Chemical engineering combines the experimental and life sciences to create products and develop processes that can make life easier. These engineers work in laboratory settings, developing processes to turn chemicals and materials into useful forms. These professionals also develop processes and materials for other scientific disciplines and career fields to make products for consumers.
There are multiple subgroups in chemical engineering: chemical process engineering and chemical product engineering. In chemical process engineering, the engineer works to design processes that companies use to create products or to simplify tasks. In chemical product engineering the engineer works with raw materials, monitors chemical manufacturing processes, and works with other engineers to develop products for public or industrial use.
A Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering takes four years to complete and is the minimum education requirement to work as a chemical engineer. This degree includes study of general education courses, as well as courses that focus on chemical engineering.
Master’s level programs include the Master of Science in Chemical Engineering (MSCE) or the Master of Chemical Engineering (MCE). These programs require 2 to 3 years study beyond the bachelor’s degree. Some schools require that students in master’s programs work as teaching assistants in their discipline. Students may be asked to complete a thesis or complete further course work in lieu of the thesis.
The terminal degree program in chemical engineering is the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D). This program is often helpful in research careers or university-level teaching. Students on this path may enter the degree program with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering or may obtain a master’s degree before moving into the doctoral program. Doctoral programs require that students pass qualifying examinations to advance to candidacy after completing basic coursework. Students must also write and defend a dissertation.
Degree programs in chemical engineering require that students spend a lot of time studying mathematics and sciences in addition to chemistry. There are chemical engineering degree programs at several levels: bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.
As an undergraduate student in chemical engineering, the courses you’ll take depend on the emphasis you choose. Some schools offer several paths towards a chemical engineering degree, such as an emphasis in biochemical engineering, environmental chemical engineering, materials science and a general emphasis in chemical engineering. No matter the focus, you can expect to take courses in organic chemistry, general chemistry, calculus, chemical process analysis and system dynamics.
A biochemical engineering degree plan often includes courses like biochemical engineering, biochemistry and even microbiology. Some schools require courses in cell biology, thermodynamics and microbial biotechnology.
In an environmental chemical engineering program, there is the potential to take courses like principles of environmental engineering and biochemical engineering, environmental policy, environmental and natural resource law, and corporate environmental management.
A materials science emphasis will require completion of courses in analytical geometry and calculus, physics and elementary strength of materials.
At the master’s level, you can pursue a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering (MSCE) or a Master of Chemical Engineering (MCE). These programs focus on mastery of specific subjects, like process design, heat transfer, thermodynamics, separation processes and chemical engineering reactors. Typically, students with a bachelor’s degree in an engineering program have an easier time in a master’s level chemical engineering program.
Students interested in a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D) are typically preparing for careers in research-based fields. Common subject-area study requirements include reaction kinetic, transport phenomena, thermodynamics and digital computation for chemical engineers. You’ll have to complete several hours in research and at least one seminar course.
Colleges offer a variety of specializations within chemical engineering degree programs. Undergraduate specializations can include biochemical engineering, environmental chemical engineering, materials science, petroleum engineering, or even a general emphasis in chemical engineering.
In a master’s-level or doctoral degree program, you may be able to choose from specializations like polymers, energy economics and engineering or soft materials.
Chemical engineers work in a variety of fields in the public, private and governmental sectors. Many are involved in the chemical process industries, as well as research laboratories.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2012 17% of chemical engineers worked in the architectural or engineering fields, while 13% were employed in basic chemical manufacturing and 10% were employed in scientific research and development. Another 6% worked in manufacturing of resin, synthetic rubber and artificial synthetic fibers. Yet another 6% worked in manufacturing of petroleum and coal products. It is not uncommon for individuals with a chemical engineering background to go into business or pursue a career in environmental law.
Professionals with a chemical engineering background often consult on environmental and industrial issues or pursue advanced degrees and move into research and university-level teaching. Chemical engineers can be heavily involved in ensuring that policymakers understand the effects of chemicals.
Individuals who pursue a career in chemical engineering don’t always need to be licensed, but the BLS notes that passing the Professional Engineer licensure examination can help to advance one’s career.
Ideal Candidates for Chemical Engineering Careers
Chemical engineers do a lot of their work in laboratory settings or in front of computers. If you enjoy analyzing data and have strong skills in chemistry, mathematics and problem-solving, you might enjoy a career in chemical engineering. People with a strong ability to understand and explain complex topics easily, who can work well with groups or who are comfortable working individually could be well-suited for a career in chemical engineering. If you have a strong analytical mind and can easily adapt when challenges arise, you may find chemical engineering suits you.