Negative email on chemical and biological engineering major sparks dialogue| Oct 11, 2017
Chemical and biological engineering students choose their major in part because they believe that upon graduation they will have their pick of dream jobs. However, a University senior recently sent an email to the engineering department rejecting this notion.
Nathanael Ji '18 sent the email, titled “CBE info - Jobs and Advice,” on Sept. 24. Ji outlined career paths that CBE concentrators typically pursue after graduation. For each path — medicine, consulting or finance, computer science, pharmaceuticals, and oil — he explained why CBE isn’t the best choice.
“I guess a lot of people go into CBE for the job prospects, and it kind of just broke it down to why, like, in each major job field, how being part of the CBE program will put you at a disadvantage. I think that was the most demoralizing part,” CBE concentrator Nicholas Bolanos ’19 explained.
Ji said that CBE majors graduate with low GPAs compared to other engineering majors, which creates greater challenges in applying to medical school. Ji also cited some CBE majors’ plans to try consulting or computer science through certificate programs, and said that this makes students less competitive than those whose education and internship experiences focus more directly on those fields.
In addition, Ji claimed that CBE majors who seek manufacturing or design jobs in the pharmaceutical and oil industries tend to end up working in “middle of nowhere” locations.
Ji did not respond to requests for comments.
“I think the email was a little bit disheartening,” said Riley Stevens ’20, another CBE concentrator. “Just to hear a senior kind of talk about CBE in such a negative light.”
“I’m sure everyone kind of felt a little horrified reading it the first time,” said Bolanos.
CBE concentrator Madison Parry ’18 had difficulty even reading the entire email.
“I don’t want to think about that stuff right now,” she said. “I think that throwing facts at sophomores like that, it’s just not the correct way to do it. I just think that positive note wasn’t there.”
CBE students expressed dismay that dedicating themselves to such challenging coursework at the the University might not have the expected payoff. Yet the email’s discouragement did not persuade students that they would lack post-college opportunities.
“CBE remains an excellent choice of major for those students who want to get jobs right after graduation,” associate professor of chemical and biological engineering A. James Link wrote in an email. “This is true both at Princeton and more broadly across the U.S. The wide variety of jobs that our graduates get is a reflection of the broad, rigorous preparation majoring in CBE provides.”
The email has not induced sophomores to switch to another major, Link said.
“Other than spurring a lot of discussion, which is healthy, we haven’t seen much of a tangible effect from the email. There has not been an exodus of sophomores from the department,” Link wrote.
CBE department chair Athanassios Panagiotopoulos said that he did not agree with Ji’s argument.
“I think that’s an opinion. I think there are many objective measures of job prospects that one can use and find that that statement is not correct,” Panagiotopoulos said.
Panagiotopoulos and Link also refuted Ji’s citation of a 2.7–3.3 average GPA. CBE does not have the lowest average GPA out of the engineering departments, according to Panagiotopoulos.
Stevens said that although the email’s message was discouraging, most prospective CBE majors have already heard warnings about the program’s difficulty and decided to pursue the program anyway.
“I think it’s really important that if you’re trying to study CBE, that you be interested in it and be willing to work for it, just because it is a very difficult major and it’s obviously not for everyone,” Stevens said.
Students also discussed positive aspects of the program as reasons the email hadn’t changed their minds about it.
“Everyone is really close with each other in the CBE department,” Bolanos said.
While views on Ji’s email vary, some students do agree that it brings to light the lack of communication between seniors in the department and underclassmen.
“That’s one thing I appreciate about Nathanael’s email, is he kind of made it clear that there wasn’t enough discussion among seniors and underclassmen in CBE, and I certainly think that’s the case,” Bolanos said.
“I think we provide an environment that’s supportive of communication,” Panagiotopoulos said.
The CBE department holds question-and-answer panels and additional opportunities for students to speak with employers.
Parry cited a program that the Office of International Programs runs pairing upperclassmen with underclassmen and also expressed a hope that younger students would reach out to students and professors in the department.
Ji’s email was not entirely negative; he noted that the CBE faculty are “good people and I think they put in a solid effort.”
Bolanos said that Ji’s email stems from bitterness, but that he believes Ji truly wants to help underclassmen.
“He seemed honestly concerned for people who are undecided,” Bolanos said.