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Department: Chemical Engineering

McKenzie Chemical Engineering

Troy A. McKenzie ’97

Assistant Professor of Law, New York University School of Law

Finding time for varied interests

I applied to Princeton with a stated interest in engineering, entered the University set on pursuing a B.S.E. in chemical engineering, and graduated from that department four years later. Despite the seemingly direct route I took from matriculation to major to graduation, as a student I was never entirely certain I had chosen the right path.

On the one hand, majoring in chemical engineering made perfect sense. I had enjoyed studying math, chemistry, and other science subjects in high school. Equally important, an engineering degree seemed to be a credential that would assure dependable professional employment after graduation. That was not a trivial consideration when I entered Princeton at the tail end of an economic recession.

At the same time, I had interests outside of the engineering curriculum. One of the reasons I applied to Princeton was that the strength of the engineering school was matched by the strength of the University’s nonengineering offerings. I remember looking through the course booklet before the start of my freshman year and noting how many humanities and social science classes sparked my interest. I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. I ended up trying to balance my interests by taking at least two courses each semester unrelated to my degree, even if that meant carrying a heavier-than-normal course load (which was often the case).

I frequently doubted whether it made sense to try to maintain that uneasy balance. When, at first, I thought I wanted to go to engineering graduate school or into industry after graduation, my nonengineering courses in history and politics seemed to be a lot of wasted effort. But I enjoyed those courses too much to give them up. My doubts grew when I began thinking seriously about applying to law school. Why bother taking so many difficult and time-intensive engineering courses that I would never need after college? Nevertheless, I remained a chemical engineering major out of genuine interest in the department’s advanced courses and a touch of stubbornness—I wanted to finish what I had started. The department’s small size (with 20 graduates my year) also made it feel like home, intellectually and personally. I could not imagine myself leaving an environment that was as welcoming as it was intense.

An unlikely asset

I did not fully realize the value of my undergraduate choices until law school at New York University. What I had thought was a vice turned out to be a virtue. The history and politics classes I had taken gave me a level of comfort with the subject matter and style of argument in law school. But, oddly, I drew far more on the core lessons of my engineering training. The method of analyzing and solving problems I had learned as an engineering student translated easily to my legal studies: breaking down a problem into subparts, marshalling available evidence related to each piece of the puzzle, synthesizing more information where possible from the given evidence, applying the pertinent rules, and giving a reasoned explanation at every step of the analysis.

Law school turned out to be an intellectual pleasure because it was such a natural extension of my undergraduate education. After law school, I worked as a law clerk at the Supreme Court for Justice John Paul Stevens and then entered private law practice at Debevoise & Plimpton in New York. In each of those jobs I rarely used the more technical aspects of my chemical engineering education. But I frequently called on the methods of analysis and problem solving I sharpened as an undergraduate.

Prodded by the same intellectual curiosity that shaped my undergraduate curriculum choices, I have become a law professor—a job that comes with the freedom to follow the problems I find interesting and important. It seems clichéd to say, but I never could have guessed where my choice of undergraduate major would lead me. Balancing an engineering major with a wide range of nonengineering courses proved to be a solid foundation for professional life after Princeton.