Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Your morning troll: B.S. chemists need to be supervised, chemical engineers are teh awesome

Believe it or not, I have quite a few things to say, but I wanted to find time for this gem from a 2013 National Academies workshop on undergraduate chemistry education. (You can read it for free at the site, or you can download it, if you register.)

There were lots of professors and representatives from industry at the conference. Here, John Kozarich (president of ActiveX Biosciences), Joel Shulman (professor at the University of Cincinnati), Shannon Bullard (HR director at DuPont), Francine Palmer (Solvay) and Robert Peoples (sustainability director at the Carpet America Recovery Effort) discuss recent graduates in the chemical sciences:
Kozarich and Shulman both thought that students need to have some exposure to interviewing skills, which is in a sense an extension of problem solving. Shulman thought that these kinds of “employability skills” could be incorporated into the new requirement in the ACS guidelines that call for students to have a capstone experience.  
Shulman also asked the panel if the salary premium that chemical engineering graduates receive compared with chemistry graduates is a result of the former having more of these employability skills. Both Palmer and Bullard agreed with that statement completely. Palmer noted that the chemical engineering graduates she hires have much more experience in collaborative problem solving and in presentation skills because those are emphasized in the chemical engineering curriculum. Bullard added that the training focus in chemistry is on independent research in a specific area, not interdisciplinary research in a team context.  
Peoples noted that when a company hires a chemical engineer, it knows that it can assign him or her a problem and the chemical engineer will know how to tackle it and solve it. Chemists with a bachelor’s degree come with the expectation that they will be supervised.
I think that chemists and chemical engineers are typically asked to work on different sorts of problems, but Dr. Peoples' opinion has the air of truthiness around it. I'm skeptical that it is indeed an accurate statement (especially that chemical engineers have magic problem-tackling skills), but what do I know?

UPDATE: Should I nominate Dr. Peoples' for the first-ever Banholzer Award in Truth-Telling about Chemical Employment for his opinion that B.S. chemical engineers have more Git-'Er-Done-ness than B.S. chemists? I am tempted. 


  1. What kind of blurry annoy crap is that!?!

  2. 1) You have a much harder time outsourcing engineers (other than computer ones), I think. They need to be where the work is being done, and can't be shipped in remotely from halfway around the world. I don't know, but other types of engineers (civil) are expected to have legal responsibility for their work, so that means that they have to be able to be held responsible and thus have to be paid more for that responsibility.

    In addition, engineering is for things that are or will be marketed shortly, so companies are less willing not to spend money on it (because it will hurt them soon), while the R in R+D costs money in the near term and may not produce anything, so businesses (particularly if their management isn't going to be around for long and is paid for short-term value) are willing to do lots of things (either cutting it or outsourcing it) that may hurt in the long-term (or may not, if we're not good) but will pay now.

    2) Engineering is based around team exercises because their projects need multiple people and so training them without an understanding of how things will work would be dumb. Chemistry, even when it's a team endeavor, is still primarily an individual task. Spending lots of time working on teams would mean either adding work (which students would have to pay for) or cutting things from the curriculum (that they presumably need).

    I assume they want to exculpate the academic community (for creating far more graduates than jobs under somewhat dishonest pretenses) and companies (for short-term thinking - refusal to train, lack of employment security for positions requiring large sunk costs, managing to stock prices, etc.) for their role in unemployment. It's all our fault - please move on now.

  3. Concrete DovetailApril 2, 2014 at 3:21 PM

    "...the chemical engineer will know how to tackle it and solve it." No, not really. This is like saying "when a company hires a white male, it knows that it can assign him a problem and the white male will know how to tackle it and solve it. Companies preference for chemical engineers has more to do with trend following than any critical thinking on the part of the hiring committee. This reminds me of Chinese companies that hire tall white guys to be their CEO, even if those guys have no business experience. I've found that chemical engineers often have trouble thinking at the molecular level and the significance of reactivity, even at the graduate school level. This isn't to say that chemical engineers are worthless, but I certainly would not give them any special treatment.

  4. I can't explain why it's that way, but I've seen it in numerous situations over the last 25 years or so (the general attitude that BS chemists are hired as supervised technicians, while the engineers aren't).

    Certainly a chemist graduating from a small outstate campus or a liberal arts school of dubious value are less likely to stack up well with an engineer in general, in large part because the engineering departments are usually parts of large schools with higher admission standards. But those same large schools also have chemistry departments filled with the same caliper of students. So I don't know why it is that way.

    Just really glad I went the engineering route. Once employed, I was able to get back into chemistry fairly quickly and avoided all the insanity of graduate school in the chemistry department.

  5. Most newly minted B.S. ChE's have a one semester internship in an industrial setting. Most newly minted B.S. Chem don't. I wonder if that practical experience plays a role?

  6. Concrete DovetailApril 2, 2014 at 5:10 PM

    But some B.S. do summer internships at companies. Does anyone know if that affects starting salary? My guess is that it does not, especially since companies can get away with not paying more. Perhaps people just think people who study chemical engineering are smarter and more serious about their work. Thanks to quotes like the one from Peoples', this oversimplification will continue. I do hope that someday chemistry and chemical engineering are combined so we can get over the stigma of Chem E better than Chem. Many of the innovations in engineering are made by people who identify themselves as chemists. Need an example? George Whitesides.

  7. I could easily see the problem-solving statement being true, at least initially, but I think there should be some large caveats associated with it. I am a chemist, so don't know a lot about ChemE, but I could imagine a lot of equation solving and looking up things in reference books to tackle and solve the problem(s). This would likely be very similar to course work. I would also expect the solution(s) to be vetted quite well by a more senior engineer before being used in a real-world situation.

    Conversely, a B.S. chemist will likely be expected to immediately start work in the lab. Most B.S. chemists don't have a large amount of experience in the lab, so they are going to need some assistance in learning how to safely work in the lab and how to properly use the instrumentation. Mistakes made (and caught) on paper and in the office are a lot more forgiving than mistakes made in the lab. Overloading the HPLC and shutting it down for a day of maintenance and cleaning is not how you want to start work. Forgetting that you add acid to water, not water to acid, could also really ruin that first week.

    I would expect that within a year (or less) the disparity should even out.

  8. Let's not get the Chicken/Egg thing backwards: helplessness is learned, not innate. When someone is pigeon-holed into a small role, forbidden from making any intellectual contribution to project strategy, and told to simply follow an SOP, then guess what? They start waiting for instructions instead of taking the initiative.

    On the other hand, give a newly-minted B.S. Chemist a project of their own, show them the resources available to them, and tell them to, get to it; they'll probably fall flat on their face. Then they'll get back up, start talking to people, get help where needed in planning experiments, and start advancing the project goals. People need room to fail. They also need their successes to be visible. Most importantly, they need to be invested in the project's success.

    This has been my experience. I went into industry after completing my B.S. in Chemistry from a large research university 5 years ago--and I was exceptional only in my mediocrity. In that time, I had two temp gigs + 1 permanent gig in which I was a technician in everything but name. Sick of being seen as a pair of hands, I switched to my current gig where I'm given much more freedom in the lab and more ownership of my work. I work alongside chemical technicians, chemists, and chemical engineers. Education levels range from High School Diplomas through Ph.D.'s + Post Doc experience. Here, I *regularly* see chemical engineers fall on their face. Chemical Engineers are not superhuman problem solvers. If they were, then every process would work the first time. I see Ph.D.'s struggle to explain SNAFU's. And with only B.S., I've made highly visible contributions to important projects within a year of being here. The simple fact is that everyone gets things wrong, regardless of their background, and everyone can learn from those mistakes and formulate new ideas if they even belong in research in the first place. To paraphrase W.I.B. Beveridge in "The Art of Scientific Investigation," new researchers should not give anybody undue reverence.

    Overall, I think that artificial barriers and hierarchies are put in the way of B.S. Chemists moreso than B.S. Chemical Engineers. Supervisors are afraid to let B.S. Chemists be chemists; they're not given room to "play" in the lab. That's the real cultural difference.


  9. I like this comment a lot. Well done, thank you.

  10. This is a comment I made on a conversation on the ACS's LinkedIn page before this post today, but I think is relevant:

    "I'm curious why the ACS hasn't gone the same route as say the AMA or ABET in terms of being an accrediting organization to make the employment market for chemists better. I realize there are now the ACS tests and such, and many universities are starting to use them, but in no way are there requirements by any employer that they will only hire graduates from ACS 'certified' programs.

    Also why doesn't the ACS accredit labs similar to ISO/AIHA/etc?

    From my point of view so many organizations have eaten away at the territory of the ACS, and the ACS has become so dependent on publishing that it's forgotten it was founded to bring, "members of the association into closer union, and ensure a better appreciation of our science and its students on the part of the general public." Other organizations appear to have had a better long term game plan for its members and controlling the employment sector in which it's members work.

    From what I get out of the ACS, they might as well just be a major publishing house like Penguin or HarperCollins. My ROI for membership has only faded the farther from academia I get."

    I also quoted the bolded part from the initial post later, but didn't credit this blog for it. Sorry CJ.

  11. I also wonder if the ACS would have become an accrediting organization if the CSB had some kind of enforcement powers.

  12. Chemical engineers don't care about chemistry.
    They care about the process.

    Showcasing George Whitesides as an example of a chemist/chemical engineer is relevant, but only if we acknowledge that he started his academic career at MIT.

  13. Slightly off topic, but is the salary (and 'prestige') difference between chemists and chemical engineers down to their different output?

    With chemists the main product of their work is not in fact large amounts of chemicals, it is the knowledge of how to make these chemicals. So you can both outsource chemistry easily (as knowledge transfer is easier than the transfer of physical things), plus once you have the knowledge the chemists can be discarded.

    With chem engineers being needed to run/maintain the plants they are needed in the physical location that the chemicals are made, and are needed for a longer period of time than the chemists to troubleshoot.

    Chemist here

  14. Concrete DovetailApril 3, 2014 at 9:55 AM

    Hmmm...At the company I am at you will find both chemists and chemical engineers working in the R&D lab. There are a couple chemical engineers in production, but their job duties are well outside the scope of R&D. You can always collect the knowledge someone brings to the company through their research, but you can't simply replace people once you extract their knowledge. There are a number of assets a person can bring to the lab. Perhaps most importantly is their intuition about how to go about doing research. I don't see any benefit to a chemical engineering degree here. Whether a "chemist" or "chemE" is more valued should depend on the nature of the business. In the end these are just degree titles, not religious orders. One thing that the chemistry BS should include is knowledge of rheology as this is quite important at chemical companies. Chemistry is not just synthetic organic chemistry. I've encountered some people (advanced degree holders in engineering or physics) who will go so far as to make it sound like if you studied chemistry you are not allowed to know anything other than organic chemistry (one time of many when I experienced this is when I was explaining to some people who never did AFM why the AFM experiment they were proposing wouldn't work; they would not listen even though I have spent a considerable amount of time doing AFM).

  15. Initially I was worried but when I saw John Kozarich name then I ignored it. Been there and done that, John Kozarich during his stay at Merck was full of BS! He came to Merck with lot of accolades but mercifully left after few years. He is a good wheeler dealer as they come! People can look his profile in LinkedIn site.

  16. You can let a BS Chem E run off and solved a heat transfer problem on their own, but I doubt you're going to immediately implement it before checking it. If you let a BS chemist run off and play by themselves you might end up with a fire. I question the assertion that you can let ChemEs work with markedly less supervision than chemists - the supervision may come at a different point in the process, but I'm sure it's there. Then again maybe I should just make a point of avoiding living near any chemical plants if they're really letting freshly minted ChemEs work with that degree of autonomy.

  17. Chem Major/ChemE Minor here and I see Palmer & Bullard's comments as accurate to explain the differences in BS education:
    "Palmer noted that the chemical engineering graduates she hires have much more experience in collaborative problem solving and in presentation skills because those are emphasized in the chemical engineering curriculum. Bullard added that the training focus in chemistry is on independent research in a specific area, not interdisciplinary research in a team context." I would also add I see Engineers in general typically get practical Economics and Design/Report generation in courses that are lacking in Chemistry. All those skills imparted to ChemEs are highly valued in most industrial settings and can be exploited in a wide range of functions where as the stereotypical isolated lab workers are frequently tolerated as an expense that might someday find something useful (and indeed suffer from pigeon-holing).
    I am not sure where People's comment is coming from other than possible prejudice based on conventional way BS ChemE vs. Chemist often start careers but I would suggest many Engineers I have known are not necessary good problem solvers themselves (at least individually) as devoid of solid common-sense but are great at implementation of solutions devised by others (via groups or the truly good problem solvers) so do quickly move on the Git-er-done mode. There is truth in that tools of ChemE can be learned in class that readily be applied to tasks but for Chemists it is harder to take just the basics from undergrad and then do much of significant value without more in-depth understanding or guidance to go beyond technician type labor. Chemist can often try to over think problems or simply need time to devise and execute the experiments to address issues so can take longer.

  18. Hello,

    I would like to request more comments on this topic and how can any short commings be addressed by colleges. Thanks

  19. Anon 4/7 7:17AM Since the difference of perception for BS Chemists vs BS ChemE is fairly pervasive I am not sure there are simple solutions that colleges can implement to enhance the immediate usefulness of Chemists in Industry. In fact the present system for the most part seems to be designed to feed PhD programs and maybe an odd MS (i.e. academic continuum) rather than well equipped BS Chem people ready to transition to industry. Part of that is the focus related with Engineers being largely educated with basic practical tools that are often applicable for wide range of common type tasks yet at the same level Chemists hopefully at least get taught the Scientific Method, which can be broadly applied, with much of undergrad lessons tending to be transfer of specific knowledge and appreciation of accumulated information or techniques which rarely find too much direct usefulness outside the research/lab setting. Gaining awareness and contact with Chemists in Industry might show people what areas have do value and should be emphasized beyond book and lab know-how. Certainly having the mainline Chem Majors courses structured to mandate a few Team Projects and Individual Presentations could be useful preparation for industry environments even though can see not as easy integrated as Engineering classes where is standard to work as groups and give more talks.

  20. I tend to disagree with the notion that team work and presentations isn't easily integrated into the chemistry curriculum. So many courses have a lab section associated with them, and much of this work, especially upper level lab courses, could be made into team projects with a short (5 - 10 min) presentation to cap each project report. This idea was partially implement at both universities that I attended. In undergrad, upper level lab work was done in pairs, but each student had to write a separate lab report (which I felt was unnecessary, a group report would have been sufficient). No presentations were made of the finished results. Later in grad school, lab work was done independently, and a short presentation was given on the transformations and characterizations. I think using lab courses to implement these more industrial aspects of a chemist might be a good place to start.

  21. I feel the same is true over here in the UK, I think it is due to a range of reasons:

    1) There are more post-graduate qualified chemists around in industry leading to the view that a 'proper' senior chemist should have a PhD.
    2) Chemical Engineers are more likely to have industrial experience gained through their degrees.
    3) Chemical Engineering grads are generally put on chemical engineering problems within most industries where there is almost an exact match up to something they have done as an undergraduate (albeit potentially more difficult and with less information).
    4) Chemistry grads, by contrast, seem to be given much broader problems that rely as much on industry specific knowledge as chemical knowledge (such as chemical/waste handling costs and procedures, regulatory compliance, materials & corrosion issues, analytical standards, etc.) where they will clearly need supervision whilst they build up that industry specific knowledge.

    This seems to lead to the view that chemists are somehow underprepared for work, however the comparison is very unfair. Chemists cannot be expected to leave university with detailed industry specific knowledge across all possible industries, however a distillation column is a distillation column is a distillation column whether it be in the food or fine chem sectors.

    In the end this, is simply the difference between an applied and a fundamental discipline. Chem Engers come out able to solve specific problems, chemists are much more flexible because they have a more fundamental education, but need support to gain specific knowledge to help them solve problems.

    As for the idea that chemistry is an individual enterprise and chem grads have no experience of collaborating... come on! We all know enough to know that that is utter poppy cock! Where exactly do these grads do their 'independent research projects'? In their supervisor's lab surrounded by PhD's and postdocs!

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looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20