Chemical Engineering Topics

Guide to a Career in Chemical Engineering

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 professional paths combining:

Students can use the flexibility of their chemical engineering majors to tailor careers in environmental protection, pharmaceutical development, health care, food processing, and many other areas. Another aspect of chemical engineering involves the design and management of facilities whose purpose is to accomplish these activities.

Nearly forty-five percent of chemical engineering graduates go on to work for larger firms in industries such as:

paper and pulp,
pharmaceutical, and
textile manufacturers.
Other chemical engineering majors launch their careers government agencies or consulting firms that specialize in environmental regulations, pollution controls, microelectronics, and biotechnology. About one in five chemical engineers attend graduate school to earn master's degrees or doctorates in their specialties, or to pursue other careers option such as medical school, law, or industrial management.

What Do Chemical Engineers Do?

In a world that tries to feed more people using less farmland, where citizens raise concerns for environmentally safe production and where manufacturers demand more efficient means of production 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 in the morning. The toothpaste to brush your teeth, the make-up applied in the morning, 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 fibers used for clothing and rope, as well as artificial organs for human transplant. Chemical engineers act as the bridge between the lab and the consumer, between science and manufacturing. The field's application to so many industries provides a graduate with many 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 and applying the principles of management and economics to create a solution.

The work of a chemical engineer, however, 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.

The field is a life-long learning experience because it is constantly evolving. While the principles learned in college will always be a vital part of a chemical engineer's repertoire, chemical engineering can change with new discoveries. 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 1880's, 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 industrial 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.

Recent Trends in Chemical Engineering Careers

Anyone planning a career as a chemical engineer should be aware of two things. First, the career can be financially rewarding. A National Association of Colleges and Employers survey showed that starting salaries for a graduate with a bachelor's degree is more than $52,000. It is even better for someone with a master's degree or doctorate. The average industry salary of $75,000 ranked first in a 2004 study among career choices.

Second, prospective majors should understand that chemical engineering is a tight 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:

paper, and
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.

"I wouldn't do anything else."

Prospective chemical engineers can look forward to exciting careers that can even 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)

Career Education in Chemical Engineering

Planning for your career as a chemical engineer

Be sure to plan ahead before you graduate. That means investigating the types of companies for whom you might want to work, so you know their needs and requirements. A college career service center can often help you find this information, in addition to helping you prepare resumes and rehearse interviews.

Always keep your eyes peeled for internships and summer employment. These opportunities provide career experience while connecting you to important contacts and references. They also can help many chemical engineering majors clarify their career paths.

Is an Advanced Degree Needed 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 assistant-ships 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.

Preparing for a Degree in Chemical Engineering

Many experienced chemical engineers admit that their degree was not actually their first choice. Many 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 from 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 will come in handy.

Types of Chemical Engineering Degrees Offered

Bachelor Degrees
Online bachelor 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 especially 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 forcing to look outside their organization for talented professionals during hot job markets.

During their classes, bachelor 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 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.

Master Degrees
After a few years in the field, working professionals can return to the classroom to earn their Master's Degree in Chemical Engineering. In today's busy business environment, many professionals enjoy attending online courses that fit into their schedules. Many master's degree candidates can usually complete their requirements over the course of three to five years, depending on their course load.

During this stage of a chemical engineer's education, they often narrow their focus to one or two key specialties. Whereas many bachelor degree programs funnel students through a large set of core courses, a master's curriculum can offer chemical engineering majors the opportunity to select the exact classes that meet their professional needs.

Doctorate Level Degrees
Experienced chemical engineers who wish to contribute to their industry at the highest echelons of both business and academia can choose to pursue a doctorate level degree. Once again, working professionals benefit from the expansion of online learning opportunities. Although these degree candidates may complete much of their coursework remotely, they must still perform some hands-on research in teams as part of an on-campus residency at some point during the degree program.

What Can You Do with a University Degree in Chemical Engineering?

Career options for aspiring chemical engineers

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 equal rewards and challenges that place chemical engineers among the highest paid professionals.

One major role for chemical engineers is the development and operation of chemical processing plants, as well as the equipment in those plants. They serve a variety of functions. They might use software to plan the design of a plant, or they might develop the software that is used to plan the design. They can 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 might be asked to 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.

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 studies the chemical processes occurring natural 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 product. 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.
Pharmaceutical. 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.

Certification and Licensure

Depending on their exact job duties, chemical engineers may sometimes be required by states to obtain a Professional Engineer 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 twelve branches nationwide, has set the standard for professional chemical engineers for nearly eighty years.

Recent chemical engineering graduates may apply to the AIC to earn their status as certifees-in-training. This designation allows these emerging professionals to participate in the continuing education workshops and other professional development exercises required of all certified chemical engineers.

Once graduates have obtained enough continuing education credits, they may apply to the AIC for full certification. Every three years, for the rest of their professional lives, they must continue to show the AIC that they uphold the ethical standards of their profession and that they continue to participate in key learning opportunities throughout the year.