Building a career out of a chemical engineering degree

U of T chapter of Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering hosts alumni career panel
Grant shared advice to students drawn from her experience in environmental consulting. ADAM A. LAM/THE VARSITY
Grant shared advice to students drawn from her experience in environmental consulting. ADAM A. LAM/THE VARSITY

The perennial question of what to do with one’s degree was answered in part for chemical engineering students at an alumni career panel last week. Alumni from U of T’s Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry, who now work in fields ranging from biotechnology to environmental engineering, shared advice on how to apply their skills to business and building unique skill sets.

The Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering — University of Toronto Student Chapter hosted the event at the Haultain Building on November 27.

From graduate school to business development

Dr. Darren Rodenhizer, the Business Development and Partnerships Lead at the biotechnology startup AmacaThera, spoke about the value of earning a PhD in science.

He explained that his education has enabled him to develop a technical expertise with the firm’s products, which lets him speak “down in the weeds” with scientists about his firm’s offerings.

Beyond technical expertise, Rodenhizer also noted that his graduate studies taught him the skills to work in business without specifically studying the field.

“You’re going to learn how to tell data-driven stories, which are what many companies hiring today are looking for,” he said. “You’ll be able to collect and analyze data; it’s going to open up a whole new realm of job opportunities.”

However, Rodenhizer did note drawbacks of pursuing a PhD. For example, he said that graduate students could feel a lack of recognition for their work. “You’re going to extend your student living… for another five years. You’re not going to make very much money,” he added.

“And there’s a lot of publications coming out now [about] the mental health side effects of going to grad school,” he said. He recalled a study that found that graduate students in the US are at least three times more likely to experience mental health issues than the average American. This study was conducted on economics PhD students.

Making the leap to a career in industry

According to Cathy Grant, a Principal Consultant at C&S Grant Environmental Consulting, “Once you graduate, the hard part’s over.”

“You did all the hard slogging; you did all the technical stuff. And really what you walk away with is the ability to teach yourself what you need to know,” she said.

She noted that learning on the spot is a strong advantage, as there is a great deal of information that employees who start out in their respective fields need to learn that may not be taught in a traditional engineering degree program.

Grant also shared interview advice, noting that if you get nervous, it is helpful to reflect on the top three bits of information that you wish to convey.

“Always go into a situation thinking, ‘What do I want to say?’” she said. She also recommended preparing for general questions, such as why you think you’re qualified for the job.

Getting the most out of your undergraduate years

Firas Ghazali, a consultant at Deloitte, advised undergraduate students to make the most of their degrees.

Ghazali, while noting that his experiences might not be valid for everyone, recommended that students find time to build relationships with their colleagues during their studies. He also recommended that they schedule time to disconnect from their work and unwind.

“You need to disconnect so that you can restart that following week and keep going. This is not an easy program.”

“I would say [too much stress] is not worth it,” he said. “So try to balance your personal health and mental health… because it really is not that bad at U of T.”

Building a valuable skill set

Mark Angelo, the CEO of LMC Healthcare, spoke about his unconventional career path that took him from U of T as an undergraduate, to Harvard Business School, and finally to industry.

He also presented a list of takeaways for students interested in starting their careers.

“Try to keep your options open for as long as possible. Don’t close any doors until you’re forced to close them,” he said.

He also recommended having a “focused breadth.” To Angelo, that means having breadth in your skills, but also finding ways to take these divergent interests and synthesize them into a unique skill set.

Angelo, for example, studied engineering, health care, and social enterprise, and uses all three fields in his career.

“I think that gives you a competitive advantage. It allows you to be unique in what you do, because anyone can do maybe one of those three things, but there [are few] people who have maybe done all of those three things and combined them.”

He recommends that students reflect on three or four passions and build a unique skill set from them.

To embark on a career path, Angelo endorsed pursuing what makes you happy. “Trust your gut. Get feedback and input from others; it’s your life, and it’s your happiness.”

“Go out there and do what makes you come alive,” he said. “Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

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