I very much wanted to be an engineer. The title itself made me want to stick through with it, but I also romanticized the idea of working with graduated cylinders and Petri dishes in a laboratory. In high school, science and math were my favorite subjects whether it was earth science, biology, chemistry, physics, geometry or calculus. So when I made it to college and needed to pick a major, it was not an easy decision. I can’t even say it was a well thought out decision – the best I can say is that chemical engineering had a reputation of being “hard-core,” and I had a great chemistry teacher. Once I started down that path of chemical engineering, I followed through to completion.
There were parts of chemical engineering that I enjoyed, but it took me a long time to understand which those were and were not. I wish I could say that I was more self-aware at the time, but I was also young and laser-focused enough to go on with it. (We all figured we would understand what chemical engineering really was at some point, but to be honest, we all had trouble defining the field by the end of our four years.) I’ll keep the part that I enjoyed short: the first principles, the programming in MATLAB, fulfilling childhood dreams of playing with lab glassware, and working with some incredibly talented minds. Like in a dysfunctional relationship perhaps, even though you can enumerate why you are staying, it may not immediately be evident that those benefits could be provided by many other relationships. The downsides are not worth working through more unhappiness than walking away and cutting losses at some point.
I thought that it was the specialization. The first summer I worked at a national laboratory working on patterning surfaces. The following school year, I continued in a lab on campus working on drug delivery. I spent a summer in yet another lab working on photovoltaics. Each time, I walked away from the experience feeling defeated. My hours in the lab did not produce anything particularly meaningful. If anything, I was not great with my hands and would accidentally ruin these too-small-to-see samples. I was terribly bored by reading papers and felt like I was a burden on my mentors. Each time, I thought that it was the subject area and went to try a different area of chemical engineering, only to find the same challenges.
Nearing graduation, I almost continued down the same path even further. I went to my academic advisor convinced that I needed to apply to graduate school. Luckily, he was much more level-headed than I was. Since I had no strong and reasonable reason to want to pursue the route, I was talked out of it.
And so I wasn’t supposed to continue in academia (at that time), but perhaps there were additional opportunities to explore in industry. One of the previous summers, I had worked at a chemical company examining alumina. I had not particularly enjoyed that experience either and decided I needed to go even further from R&D.
I figured I would try manufacturing, or what I considered the opposite of research. I spent my first year of full-time work mostly in an office. I produced all kinds of paperwork, including a massive internal document for lean manufacturing. I had to talk to all of these people and get their buy in. I got to visit factories on occasion to tell them what to do. (There was a common joke of saying “Hi! I’m from corporate and I’m here to help.”) From when I first started the job, I did not have a good grasp on what this was all supposed to help deliver, but I figured I needed to give it a chance. Writing nor talking with people were never strengths of mine, and I grew to hate the job more and more.
I wanted to experience factory life in comparison to corporate life. Eventually, I moved to work at a factory full-time to be closer to where engineering problems were being solved. That came with its own set of challenges. From corporate, I had the opportunity to visit quite a number of plants, so the products varied from one to another. The first few times I walked through a factory, I returned to some romanticized images of machinery. It was like watching an episode of “How Things Work” in excruciating detail. However, those soon faded into monotonous work which I felt like I had very little control over.
Regardless of whether my desk was at corporate or at the plant, working with the floor staff involved making friends to get things done, particularly in unionized plants, where you are not even allowed to touch the equipment that falls under the operators’ responsibilities. Everything took longer to do, and as a Type A, this became excruciatingly hard.
Budgets were tight. Equipment costs a lot of money. There were ongoing multiple multi-million dollar projects. However, there were parts of the factory that I was responsible for that were outdated and could potentially be shut down for the last time any day. Management never wants to spend money of those parts, and it was challenging to get them to even spend money to keep it running. Again, it meant lots of paperwork to justify costs. Decisions required sign-offs from a long list of stakeholders. Even the smallest change had to go through safety approvals and work orders. Even then, you would have to cross your fingers and hope that the original hypotheses would hold and nothing else could go wrong.
In the end, I felt like I had given chemical engineering a chance. I’m lucky that this zig-zag path had taught me so much about what I value and enjoy. The only logical pivot left was to become another type of engineer.