What is a Chemical Engineer?
The chemical engineer is a professional who applies several scientific and mathematical disciplines as they develop new, more cost-effective ways to use both materials and energy to make life easier and safer for people.
Chemical engineers are responsible for creating new materials such as solvents, anti-bacterial polymers, coatings, pesticides, fuel, and other complex chemical components used in manufacturing, food production, etc. Chemical engineers work in several industries: electronic, pharmaceutical, biomedical, consumer products, food, petroleum, chemical, environmental industries, and materials.
Steps to Becoming a Chemical Engineer
Step 1: Find a College Program
Step 2: Earn Your Degree
Step 3: Internship
Step 1: Find a College Program
Check out all of the chemical engineering programs within the universities in which you are most interested. Read the descriptions of each program, to include what you will learn and what you’ll be expected to do.
You should also know about the strong points of the different programs you’re considering. Each program will strengths in different areas; one school may have an excellent record of educating chemical engineers who are ready to work in the industry, compared to another university that has excellent faculty that are well known and have a lot of experience in the field.
Explore the areas of focus of each chemical engineering program, which will also vary from one school to another. Look for classes and research areas like Biofilm engineering and muscle systems. Once you’re satisfied with your choice of school, you’re ready to apply to 1-3 programs and wait for your admission letter.
Step 2: Earn Your Degree
Engineering programs are notorious for being difficult. You’ll need to approach all your classes with a strong work ethic. You’ll also learn to work independently and as a part of a student group. You’ll do the same when you are employed as a chemical engineer, working with a lab full of technicians who are all working on the same problem. Do your group work, complete your part of every project and contribute everything that’s expected of you.
Make sure that you attend an Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredited program. This is vitally important, as it may be required for licensure in your state. This accreditation proves to future educators and employers that your education was top-quality and that it was rigorous enough to teach you everything you needed to know. Non-accredited programs are unsupervised and unproven and should be avoided when you’re going for any engineering position. At the end of it all, you’ll have earned the degree that will land you the first job in the first step of your career.
Step 3: Internship
Pursue a good internship. This is a way of gaining highly valuable work experience, which you can put on your resume. Future employers will look for internship experiences because they see work experience as something that is an imperative in your field.
Before you get into an internship, polish up your resume, including anything that would showcase your leadership abilities and your knowledge of engineering. Visit the Career Placement Center on your campus. An internship experience is so important that future employers will almost always choose recruits who have that experience documented on their resumes over those who don’t.
Before your graduation ceremony, start the process of signing up for your chemical engineering licensing exam. If you plan to work in this industry, then licensure makes you even more attractive and will likely be necessary for most jobs. You’ll be taking the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam in order to obtain licensure. You should also do your own research for any other requirements in your state, as this type of licensure is not national, but state-based.
To prepare for your licensure exams, make sure you complete a minimum of four years of acceptable engineering practice. You should also take and pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam.
What Does a Chemical Engineer Do?
In your workdays, you’ll work on creating or improving chemical products or materials. However, this can be used in nearly any industry; in manufacturing you could create lubricants for machines, in healthcare you can create polymers which have antibacterial properties to make hospitals safer, you can create chemicals which break down plastics safely or more efficient energy storage if you want to work in environmental science. No matter what industry you are interested in, there may very well be a position for you as a chemical engineer.
You could be expected to work in the petrochemical industry, in a fertilizer plant, or, a personal care product manufacturer. You could be tasked with developing a new fingerprinting method using a person’s sweat pores - this is being worked on. Or, you may study prickly pears, learning about their properties as you and your team look for ways to purify drinking water.
Chemical Engineer Skills to Acquire
As a chemical engineer, you will be expected to have and use a wide range of skills. Your work is highly technical, requiring the following skills:
- Highly Versatile, able to switch between engineering disciplines
- Basic and Advanced Chemistry
- Laboratory Techniques
- Good attention to detail
- Ability to summarize well
- Data Analysis
- Test Hypotheses
- Evaluate Results
- Clarify Problems
- Develop Theories
- Able to identify relationships between problems and solutions
- Use analogy to reason
- Apply logic to engineering problems
- Able to spot patterns and structures
- Excellent problem-solving skills
- Able to analyze how things work together
- Use reasoning and logic to solve various problems
- Enjoy chemistry and math
- Able to work within safety standards
All of these skills are vital to the work that chemical engineers do every day. Because you will be working with chemicals and various processes to make new products, you’ll be exposing yourself and others to some risks, and this is why you need to know, respect, and work within strict standards of safety.
If you plan to work in the chemical engineering field, you won’t be able to enter this field without extensive education in chemical engineering. In addition, several internships are vital for you so you can begin to apply theory to practice.
Several universities work to provide experience-based learning for their engineering students in every engineering discipline. These include paid and unpaid work assignments and internships that are structured specifically to meet the needs, abilities, and interests of students in the chemical engineering major. These work experiences also meet the needs of employers who offer internships to these students.
One student noted the difficulty in transitioning from a college major to a full-time job without the needed experience—in any engineering discipline, this is especially true.
Other colleges point out that people who want to become chemical engineers “need” strong foundations in chemistry, physics, biology and mathematics. Without the foundational grounding that these courses provide, anyone who tries to work in a chemical engineering position will soon become lost and flounder in their daily work.
The undergraduate years are the most critical. This is when you have the best opportunity to take the widest array of classes outside the chemical engineering discipline, including accounting or policy classes as well as a different engineering disciplines.
Chemical Engineer Career & Salary
Where Might You Work?
As a chemical engineer-to-be, consider the industries in which you might work:
- Photographic Products
You may work to create fuel cells, batteries, hydrogen, petroleum products, power generators, adhesives, composites, metals, and catalysts. You may work in the food and beverage industry, environmental health and safety, process design, or pulp and paper.
Some of these are to be expected while others may make you shake your head. You may also work in the biotechnology field, working with living cells. Just consider the possibility that you might play a huge part in the development of artificial organs, recombinant DNA, antibiotics, interferon, and insulin.
The chemical process industry is a natural extension of your learning and work. You’ll develop, extract, isolate, combine, and use chemicals and chemical byproducts in the creation of new products, such as paints, lacquers, varnishes, inks, agricultural chemicals, industrial gases, petrochemicals, polymers, rubber and rubber products, petroleum products, detergents, soaps, fats, oils, cosmetics, and perfumes.
If you work in the electronics industry, you will work with material development and production and process control equipment design.
Potential Career Paths
Think about business, government, and education. Your degree and knowledge are so vital that you can branch into just about any area of employment. You may work for NASA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, or the U.S. Navy.
If you are in education, you may hold your Ph.D. and work as a professor or research new developments. A chemical engineer with a doctorate degree can work as a patent attorney, helping to apply their knowledge of chemical engineering in intellectual property. And, in business, finance, or insurance, your training will be useful as you manage, analyze, and insure businesses in chemical process industries.
Entry-Level Chemical Engineer
As a chemical engineering graduate, join a chemical company and learn to build your skills in chemical engineering. This development opportunity allows you to learn about the company in which you will work, and gain needed hands-on experience. You can develop your problem-solving experiences and work in project management as one part of a diverse team.
Chemical Engineer on Production Team
In this position you’ll design and manufacture electro-chemical instruments, you will work as a chemical engineer on the production team, full-time. You will provide your technical expertise, working on a wide range of cross-functional projects (process design, development, implementation, and improvement). You will also help maintain equipment in a state where it is qualified to operate.
Interdisciplinary Engineer, Pipeline
Move into a new career working in a federal government agency. In your new role, you will assist in performing several analyses of pipeline flow diagrams; assist in annual pipeline capacity reports that have been filed by jurisdictional pipeline companies. You will aid senior staff in carrying out computer modeling of portions of a pipeline transportation, or the entire pipeline system. You will perform support duties, to include abstracting cost and economic data from post-certificate filings and annual reports; make mathematical computations and develop charts and graphs when needed.
Associate Engineer, Water Systems
As an associate engineer, you will be expected to show and use full competence and good judgment in interpreting and adapting guiding principles (policies, practices, procedures, regulations, standards, precedents, and work directions). You may prepare or lead other engineering staff in the development of engineering design criteria, calculations, plans, specifications, estimates, and reports for a wide range of projects that are associated with water conveyance, distribution, storage, and treatment systems.
Field Engineer—Chemical Cleaning
You need strong mechanical ability to diagnose and troubleshoot problems; understand basic engineering design and analysis tools; have a general understanding of industry products and related legal and regulatory requirements relating to chemical cleaning industry. During the busy season, you could travel up to 75% of the time (spring and fall). However, you should be ready and willing to travel at any time of the year.
You will work with local resources, coordinating facility inspections, and evaluations. Your role will be to identify, investigate, report, and communicate every critical environmental, health, and safety (EHS) issue. You’ll be a change agent for process and structural changes. You will integrate EHS into daily operational control systems (you may develop these systems, if needed). You’ll include safety initiatives into your daily operations processes.
Chemical Engineer Career Salaries
|Air Quality Engineer||$57,000||$79,000||$113,000|
|Project Manager, Engineering||$65,000||$91,000||$116,000|
**Salary info provided by PayScale
Between 2016 and 2026, the employment of chemical engineers was projected to rise 8%, which is roughly as fast as all other occupations in the United States. The demand for chemical engineering services relies on the demand for the products of different manufacturing industries. Employment growth relies heavily on the ability of chemical engineers to stay at the forefront of new technologies.
Traditionally, chemical engineers work in those industries whose products are needed by manufacturing firms. The engineers work for companies that manufacture resins and plastic, which are used to increase fuel efficiency in vehicles.
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Advancing from Here
Once you have been working as a chemical engineer for roughly five years, you may be offered an opportunity to assist in other areas inside your company. You may assist with marketing or business, given your specialized knowledge.
From your chemical engineering function, you may move into government work, where you could work for NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), or the Department of Energy. This may be a promotion for you.
If you continue working in an engineering role, you may move up into a supervisory role five to ten years after beginning your career.
Engineering Career Paths