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EngineeringJobs.org interviewed this process engineer to find out what it is like to work in this engineering specialty. Read on to find out how this process engineer got her start, and find out what she identifies as the best and worst parts of the job.

Q: What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?

A: For the past seven years, I have been a Process Engineer at a chemical manufacturing plant. Prior to that, I spent three years as a Jr. Chemical Process Design Engineer for an architecture and engineering firm. I started working at the A & E firm immediately after college. If I had to describe myself using only three words I would say careful, reliable, and maybe even a little stubborn.

Q: What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best?

A: I am a white female. Being a woman in engineering has its challenges and its rewards. There will always be the few die-hard members of the "Old Boys Club" who think a woman has no place in the field, but in my personal experience those people have been a small minority. For the most part I feel like my gender has helped me in the sense that it has given me extra incentive to work twice as hard and prove them wrong. Once it comes down to real work on project teams, I have never experienced any blatant discrimination because I happen to be a woman. If anything, it has opened more doors for me.

Q: How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?

A: I'm a process engineer working at the corporate headquarters of a chemical manufacturing facility. The company has a total of eight plants around the world and my assigned projects could come from any one of those facilities. Most of my work centers around finding ways to improve production rates by optimizing process equipment and troubleshooting problems. I've also spent a lot of time working to move improvements that have been discovered in the lab into full-scale plant operations. My role as a process engineer is often as a liaison between R&D chemists and manufacturing operations. One misunderstanding I would love the opportunity to correct is the misconception that all engineers spend every day in a sterile office with their ties and their pocket protectors. In my work I spent nearly as much time out in the facilities getting my hands dirty as I spent sitting at my desk crunching numbers. And, believe it or not, some of us don't even wear ties at all.

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?

A: I would say an 8, with the travel requirements and the sometimes stressful nature of the job keeping me from reaching a 10. There are days when I am at a 4 or 5, but fortunately those are few and far between.

Q: If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?

A: There is one part of the job that has given me the most personal satisfaction, and that is Process Hazard Analysis and Process Safety. As the go-to person for the company when it comes to hazard reviews, I get the sense that I'm doing something that is valuable and important for the greater good. Process Safety issues have the potential to impact not only plant personnel but also the surrounding community. Preventing injuries and finding ways to make chemical manufacturing safer is a passion of mine.

Q: Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?

A: Only that my career path has hit a temporary plateau as I have taken time off from my position due to a family health crisis. I am lucky enough to work for a very understanding company that is extremely family-friendly. That is one thing that I believe makes all of the difference when it comes to job satisfaction, particularly for a woman in a competitive field such as engineering.

Q: How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?

A: Oddly enough, I ended up studying Chemical Engineering in college almost as an afterthought. I was undecided other than the fact that I knew I wanted to study science. The Dean of Chemical Engineering at my chosen school happened to offer me the biggest scholarship and the rest is history. I wish I had a better story about how I always wanted to grow up and become an engineer, but that just isn't how it happened for me.

Q: What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?

A: I learned that admitting when you're in over your head, and asking for help, is not a sign of weakness. That was a lesson that took me a couple of hard years, and some embarrassment, to learn. During my first year with my current company, I attempted a distillation column design that I was not completely comfortable with but I was too stubborn to ask for assistance. I spent way too much time on the front end of the project because I did not want anyone to think that I didn't know what I was doing. I found out later that no one ever expected a young chemical engineer, only a year out of school, to handle such a big task without a lot of support. There is no shame in asking for help or collaborating with coworkers on tough problems, I know that now.

Q: What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

A: In many cases, real life has not read the text book.

Q: What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?

A: The strangest thing that ever happened to me on the job would have to be the day I was near the top level of a 100 foot reactor tower and I was suddenly "attacked" by a flock of Canadian Geese. "Attacked" might not be the right word, but it certainly felt that way to me at the time. I'm sure I must have beat the record for sprinting down ten flights of stairs, too bad no one had a stop watch.

Q: Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?

A: I go to work each day because it gives me a feeling of accomplishment. I like the fact that I can begin a project, tackle challenges along the way, and then see it all the way through to completion. It is a good feeling to be able to drive down the road, point to a reactor or a distillation tower and tell my daughter that I designed it.

Q: What kind of challenges do you handle and what makes you want to just quit?

A: Most of the time challenges have the opposite effect on me, they make me want to keep working and tackle them. The only challenging situations that have made me feel like quitting are the occasional times when I've had to deal with a very difficult person who made it harder for me to do my job.

Q: How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?

A: My job can be very stressful at times, particularly during process start-ups. Most of the time the hours are reasonable, but start-ups are a different story. When a new process is coming on-line, that has to become my life until it is running according to plan, no matter how long that might take. During those times it is hard to be there for my family as much as I should.

Q: What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?

A: Most chemical engineers with ten years of experience make around $70,000 in this part of the country. We are not rich, but I feel like the pay is adequate and my family and I are able to live comfortably.

Q: How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?

A: My company is very good about vacation time. Right now I qualify for six weeks of vacation per year, but I honestly only take about three. No, it probably is not enough, but that is my own fault.

Q: What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?

A: You need a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from an accredited engineering school.

Q: What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

A: If you love math and science and are very detail-oriented, then go for it!

Q: If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

A: I would love to have my own Process Safety company, providing process safety training, reviews, and consultation to chemical and pharmaceutical facilities similar to the one I work for now.