Chemical Engineering

Opportunities

Opportunities for chemical engineers with a background in biology will expand as the biotechnology industry continues to grow. Chemical engineering research jobs have increased with the development of alternative energy sources.

Education

  • Minimum: Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering
  • Students are strongly encouraged to gain work experience through internships.


Salaries

  • Median annual wage: $94,350 (2012)






Overview

Chemical engineers translate processes developed in the lab into practical applications for the commercial production of products and then work to maintain and improve those processes. They rely on the main foundations of engineering: math, physics, and chemistry (though biology is playing an increasing role). The main role of chemical engineers is to design and troubleshoot processes for the production of chemicals, fuels, foods, pharmaceuticals, and biologicals, just to name a few. They are most often employed by large-scale manufacturing plants to maximize productivity and product quality while minimizing costs.

microprocessor on silcone wafer

The aerospace, automotive, biomedical, electronic, environmental, medical, and military industries seek the skills of chemical engineers in order to help develop and improve their technical products, such as:

  • Ultrastrong fibers, fabrics, and adhesives for vehicles
  • Biocompatible materials for implants and prosthetics
  • Films for optoelectronic devices

Chemical engineers work in almost every industry and affect the production of almost every article manufactured on an industrial scale. Some typical tasks include:

  • Ensuring compliance with health, safety, and environmental regulations
  • Conducting research into improved manufacturing processes
  • Designing and planning equipment layout
  • Incorporating safety procedures for working with dangerous chemicals
  • Monitoring and optimizing the performance of production processes
  • Estimating production costs

Education

At a minimum, a four-year bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, with coursework in chemistry, physics, math (through differential equations), and computers is required. Some universities offer a five-year program that leads to both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Most chemical engineers have a master’s degree and/or a Ph.D.

A chemical engineer’s curriculum is similar to that of a chemist but also includes coursework in engineering-related areas such as heat and mass transfer, thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, process design and control, and electronics. Economics, psychology, and political science help chemical engineers to understand the impact of technology on society. Although they learn a lot of theory in the classroom, most of a chemical engineer’s knowledge of real-world applications is derived from on-the-job training, so internships and practical experience are essential.


Licensing

Chemical engineers are encouraged to obtain a license, but it is not always required (as it is for many other engineering professions). Licensing generally requires a degree from an accredited engineering program, passing scores on Fundamentals of Engineering (FE, taken just after graduation) and Principals and Practice of Engineering (PPE) exams, and four years of engineering experience. Those who pass are called Professional Engineers (PEs) and may need continuing education to maintain the licensure. One benefit of being licensed is that there are some jobs that only PEs can do (e.g., in some states you must be licensed to teach engineering courses), and having your license may set you apart from other candidates when applying for jobs.


Workspace

designer at work

Chemical engineers typically work in manufacturing plants, research laboratories, or pilot plant facilities. They work around large-scale production equipment that is housed both indoors and outdoors and are often required to wear personal protective equipment, such as hard hats, goggles, and steel-toe shoes. A typical workday for a chemical engineer working in a plant may involve traveling from one function to the next within a facility. Chemical engineers who work in business and management offices often visit research and production facilities. Interaction with other people who are part of a team is critical to the success of projects.


Is This Career a Good Fit for You?

Chemical engineers typically work in manufacturing plants, research laboratories, or pilot plant facilities. They work around large-scale production equipment that is housed both indoors and outdoors and are often required to wear personal protective equipment, such as hard hats, goggles, and steel-toe shoes. A typical workday for a chemical engineer working in a plant may involve traveling from one function to the next within a facility. Chemical engineers who work in business and management offices often visit research and production facilities. Interaction with other people who are part of a team is critical to the success of projects.


Technical Skills

  • Chemical engineers use analytical, problem-solving, and deductive reasoning skills to determine why a design does not work as planned and to troubleshoot to find a solution that does
  • Math skills are important, such as using calculus and other advanced mathematics techniques to model flow parameters
  • Interpersonal skills and teamwork are required, especially when identifying and solving problems between people in production and manufacturing and when working with technicians and mechanics who turn the chemical engineer’s designs into reality

Career Path

Entry-level chemical engineers typically work under the supervision of more senior engineers, especially before they earn their license. They may advance to supervising teams of technicians or other management positions. Moving into technical sales or sales engineering is also a possibility.


Future Employment Trends

The demand for chemical engineers at major chemical and pharmaceutical companies is expected to continue but at a slower pace than average through 2020. Employment is tied to the overall state of manufacturing and to the technologies used to create products (biotechnology, alternative energies, etc.).

As the biotechnology industry continues to grow, opportunities for chemical engineers with a background in biology will expand. Chemical engineering research jobs are increasing in importance with the development and implementation of new energy sources designed as substitutes for the world’s diminishing supplies of petroleum and natural gas.

Real-World Chemists
Cesar Garza

Cesar Garza is a Principal Engineer with Samsung and fabricates computer chips for the wireless industry.

More about Cesar


Amy Paris

Amy Paris works at Eastman Chemical, where she leads projects to develop new products/processes and improve existing ones.

More about Amy


Hector Hernandez

Hector Hernandez is an Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering.

More about Hector


 

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