What Is Chemical Engineering?
Chemical engineering majors learn to change raw materials into economically viable products. By solving technological problems, chemical engineers create innovations that impact our lives in surprising ways.
A college degree in chemical engineering can cut across a variety of academic paths, combining such subjects as chemistry, math, physics, engineering and biology.
Students can tailor their chemical engineering majors to careers in environmental protection, pharmaceutical development, health care, food processing, and many other areas. Nearly 45% of chemical engineering graduates go on to work for large firms in industries such as:
- Paper and pulp
- Textile manufacturer
Other chemical engineering majors choose careers with government agencies or consulting firms that specialize in environmental regulations, pollution controls, microelectronics, and biotechnology. About one in five chemical engineers attends graduate school to earn a master's degree or doctorate in his/her specialty, or to pursue other career options such as medical school, law, or industrial management. Online degrees in chemical engineering are available at the master's level, designed for the working adult who already understands the basics of chemistry.
What Do Chemical Engineers Do?
In a world that tries to feed more people using less farmland, where citizens are concerned about environmentally safe production and where manufacturers demand more efficiency in order to remain competitive, it might be easier to ask, "What doesn't a chemical engineer do?"
Consider how the work of a chemical engineer affects your life from the moment you wake up in the morning. Your toothpaste, your makeup, the soles of your shoes, the breakfast cereal you eat, the fuel used to drive to work or school--each of these involves the work of a chemical engineer. Chemical engineers develop everything from fibers used for clothing and rope to artificial organs for human transplant. Chemical engineers act as the bridge between the lab and the consumer, between science and manufacturing. The field's broad application to so many industries provides a graduate with opportunities to pursue work in almost any field of interest.
Chemical engineers often find practical applications for discoveries they make in the lab. This requires understanding the principles of chemistry and biosciences-as well as management and economics--to create a solution.
The work of a chemical engineer is not the same as the work of a chemist. A chemist is responsible for creating the chemical reactions needed for a product. Chemical engineers are then responsible for making the process happen in a way that is cost effective, safe, and environmentally sound.
Chemical engineering is a lifelong learning experience because the field is constantly evolving. Later in their careers, chemical engineers might find themselves working in an industry that did not exist when they graduated.
A History of Chemical Engineering Education
As the Industrial Revolution built momentum in the 1880s, many emerging technology companies asked their staff chemists to optimize production in factories and, later, on assembly lines. In 1888, not long after pioneering chemical engineer George Davis condensed his knowledge into a groundbreaking series of twelve lectures, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched the first ever bachelor's degree program in chemical engineering.
The University of Pennsylvania and Tulane University soon followed suit, capitalizing on industrial hunger for trained, competent engineers. By exposing students who had started as traditional chemistry majors to the cutting-edge engineering and manufacturing theories of the day, all three institutions established high benchmarks for this new profession.
Chemical Engineering Career Outlook
Chemical engineering can be financially rewarding. A Georgetown University report based on 2009 U.S. Census data found that workers with a bachelor's degree earned a median salary of 86,000. Those with a master's or doctoral degree are qualified to earn even more.
Chemical engineering is a competitive but steady industry. Analysts predict stable job growth in the next decade, fueled by the need to replenish the work force and the relatively low competition for available jobs. A good chemical engineer is not likely to lack quality job opportunities.
The petroleum and chemical industries are traditional spots for chemical engineers. Other areas of recent growth include:
As environmental concerns such as waste reduction and biohazard cleanup increase in importance, many new chemical engineers will enjoy high demand in those areas. In recent years, more graduates have found jobs with small- or medium-sized companies. Opportunities have also expanded for consulting work with banks and investment firms.
Prospective chemical engineers can look forward to exciting careers that can lead to the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies. Dave O'Reilly spent his entire career working for the companies that would ultimately merge to form the ChevronTexaco Corporation. In addition to managing thousands of employees, O'Reilly intimately understands the nature of the products his company manufactures.
He spends his time searching for ways to make oil and fuel products cleaner, cheaper, and more efficient. And, like many chemical engineers, he's been fascinated by his industry since college: "I became a chemical engineer specifically because I wanted to get into this business. And I was very fortunate to be hired by Standard of California (a precursor of ChevronTexaco) as a research engineer. My first job was in Richmond at the research labs."
"I just love it. I've been in this business ever since, and I wouldn't do anything else."
- Dave O'Reilly, interviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle (excerpted by ChevronTexaco's Media Relations Unit)
Do You Need an Advanced Degree to be a Chemical Engineer?
The majority of students earning bachelor degrees in chemical engineering can plan on starting profitable careers that tend to begin with production and process engineering tasks at a plant site. Entry-level work might also include technical service, which involves providing engineering analysis and advice to non-engineers, and helping with market development.
For someone more interested in the product and plant design aspects of chemical engineering, an M.S. would provide an advantage. A Ph.D. is most helpful to those who want to perform university research or to teach. Of course, significant professional experience and accomplishments can also lead to teaching and research positions.
Advanced degrees can often be obtained with little financial sacrifice. On-campus graduate students usually can obtain assistantships that pay tuition, plus a stipend. Many employers will pick up the tab for an employee who pursues an advanced degree while remaining on the job. Online master's degrees in chemical engineering have become a popular choice for this category of student.
Preparing for a Degree in Chemical Engineering
Many experienced chemical engineers admit that their degree was not actually their first choice. Often, chemical engineering majors transfer into their specialties after developing a fascination with chemical processes while pursuing more traditional math or science studies. Consider some of these typical work requirements for chemical engineers to determine if it is the right career choice for you.
- Did math and science classes interest you in high school? If not, you can always take additional classes in college, but many high school courses will help prepare you for college. Preparatory classes in chemistry, general engineering, calculus, biology, and physics will accelerate your career.
- Do you enjoy a variety of disciplines? The profession combines skills in chemistry, mathematics, physics, biology, and engineering.
- How are your communication skills? Chemical engineers often create technical reports and make oral presentations.
- Do you have people skills? Although many jobs are primarily research-oriented, many more positions require working in teams, taking directions, and giving directions to others.
Can you speak a foreign language? More and more companies that employ chemical engineers compete globally. Knowing a second language could come in handy.
Chemical Engineering Degrees
Bachelor's Degrees in Chemical Engineering
Bachelor's degrees in chemical engineering allow students to learn valuable skills in order to launch a new career or make an important shift in career focus. Online chemical engineering programs are especially appealing to busy professionals who want to add valuable career skills without sacrificing the salary or benefits of their existing jobs.
In fact, many companies that employ chemical engineers offer workers in other departments the opportunity to take advantage of tuition reimbursement programs. The chemical engineering majors enjoy the chance to expand their skills, while the employers benefit from growing those skills internally, instead of looking outside their organizations for talented professionals.
During their classes, bachelor's degree candidates gain exposure to key principles of engineering, including courses that touch on allied fields. Distance learning participants and online degree candidates can fulfill lab requirements by participating in condensed residency periods at a central campus location. Increasingly, reciprocal credit exchange agreements between universities allow more and more students to complete lab assignments in nearby facilities, even though their professors may be lecturing from across the country.
Chemical engineering majors typically complete their degree within four years, at which time they often field numerous job offers from eager companies in a variety of fields. Quality bachelor's degree programs offer students career counseling and job placement assistance, usually working closely with school alumni who have already launched successful careers in prominent corporations.
What Can You Do With a College Major in Chemical Engineering?
A chemical engineering degree can provide a wealth of career choices. Employers of all kinds seek the analytical and problem-solving skills developed by chemical engineers. Few career choices offer the rewards and challenges that make chemical engineers some of the highest-paid professionals in the country.
One major role for chemical engineers is the development and operation of chemical processing plants, as well as the equipment in those plants. Engineers might use software to plan the design of a plant, or they might develop the software that is used to plan the design. They may also be involved in obtaining the equipment, coordinating the construction, and supervising the plant operations. Other chemical engineers might be more involved in research and development, where they work with chemists or perform some of the research themselves.
Chemical engineers who are knowledgeable about a company or a specific product can act as troubleshooters by finding ways to improve plant operations. Being a successful troubleshooter requires a thorough understanding of the process and equipment, the ability to apply chemical engineering principles to problem solving, and a set of advanced data interpretation skills.
The same skills that allow chemical engineers to work effectively on a plant floor can help them transition to a career in the boardroom. Many chemical engineers use their creative troubleshooting abilities and their advanced interpersonal skills to advance into management positions.
Sometimes a chemical engineer's special knowledge of a product or a process leads to a career as a consultant, where he or she can work with several firms in an industry. At other times, a chemical engineer will take the knowledge learned over a career back into the classroom and pass it along to the next generation of chemical engineers. Chemical engineers who develop their communication skills can also enjoy a separate or supplemental occupation as a technical writer or author.
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Chemical Engineering Specialties
Not every chemical engineer is a generalist. Many choose a specific career path, develop an area of expertise, or serve a single purpose on a team. Some areas of specialty include:
- Biochemical engineering. This field focuses on the chemical processes occurring naturally in plants and animals. Food companies hire chemical engineers to improve crop yields by developing safer pest control products for farmers and distributors. Utility companies employ chemical engineers who examine ways to dispose of waste more efficiently while delivering supplies of clean drinking water to challenging locations.
- Food engineering. As the world's population increases, researchers are looking for new and better ways to improve the quality and extend the life of food products. Food chemical engineers also try to make crops more disease-resistant and safer to eat.
- Petroleum and petrochemical engineering. Petroleum is a finite resource, so chemical engineers constantly seek better ways to find and extract oil and natural gas. Oil companies deploy teams of chemical engineers to existing plants and refineries to improve production yields from dwindling fossil fuel deposits. Chemical engineers also travel to new drilling locations to help teams of scientists develop better ways to tap previously overlooked sources of oil and gas. At the same time, chemical engineers also search for safer and more efficient methods of developing oil-based products. By integrating smart production methods at the site of the drilling or during the refining process, chemical engineers have discovered ways to create useful products by recycling waste elements.
- Process control. Computers have become more important to just about every profession. Chemical engineering is no exception. Engineers oversee the quality-control portions of product development, such as temperature and liquid levels in processing tanks. Process control specialists improve production to a diverse array of industries, ranging from ice cream production to plastics manufacturing.
- Pharmaceuticals. In conjunction with medical researchers, chemical engineers help design and operate the equipment that produces life-enhancing drugs. Chemical engineers specialize in taking the concepts of new drugs from the lab to the factory floor by discovering ways to scale these new inventions. Over time, their efforts produce medicine that costs less for consumers and can be made more efficiently in facilities around the world.
- Production. Chemical and manufacturing plants require professionals to oversee their equipment and processes. Some employers use chemical engineers to maintain production levels or to advise in the purchase and layout of the equipment.
Did You Know?
Although many chemical engineers have won Nobel prizes for their work in the profession, a few chemical engineer majors have gone on to fame in other areas. Rocky IV actor Dolph Lundgren, It's A Wonderful Life director Frank Capra, and Major League Baseball pitcher Kevin Brown all earned degrees in chemical engineering.
Explore Related Career Pathways
Career Planning for Chemical Engineering
Certification and Licensure
Depending on their exact job duties, chemical engineers may sometimes be required by states to obtain a professional engineering license. Students can learn about the requirements for their specific career area during the course of their degree program.
Chemical engineers who do require licenses in their home states must first complete a predetermined amount of work experience before taking their state examination. In many cases, chemical engineers can apply for pre-licensure certification status. Once they have filed paperwork with the state, they can begin work in a number of apprentice positions that prepare them for full licensure.
Regardless of a state's requirements for licensure, most chemical engineers seek official certification from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. This trade organization and certifying body, based in Philadelphia with 12 branches nationwide, has set the standard for professional chemical engineers for nearly 80 years.