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  • Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom

So You Have Decided To Study Chemical Engineering

First of all, congratulations on getting accepted onto such an amazing and challenging degree. Everything in this post is based on my own experiences studying Chemical Engineering to provide you with a clearer understanding of what to expect; the good and the bad. If you were like me at the beginning and didn’t really understand or know exactly what Chemical Engineering was, check out this post on What is Chemical Engineering

Course Overview

Regardless of what country you study in, the general outline will be the same, the exact details discussed here are based on the UK system. Typically an Honours degree lasts 4 years and a Masters degree lasts 5 years. You can also complete what is known as a “sandwich year” which usually comes before your 4th year. This is a years placement and a chance to gain some industrial experience and begin to network in a field you are interested in. 

I can’t stress this enough if you decide to go for a sandwich year, make sure it is within a field you are interested in, don’t choose it because it’s the only one available. If there isn’t anything you like don’t waste a year doing something you won’t enjoy just to say you have some industrial experience. 

Your degree will be broken down into a series of different modules; usually 3 per semester. Your 4th year will comprise either a solo or group dissertation project alongside your usual modules. If you decide to do a 5th year (Masters) then you will have to do a solo dissertation in the 3rd semester, which is independent of the other modules, giving you a taste of real professional research. 

Your modules will include the usual suspects, namely: Mathematics, Heat Transfer, Mass Transfer, Thermodynamics, Reactor Design, Unit Operations, and more! Surprisingly there isn’t as much chemistry as you think (this can be a good or bad thing, we will leave that up to you). You can check out our courses for a full breakdown of each main module. 

Don't Survive... Thrive Instead

From previous experience, people who begin the journey of Chemical Engineering, with the intention of “just getting through it”, “just get a pass” or “how am I going to survive” tend not to last. This is a negative outlook before you even start, you should be thinking about the knowledge and personal development you will receive during this exciting time in your life. Granted it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, however, it will be what you make it. If you enjoy most of what you are doing, you will most certainly thrive and exceed your expectations.  

So based on my experience and from what I have observed during my university career, here is the ultimate guide to surviving chemical engineering…

1. Develop A Strong Work Ethic

First and foremost there is no such thing as a lazy (successful) chemical engineer. Regardless of your achievements at high school, accept that you aren’t the best, or you don’t need to study, as you’ll be off to a bad start.

You do not have to be brilliant nor the best, but you do have to have the dedication, persistence, and downright stubbornness to keep working at it until you get it. Along the way, you will doubt yourself. Those who really want it will succeed. Time spent reading the lecture material, reviewing notes, speaking to your professors and fellow students will prove invaluable in the long run.

When you arrive at university, begin to condition your brain to think and be productive, that way studying and learning will become second nature as you progress into your final years. Trust me the more you prepare in your first couple of years, the easier your final year will be; so hit the ground running and develop your strong work ethic. 

Good Work Ethic

2. Get Organised

While this seems very generic, we will refer to chemical engineering aspects mainly. Things like getting your pens, books, highlighters and everything in between, we will assume you are already prepared in that department. 

So the question is… “How can you get chemical engineering organised”? Well, it is fairly straightforward once you know where to look.

Firstly, review your high school mathematic, chemistry and physics notes and make sure you understand the fundamentals of these subjects; begin with what’s familiar. 

Secondly, check out your universities website to see if they recommend any reference textbooks. Often referred to as “The Chemical Engineers Bible”, Perry’s Chemical Engineering Handbook will be the backbone of your entire course. Other texts such as Coulson & Richardsons have lots of editions looking at theory, calculations and applications. The good news for you is that you can get FREE UNLIMITED ACCESS to all these texts in one place. Check out our Online Resource Library!

Thirdly, get your tech sorted out. Over the course of my studies, I have tested many different laptops. To generalise them, I used Apple products, Microsoft products and Chromebooks. Overall the clear winner is Microsoft, purely on the compatibility with the software you will be using. While you can use the others, there are more hoops to jump through to get them to work. The software you can expect to use is AutoDesk AutoCAD, AspenPlus, HYSYS, MathLab and HINT.

3. Get Used To Group Work & Presentations

Groupwork is a part of every industry, which is why universities love to encourage and promote group activities and assignments. Being able to communicate and think as part of a group rather than as an individual can be challenging, especially if you are an independent person or incredibly shy. 

Regardless of your nature, just remember everyone is in the same boat, everyone is feeling the nerves, and everyone is scared of looking and sounding like a clown. Trust me I was one of those people. I had some great ideas, but wouldn’t say anything for the fear of sounding stupid. If there is one thing I have learned from teaching and university, is there is no such thing as a stupid question. You are obviously capable to be on the course, so get your voice heard and let everyone see you are a team player. 

Group work is an invaluable tool when it comes to clearing any issue up that you may have with certain material. Some concepts will just automatically click and others won’t. When you have a group discussion you will find that things you are struggling on, someone else may have the solution. Two brains are better than one, so imagine what fiver brains can do!

Presentations is a whole other level, especially if you are shy and quiet. My first three years were awful when it came to preparing for a presentation. I spent more time worrying than actually being productive. The best piece of advice I can give is, make sure you have done your research, you understand what you are talking about, regardless of the format of the presentation. 

This is especially true for your dissertations. Remember it’s your work, you know it better than anyone, so be confident in what you have done; and if you have done your very best, it doesn’t matter the questions that come your way you will be prepared and ready for anything. 

University Group Work

4. Ask For Help Don't Let Things Fester

Never feel embarrassed or ashamed that you need to ask for help, because chances are what you are struggling with, 90% of your classmates are struggling with too. Asking for help can save you hours of frustration and headaches. I once tried to understand a concept of designing a damping system; I spent almost two days trying to work it out, (about 8 hours), I gave in and asked my professor who within 10 minutes had cleared everything up and make it so much simpler, after that I learned my lesson. 

5. Don't Lose Track Of Your Goal

It’s very easy to become discouraged when things get tough. When it comes to chemical engineering, things are tough for a good part of it, so the idea of people losing sight of the end goal and quitting is relatively high. For example, when I began studying chemical engineering we had a class of roughly 70 students, by the time graduation came only 5 of us (including myself) achieved a 1st Class degree and in total 12 people graduated. 

Granted my overall goal wasn’t exactly clear, and it still isn’t which is why I decided to pursue a PhD. However, when I say a goal it doesn’t have to be your final career or retirement goal, but rather a milestone that’s close. For example, your goal could be to get your degree, progress to a PhD, gain a better understanding of a certain industry or simply to become and achieve something that very few people can. Afterall chemical engineering is the 3rd hardest degree to achieve globally! 

Focus on Your Goals

6. Make Time For Yourself

Arguably one of the most important points is to ensure that you make good use of your free time and let go of the academic stresses. While you are at university you will realise that as the year’s progress, your free time becomes less and less. That means it becomes more valuable, so make sure you enjoy and utilise your free time. 

The phrase “work hard, play hard” is highly applicable here. Tuning out of your studies for a few hours or days has more benefits to coping with difficult situations than actually spending all of your time stuck in a nasty situation. The key to this is self-discipline, making sure you don’t overdo it. Finding the perfect study and life balance will be important to help keep your sanity during exam times. 

Make Time For Yourself

7. Perfection Isn't Possible

A strange addition to this list, however, I felt it was quite relevant, especially for those perfectionists out there. Now let me elaborate on what I mean because this doesn’t encourage you to produce poor pieces of work or not to put in much effort. 

The likelihood of getting 100% is incredibly slim, and for good reason. While your professors want you to pass and they will do everything they can to help, sometimes a bit of criticism can have a positive impact on your learning.

For example, a presentation I had on reactor design was in my own words “fantastic” it was the best piece of work I had ever produced and I ran it past a few friends who are experienced engineers to get their advice. When I presented the design, confident in my understanding, I didn’t expect the wave of questions that was to follow. After the grilling I asked my professor informally if I hadn’t done a good job; his response left me speechless. He said “your work was exactly what we were looking for, your detail was impeccable and you went above and beyond our expectations”. Puzzled by his response I asked why did you have so many questions, to which he said “to make you think, to give you the opportunity to justify your choices and to help you have confidence in your design, you will thank me for it in the long term”. 

After this I knew no matter what I did, the lecturers would always find small faults to pick up on. If you are in this position, then congratulations because finding minor faults means that the bulk of your work is faultless! Aim for perfection, but don’t be disappointed when you don’t see that 100%. 

So Is It Worth It?

I am going to sound a little biased here however I hope this resonates with you and helps you realise if chemical engineering is for you. 

Chemical engineering is hard but highly rewarding. There are more mechanical, civil and mechanical engineers than there are chemicals. While the other disciplines are difficult in their own right, the diverse disciplines that come together to form chemical engineering and hardcore mathematics can put a lot of people off. 

When people ask whats your degree, or what do you do/study, being able to say you are a chemical engineer is immensely rewarding. The surprised looks on most peoples faces make the stress worthwhile. The vast array of knowledge you will have at the end of your studies gives you the pick of the lot when it comes to jobs. 

The real-world impact you can have as a chemical engineer is huge, and if you genuinely have a passion for your work, the sky is your limit! I wish you every success during and after your studies. If you need further support or information please don’t hesitate to contact us!

Why Study Chemical Engineering