Careers in chemical engineering
Why pursue a career in chemical engineering?
Chemical engineering is a dynamic and cutting-edge field, located at the intersection of biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. Chemical engineers work on complex and important issues that apply engineering principles to the hard sciences across a range of industries. Chemical engineers often work in close proximity to other engineering disciplines, including civil engineering, computer science, electrical engineering, materials science, and mechanical engineering. Chemical engineers can be found in many industries, including petrochemicals, food production, sustainability, power generation, and biotechnology.
Historically, chemical engineers focused on energy systems and fuel production. Today, chemical engineering is at the forefront of entrepreneurial ventures in advanced materials, biotech, consumer products, energy, environmental science, and medicine. Chemical engineers work in critical roles in industry and government. They may develop processes to scale discoveries to production size, supervise production lines, provide pollution control measures and remediation, conduct economic analyses, or help automate processes.
Often, a chemical engineer helps to optimize production processes in industrial settings that involve chemicals or chemical interactions. They may also be called on to identify different ways to economize internal plant operations by making improvements to the way chemicals are used.
The English engineer George E. Davis is often credited as being the founder of chemical engineering. He gave a series of lectures on the topic at the Manchester Institute of Technology, though he never taught another course during his lifetime. The lectures became the foundation for his book A Handbook of Chemical Engineering, published in 1901. It remained a seminal chemical engineering text for decades.
According to our original research, the average payback period for a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering is 2.32 years nearly half that of a general bachelor’s degree. The payback period denotes how quickly your degree pays off compared to not having done a bachelor’s degree at all.
The job outlook for chemical engineers is very positive. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 1,800 openings for chemical engineers annually and the field is projected to grow by 9% between 2020 and 2030.
The average chemical engineering graduate earns $67,614 2 years after graduation, compared to $46,471 for a generic bachelor’s degree.
How hard is it to become a chemical engineer?
Chemical engineering is a specialized field of study and is not offered at every university or college. However, there are more than 150 schools offering at least a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, with many offering a master’s degree, doctoral degree, or both.
Finding a job can be challenging for new graduates, despite the number of openings. The following are tips for engineering students seeking to transition into full-time employment:
build your network by holding informational interviews with others in the field, especially alumni from your degree program
- know what industry and sectors you want to work in
- pursue summer internships in the industry
- research companies you are considering to understand their work and potential jobs
- customize your resume and cover letter to speak to the specific job to which you are applying
How long does it take to get started in chemical engineering?
Completing a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering usually takes 4 years. Finding work following graduation may take an additional few weeks or months. Engineers pursuing PE licensure are required to gain 4 years of work experience first, so becoming a licensed Professional Engineer can take 8 or more years.
Qualities and skills of a chemical engineer
- knowledge of engineering and technology, including facts, principles, equipment, and techniques
- chemistry, with deep knowledge of the structure, composition, and properties of substances and of transformations they undergo
- mathematics, including algebra, geometry, calculus, and statistics
- physics, including knowledge of the physical laws and applications in fluids, materials, atmosphere dynamics, and mechanical, engineering, and atomic and subatomic processes
- design, with insights into the processes used to create technical plans, blueprints, models, and drawings
- curiosity and a love of investigating ideas, searching for facts, and solving problems
Where do chemical engineers work?
Chemical engineers can be found in professional roles in a full range of industries. Here are some of the industries where chemical engineers are employed in large numbers:
- chemical manufacturing, where chemicals used for various applications are made and sold
- engineering, architectural, and related services, particularly engineering businesses that work with clients focused on chemical processes and manufacturing
- scientific research and development services, doing research and discovery work for business or government
- petroleum and coal products manufacturing, where chemical engineers play important roles in the extraction of raw materials and refining and processing products
What types of chemical engineering jobs are there?
Chemical engineering is a broad discipline and individuals across a range of distinct roles may share the title “chemical engineer.” This ubiquitous use of the term can cause confusion. However, a closer look at the levels of engineering jobs and specific roles can add clarity.
Like in other engineering disciplines, chemical engineers are often placed into grades or levels based on their job roles and responsibilities.
Engineering job stages
- Stages 1-3. These are entry-level jobs, including interns, assistant or junior engineers, staff engineers, or academic instructors.
- Stage 4. These engineers design and work on projects of moderate complexity and regularly engage with customers, contractors, and officials.
- Stage 5. These senior engineers are assigned to complex projects and often manage schedules, budgets, and other staff. They may identify, develop, and apply techniques needed to complete a project, and provide updates and insights to upper-level managers.
- Stage 6. Principal engineers lead organizations and act as technical specialists, advising on how to manage complex problems with advanced methods and techniques. They often manage multiple projects at once and represent organizations to customers and the public.
- Stage 7-8. These upper-management engineers often are presidents of companies, hold lead positions in agencies, and are seen as leaders within the profession.
Chemical engineerMedian salary: 77K US$
A chemical engineer works to provide solutions related to chemical processes and interactions. These engineers typically have a bachelor’s degree but may pursue a master’s degree or doctorate. They work in a range of industries in positions that include research, applications, sciences, operations, production, and health and safety.
Nuclear engineerMedian salary: 90K US$
A nuclear engineer works to manage the energy released in a nuclear reaction. Engineers apply nuclear energy in many settings, most commonly in the design and operation of nuclear power plants. Nuclear engineers also work on medical diagnostic equipment, including MRI machines, submarine propulsion, nuclear weapons, radioactive waste disposal, and food production.
Nuclear engineering is a relatively new field. It emerged after German physicists first split a uranium atom in 1939. Today, nuclear engineers work primarily for electric power companies that manage nuclear power plants. Nuclear engineers also work for hospitals, equipment makers, defense contractors, the federal government, and construction contractors. They may develop equipment, monitor plant design, construction, and operations, and test methods of using nuclear materials. They may be involved in ordering plant shutdowns or corrective action in emergencies. They are also involved in evaluating nuclear accidents and gaining data used to prevent future accidents. Safety is a primary focus of nuclear engineers given the destructive power and damage that accidents with nuclear materials can cause.See more
Bioengineer/biomedical engineerMedian salary: 69K US$
Biomedical engineers apply engineering principles to biology and medicine. Their work is often on the cutting edge of research and applied sciences. These engineers frequently work in clinical settings, ensuring medical equipment works and is safe to use. Their influence is seen throughout healthcare, with biomedical engineering innovations used from diagnosis through treatment and recovery. Biomedical engineers may work on devices such as artificial organs, tissues, and joints, or on more complex issues such as stem cell therapies and the 3D printing of organs.
Biomedical engineers work for medical device makers, health systems, research companies, pharmaceutical makers, and government agencies.See more
Petroleum engineerMedian salary: 101K US$
Petroleum engineers play a pivotal role in energy exploration, extraction, refining and use. Petroleum engineers help companies identify potential oil and gas reserves, manage drilling resources, identify recovery strategies, and build surface facilities used for collection and treatment.
Petroleum engineers often work for multinational companies, addressing technological, economic, environmental, and political issues. Part of their role involves protecting the natural environment and developing procedures that recover and refine hydrocarbons as efficiently as possible.See more
Nanosystems engineerMedian salary: 125K US$
Nanosystems engineers develop, design, and build systems that use nanomaterials – small materials, some only 1/100,000 the width of a human hair. They spend much of their time analyzing microscopic interactions and identifying the properties of those nanomaterials. They also leverage these properties to develop new products and technologies. Nanotechnologies are among the most cutting-edge products being developed today, with applications in construction, medicine, energy, and consumer goods.See more
Chemical project engineerMedian salary: 80K US$
A chemical project engineer uses the skills and applications of chemical engineering to design, build, and implement specific processes within a facility or for a product. They may assist in product testing both before and after a construction project. They may also be involved in training operators and assisting with the start-up of a new facility.
How do you become a chemical engineer?
Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s in engineering
A bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering is the primary educational requirement for entering this field. A bachelor’s degree in a related engineering discipline may be acceptable in some cases. Chemical engineering students take classes in heat transfer, chemical reactions, nanotechnology, and engineering calculations. Their coursework may include core courses in chemistry and electives based on a concentration in a particular area of study.
Step 2: Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam [optional]
It is highly recommended that students pursuing a chemical engineering degree sit for the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. While the exam is optional, many employers will look for this credential when hiring chemical engineers. The exam consists of 110 questions, takes 6 hours to complete, and is offered in a variety of engineering disciplines.
Step 3: Earn work experience as a chemical engineer
Once you’ve passed the FE exam, 4 years of work experience is required before sitting for the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam. Building expertise and experience through work as you climb your way up the engineering ladder is a powerful way to advance your career. Entry-level roles are often titled “graduate chemical engineer” and progress through stages, typically 6. Stage 6 engineers usually need a master’s degree. Engineers advance through the stages by earning experience and demonstrating aptitude and expertise in various work situations.
Step 4: Pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam [optional]
The Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam is a requirement for becoming a licensed Professional Engineer. There are multiple exam options, the PE Chemical being the traditional choice for chemical engineers. The exam includes 80 questions and takes 9 hours.
Step 5: Become a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) [optional]
Licensure as a PE grants engineers the ability to prepare, sign, and submit engineering plans. It has become a common requirement for government engineering positions. Licensure is handled at state level. To be eligible, an engineer must pass the FE and PE exams.
Step 6: Complete a master’s degree in chemical engineering [optional]
Engineers interested in research and development or wishing to teach engineering usually complete a master’s degree. It is also a way to access certain advanced and leadership positions.
Step 7: Complete a Ph.D. in chemical engineering [optional]
A Ph.D. in engineering is usually required for teaching at the university or college level and for advanced research positions. The most common capstone to an engineering Ph.D. is a dissertation on a unique area of research. The degree often takes multiple years to complete.
Do you need a PE license to be a chemical engineer?
You do not need a PE license to become a chemical engineer. However, it is highly recommended to take the exams and pursue a PE license to be eligible for more engineering jobs, including senior-level positions and federal jobs.
Where do chemical engineers work?
Chemical engineers typically work in laboratories and office environments, as well as spending time in refineries, off-site locations, industrial plants, and other locations where they can solve problems or monitor operations.
How are chemical engineers and chemists different?
Chemists focus primarily on the science of organic and inorganic materials and analysis of physical or biochemical processes. Chemical engineering is focused on the practical application of science and solving problems related to heat transfer, equipment design, fluid dynamics, and other processes.
Can chemical engineers work from home?
Yes, chemical engineers can typically find work that is 80% remote with some required travel the remainder of the time. A hybrid working arrangement with time spent remotely and in person generally works best for chemical engineers.
Interview with a chemical engineer
Obtaining a PE license is an excellent way to stand out in your field and open up a wide range of additional employment opportunities. The NCEES provides information about the PE exam, which can be taken after working in your engineering discipline for 4 years and previously passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam.
AIChE is the world’s largest professional organization for chemical engineers. With members in over 110 countries and professional relationships with many engineering centers and communities, AIChE is a vast resource for networking, career advancement, education, and more.