • Project Engineer

How Do I Prepare for a Degree in Chemical Engineering?

In trying to answer this question, I will also try to provide an answer to the second question I posed a few paragraphs earlier. 

“How do my interests and passions align with my answer to the first question?”

To prepare for a degree in Chemical Engineering, one needs to possess a strong grasp of what I would refer to as the scientific “holy trinity”

  1. Math (Calculus)
  2. Physics
  3. Chemistry

I thought I would challenge this notion by surveying a group of chemical engineers to find out their favorite classes at a high school level that best prepared them for their degree.

Following 1,353 responses, here are the results:

Is Chemical Engineering Right For Me
Preparatory High School Classes for Chemical Engineers

Approximately 50% of the respondents on the forum voted Chemistry which is expected but may be misleading. 26% voted for Math (Calculus) and 13% for Physics as their favorite classes. 

Hessam mentioned in his response that he pursued Chemical Engineering as he found that it combined his interests in Chemistry, Math and Physics at a university level.

Whilst a firm understanding of all 3 classes guarantees certain success in your academic and professional career as a Chemical Engineer, I refer to the second question posed by our friend Sergio (especially with regards to Chemistry).

“Am I interested in the practical application of science and math?”

Chemical Engineering is an applied science that deals with the study of manipulating a substance’s chemical properties utilizing the laws of physics and a knowledge of its chemical makeup.

Personality Quiz

What personality traits are needed to be a chemical engineer?

Now that you have realized that Chemical Engineering may be the perfect degree for you based on your interests and passions, it would also be nice to know that you have the personality for it.

Based on personal experience and frequent interactions with Chemical Engineers from all backgrounds and industries, here’s some prompts to get you thinking. 

  • I think a lot about different ways to solve a problem
  • I enjoy digging up information if it helps me solve a problem
  • I am comfortable making reasonable assumptions to help me better understand and solve a problem
  • I am a team player and enjoy working in a team
  • I enjoy speaking and interacting with people from different backgrounds
  • I enjoy learning about new things that I have never been exposed to

 It is important to mention that a lot of personality traits/soft skills particular to Chemical Engineers can be built. What is more important is your underlying interest and desire to learn the trade. 

Chemical Engineers are characterized as creative thinkers. You will likely be working in industries with cutting edge products and technologies, so it is important that you are able to think outside the box. The problem solving nature of chemical engineers often requires digging for information from a variety of sources ranging from research papers to equipment vendor specifications to live plant data. Naturally and quite frequently, you will need to make assumptions about a problem to simplify the process of developing an adequate solution. 

Chemical Engineers usually serve as the quarterback of the teams they work within as they are the most familiar with the inner workings of a process. Therefore, there is a large emphasis placed on being able to communicate with individuals from different disciplines and academic backgrounds.

As mentioned previously, a majority of these skills are built during the course of your studies through courses and projects. I can personally testify to this especially when working in a team. Having these skills or traits should not define your choice to pursue Chemical Engineering but should be considered more “nice to haves”.

Concluding Thoughts

To know if Chemical Engineering is right for you, it is important to understand what you are getting into. Chemical Engineers are the drivers of innovation utilizing physical principles to transform raw materials into useful products. 

Ultimately this demands a strong grasp of classes such as Physics, Math and Chemistry with an emphasis on the application of the concepts taught in these classes.

I think the best way to conclude would be with a quote from Sergio’s response:

I would argue that a young person considering an engineering degree and interested in solving real world challenges, learning to think laterally, leading and managing, starting new ventures, and/or working all over the world, should seriously contemplate a career in chemical/biological engineering.

Remember, you have the information, but more importantly, you have the Engineer’s Perspective!

Interact with us in the comments and let us know why you decided/are deciding to study Chemical Engineering!

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