I am posting from St. Louis, Missouri this where we are visiting family for Thanksgiving. My nephew here is in his senior year in high school and is trying to decide where to go for college. He’s a good student and is trying to decide if he wants to study science or engineering. I’m often asked about this choice by family members and friends. Being an engineer myself and the son of an engineer professor – my father has been a professor of Chemical Engineering at Penn State since 1967 – it’s a subject I know something about.
One of the many benefits of a degree in engineering is that upon graduation you have a good chance to land a well-paying, professional job. If you check surveys of the highest paying undergraduate degrees for any time period from the mid-1970’s until now, you will find engineering degrees firmly ensconced in nearly all of the top ten positions. In positions one and two you will almost always find Petroleum Engineering and then my degree, Chemical Engineering. The most recent survey that I have seen for starting salaries for B.S. Chemical Engineers reported an average of $65,000 per year. This is a remarkably high salary for a 22 year old, placing him or her in the top 17% of earners in the U.S. and providing a leg-up on a lifetime of financial security.
Since entrance into an engineering program is competitive and the curriculum is rigorous the students who complete the program are highly sought after for jobs, graduate schools, and even non-engineering positions. In 1988 (the year I graduated), the Chemical Engineering department at the University of Virginia granted 16 B.S. degrees. Most of my fellow students went on to traditional engineering jobs. Four of my classmates were accepted into top-tier medical schools. The top student in our class was hired by Arthur Anderson consulting. Three of the 16 continued directly into Ph. D. programs. If you have been reading my blogs you will recall that upon graduation I went to work in Denmark for a year on a technical exchange visa and then entered the Ph. D. program at the University of Pennsylvania. Good outcomes all around.
The most direct comparison of the science versus engineering choice to a chemical engineering degree is a chemistry degree. Currently the average starting salary for chemistry students is a quite respectable $47,000 per year. The ramifications of the salary difference for chemists versus chemical engineers are, in my experience, more significant than the gap may seem to indicate. If our hypothetical chemist and engineer both went to the same university they paid the same amount for the degree, but the chemist’s financial return is much lower. If they both have the same student debt, the chemist is far more likely to struggle with payments. Furthermore, the disparity in salaries tends to increase with time. The $47,000 job that our young chemist just landed likely involves hands-on lab work which, rightly or wrongly, carries a stigma which will slow both career and salary growth. If we move the clock forward 10 years, our engineer is likely running a small department of professionals or has moved to a management position in a commercial-area job. Our chemist is much more likely to still be in the lab, perhaps managing a small group of younger chemists. The salary gap is likely to be double the initial $18,000 by now.
Another interesting phenomenon is the differing impact of Ph. D. degrees in science versus engineering. A high percentage of scientists, after completing their 4 year degrees, upon learning of the career options available, decide to continue on to a Ph. D. program. This creates a large pool of Ph. D. scientists who later land the more interesting and higher-paying science jobs, creating something of a glass ceiling for scientists with B. S. degrees. In engineering, the siren call of high pay at age 22 limits the number of students who chose to go to graduate school. Furthermore, having a Ph. D. in engineering does not always confer a competitive career advantage as person may be viewed as too academic-minded to be productive. Often in my career, I have maintained two sets of business cards, one noting my Ph.D. and one which did not.
So are the higher salaries for engineers are justified? Though I cannot be entirely objective on this question, I believe that they are. I often miss the mark when trying to lay out my reasoning for this, so bear with me as I give it another go. The focus of a scientist is narrow and deep with the goal being to uncover and explain as much as possible about the object of study. For example, a microbiologist might study how to manipulate the DNA of a yeast cell to coax into making a useful protein or enzyme which is perceived to have commercial value. At this point the project is handed off to the engineer to scale-up the laboratory process, develop and design the purification process, then design, build and operate a manufacturing plant in a economic way. Manufacturing operations are incredibly complex involving an intricate interplay of chemistry, physics, human error, and unexpected events. In my opinion, dealing with this puzzle complexity and uncertainty is what makes engineering fascinating and also provides the underpinnings for the higher salaries. As often in life, there is a corresponding downside. If the project is a failure, the engineer will be the one who gets fired, not the chemist.
My advice to my nephew, and to any other high school students who are on the fence on this choice, is to start by giving engineering a try. It turns out that if you get into an engineering program and decide you don’t like it transferring into the analog science program is relatively easy. The reverse is not often true. Furthermore, if you have been reading these blogs, I believe that the impending scarcity of cheap transportation fuel is going to drive a relocalization of our economy and a rebirth of manufacturing in the US. We’re going to need a lot of engineers to make this happen.
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