How to Become a Chemical Engineer

How to Become a Chemical Engineer

By Marisa Upson

Published on May 4, 2021

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In the 20th century, chemical engineering focused on the production of chemicals. As the discipline merged with biology, this engineering field expanded to producing plastics, consumer products, fuels, medicine, foods, and environmental solutions.

Today, chemical engineers work in just about every industry, using science and engineering concepts to turn raw materials into products that improve the quality of our lives.

What Is Chemical Engineering and What Do Chemical Engineers Do?

Chemical engineering entails using math, physics, chemistry, and biology to design and improve materials, equipment, and products. By converting raw materials into useful products, these professionals can minimize costs and maximize productivity while maintaining or increasing the quality of goods and materials.

Chemical engineers work in nearly every sector, including pharmaceutical, consumer products, biotechnology, manufacturing, materials, medicine, aerospace, automotive, and fuel.

Chemical engineering entails using math, physics, chemistry, and biology to design and improve materials, equipment, and products.

As a chemical engineer, you may improve food production techniques, increase access to clean drinking water, develop new fibers for clothing, recover and refine fuels, come up with solutions to environmental issues, or improve the diagnosis and treatment of diseases.

Typical duties performed in chemical engineer jobs include research and testing, designing and evaluating equipment and processes, and ensuring compliance with safety and environmental regulations.

Chemical Engineer Job Demand and Salary

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 4% job growth for chemical engineers between 2019 and 2029, about as fast as the average employment growth rate for all occupations. Industries like alternative energy and biotechnology should experience sustained demand, while traditional manufacturing positions may see some decline.

Because of the rapid advances in technology, engineers must stay informed of emerging trends in their field and industry. Some of the top industries employing chemical engineers include chemical manufacturing, architecture and engineering, scientific research, petroleum and coal product manufacturing, and the federal government.

Industries like alternative energy and biotechnology should experience sustained demand for chemical engineers, while traditional manufacturing positions may see some decline.

The states employing the most chemical engineers include Texas, California, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Ohio. Texas also offers the highest earnings for these professionals, with an average annual chemical engineer salary of $138,600 in 2020, according to the BLS.

While annual salaries vary depending on position, location, and employer, the BLS reports that chemical engineers earned a median annual salary of $108,540 in 2020. Engineers who work for petroleum and coal product manufacturers boast even greater earnings, with a median annual salary of $123,360.

Step by Step: How to Become a Chemical Engineer

To become a chemical engineer, you should gear up in high school by taking courses in science and math, particularly calculus. From there, you will need a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, preferably from a college that offers concentrations in your field of interest. If you're interested in management opportunities, a master's may be required.

Step 1: Study Chemistry, Physics, and Math in High School

Chemical engineering applicants face stiff competition. As a high school student, you should start preparing early in your studies by taking classes in chemistry, biology, physics, and math.

Taking college preparatory or AP courses in these areas may also increase your chances of admission, and specific coursework in trigonometry, algebra, and calculus can prepare you to meet college admission requirements.

You can also benefit from extracurricular activities in science, technology, engineering, and math. Many universities and research centers offer engineering summer camps and the opportunity to perform research.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Chemical Engineering

To become a chemical engineer, you need a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering. You should also consider attending a program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). This accreditation lets employers and educators know that you have received a rigorous education and meet the quality standards of the profession. This accreditation also qualifies you to pursue licensure in some states.

Most chemical engineering bachelor's programs require 120-130 credits and take about four years of full-time study to complete. You'll learn about analysis and invention of chemical products and processes through classroom, laboratory, and field studies. You'll also explore how to design equipment and processes for manufacturing.

Some programs offer internships or cooperative education experiences that will allow you to gain the experience many employers require.

Schools offer several concentrations that allow you to focus on your area of interest, including the following:

Nuclear Engineering: This specialization teaches you about the many facets of nuclear power, including the design, development, and maintenance of these power plants. Nanomaterials Engineering: This concentration introduces you to the world of very small chemical substances and ultra-fine particles ranging from 1-100 nanometers. This rapidly advancing field of engineering is producing big changes in robotics, energy, biomedicine, and manufacturing. Biochemical Engineering: Biochemical engineers apply technology to biological substances, such as cells, to create improved or new products. The end result may include producing cleaner fuels or better water treatment processes. Business and Management: Many chemical engineers have gone on to succeed in business, management, and consulting roles. Energy and Environment: If you're interested in studying and producing solutions to help build a sustainable planet, this concentration may be for you. Students explore technology solutions to climate change, clean water and air, and sustainable energy. Petroleum and Gas Exploration: As a chemical engineer specializing in oil and gas, you may work on offshore rigs and ships or in the field. These engineers help boost production, transform crude oil into a usable form, and develop new extraction techniques.
true Admission Requirements
  • Minimum GPA: 3.0-3.5
  • Academic Requirements: Many programs recommend four years of science, including one year of physics and one year of chemistry, and successful completion of a college-level calculus course
  • ACT/SAT Scores: Currently, many schools are not requiring these test scores
Typical Courses
  • Calculus and Analytic Geometry
  • Polymer Science and Technology
  • Physical Chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Chemical Process Thermodynamics
  • Momentum and Heat Transfer Operations
  • Material Science and Engineering
  • General Physics
  • Chemical Reaction Engineering

Step 3: Consider a Master's Degree in Chemical Engineering

While you can pursue a lucrative rewarding career as a chemical engineer with a bachelor's degree, an advanced degree paves the way to additional job opportunities. In addition to qualifying for managerial positions, a master's degree provides a deeper understanding of chemical reactions, independent research methods, and advanced laboratory skills. A career in research or academia typically requires a master's.

Some schools offer engineering programs that allow you to complete your combined bachelor's and master's degrees in chemical engineering within five years.

true Admission Requirements
  • Minimum GPA: 3.0
  • Academic Requirements: Many programs require four years of mathematics through differential equations and several classes in organic and physical chemistry
  • Degree Requirements: Bachelor's degree in engineering or a physical science
  • GRE Scores: Currently, many schools are not requiring these test scores
Typical Courses
  • Transport Phenomena
  • Advanced Thermodynamics
  • Kinetics and Applied Math
  • Advanced Chemical Reaction
  • Fluid Mechanics
  • Microhydrodynamics

Step 4: Establish State Licensure

Unlike other engineering disciplines, many positions as a chemical engineer do not require a license. In fact, many of these engineers do not pursue licensure their entire career.

On the other hand, earning a professional engineer (PE) license may be required for some management positions or if you're considering going into private practice. This license enables chemical engineers to supervise other engineers, prepare and submit engineering plans to a public authority, and sign off on projects.

Obtaining your PE license requires time and commitment. While not required, going the extra mile sets you apart from your fellow engineers and lets employers know you've gone through rigorous training.

Step 5: Gain Practical Experience in the Field

Many bachelor's in chemical engineering programs offer internships or cooperative education experiences. These programs generally provide you with several months of field experience and the practical knowledge valued by most employers.

Most entry-level jobs provide on-the-job training. Newcomers usually work under an experienced engineer and may receive additional training at seminars. As you gain more experience, you'll find increasing job responsibilities and greater independence.

Step 6: Become a Professional Engineer in Chemical Engineering

Pursuing your PE license can increase your career opportunities, particularly in supervisory roles. Without this license, you may work under a supervisor who has earned a PE license.

While each state issues its own license, most have similar requirements and recognize licensure from other states. You need a degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program, a passing score on two national licensing exams, and experience.

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