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  • Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom

What Is Chemical Engineering?

Chemical engineering is a hybrid field of engineering, specifically designed to bridge the gap between engineers and scientists. This relatively “new” field focuses on the applications of chemistry, biology, and physics combined with traditional engineering processes and principles. 

While the general public perception of chemical engineers is working in an oil and gas petrochemical refinery, which is a valid industry, however, chemical engineering is so much more. The overall range of industries you can find chemical engineers may surprise you. You can learn more about chemical engineering in our other article about studying chemical engineering

In a nutshell, a chemical engineer takes raw materials and devises a process in order to efficiently and maximise production. There is nothing that you own or enjoy in your day-to-day life that hasn’t passed through a chemical engineer’s hands or notebook. That’s just incredible! This prestige comes at a price, to become a chemical engineer is a very difficult task which is why we have written this article to give you all the tools and tips to become a chemical engineer. 

What Does A Chemical Engineer Do?

As we said previously, chemical engineers work in a wide range of different industries, that involve processes. However, surprisingly chemical engineers are well known to be CEOs, entrepreneurs, financial consultants, and even doctors! Despite these more esoteric examples, most chemical engineers can be found in industries such as… 

  • Petrochemical 
  • Textiles
  • Research 
  • Pharmaceutical
  • Food and drinks 
  • Electronics
  • Software engineering
  • Water purification
  • And more!

In general, regardless of the industry, chemical engineers have the following tasks: 

  • Designing, constructing and maintaining machines for chemical processes. 
  • Employing safety procedures within a manufacturing or process plant. 
  • Optimising existing processes, equipment, and machinery. 
  • Inspecting the quality and consistency of products and making adjustments when required. 
  • Developing new chemical formulations and materials for commercialisation. 

Step-By-Step: How to Become a Chemical Engineer

To become a chemical engineer, you should develop your fundamental knowledge at high school in mathematics, chemistry, and physics, with a particular emphasis on maths, as despite what the name suggests, the most important subject is maths.

From there, you will need a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. You should select a university that is accredited by the IChemE (Institute of Chemical Engineers), otherwise, your degree won’t be recognised. If you are interested in management, and career development to high positions, you should consider a masters in chemical engineering as well, however, more on that later on.

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 maths. As a chemical engineer myself, I can assure you that if you don’t like maths you will not like chemical engineering.

While there is chemistry involved you must know maths to a very high level. Don’t worry we have a full in-depth course and resources on mathematics for engineers, and this will give you all the tools and skills needed for becoming a chemical engineer. 

You can also benefit from extracurricular activities in science, technology, engineering, and math. Many universities and research centres 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 IChemE (Institute of Chemical Engineers). This accreditation lets employers and educators know that you have received a rigorous education and meet the quality standards of the profession. Be careful when selecting your university as in order for your degree to be industrially recognised, it must be accredited.

Most chemical engineering bachelor’s programs require 120-130 credits and take about four years of full-time study to complete. You’ll learn a whole host of different varied concepts all about the analysis and invention of chemical products and processes through classroom, laboratory, and now online platforms as well. You’ll also explore how to design equipment and processes for manufacturing, this can often be part of your final year design projects.

Some programs offer internships or cooperative education experiences that will allow you to gain the experience many employers require. Sometimes called in the UK a “sandwich year” this provides you a full year of hands-on practical experience within a specific field of 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. Traditionally a bachelors degree was substantial for seeking employment, however as of 2022, more than 65% of graduates have a Master’s degree and are almost 82% more likely to get a job than someone with just a bachelor’s degree. We offer support and guidance through all our courses as they provide Master’s level content suitable for international industries. 

A career in research or academia typically requires a PhD which can only be achieved after you obtain 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.

Step 4: Establish State Licensure

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

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

What Salary Can You Expect?

It’s no secrete that chemical engineers are among the highest paid engineers, however, the question remains, by how much? This is a difficult question to answer definitively since the salary of any chemical engineer is influenced by many different factors. 

The factors that influence your salary the most are, the type of industry you work in, the seniority level you are currently at (i.e. graduate, or experienced engineer), your country, company size, and whether you have chartered status. You can learn more about how to become a chartered chemical engineer here. 

As a general observation and based on the income data from the IChemE Salary survey the following pay scales are the average for each grade… 

  • Graduates earn a median salary of around £28,600 ($34,400). 
  • Early-stage careers engineers under 25 can expect a salary of around £30,000 ($36,000). 
  • More experienced engineers over 25 can typically expect around £54,000 ($64,600)
  • Chartered engineers can typically expect much higher average salaries in the region of £78,500 ($94,000). 

It’s important to remember that these are just the average and some chemical engineers can earn in excess of over £150,000 ($180,000)! Industries such as pharmaceuticals and energy typically see the highest salaries outwith senior executives of businesses.

You might be surprised to find that many chemical engineers become highly successful business people or hold high seniority within multinational businesses or education institutions. Several university chancellors who are chemical engineers earn an average of £350,000 ($419,000)! While the CEO of Shell earns a base salary of £1.9 million ($2.27 million)! 

What Skills Do You Need?

Chemical engineers possess a wide range of skills and attributes. These should be developed while at university and continue to grow and advance as you progress through your career. You can read more about the top skills for chemical engineers in more detail, but here is the top 8 skills you should look to possess… 

  • Technical skills 
  • Mathematics 
  • Critical-thinking skills 
  • Analytical skills 
  • Creative thinking 
  • Effective communication skills 
  • Leadership skills 
  • Organizational skills 
How to Become a Chemical Engineer

Finally, Don't Forget To Enjoy The Journey

Chemical engineering can be difficult, frustrating, confusing, and daunting. However, it is also highly rewarding and packed with amazing streams of knowledge that will make you a highly valuable member of any company. It’s very easy to get caught up in the negatives or the hard times, but always remember to enjoy the journey.

This incredible learning experience is designed to be challenging, and if you are meant to be a chemical engineer, you will step up to the challenge and embrace it and learn as much as you possibly can. For more help and support throughout your learning journey please check out our free online resources and courses; everything you need to get a 1st class degree!

How to Become a Chemical Engineer