Chemical engineers apply math and science knowledge to create new manufacturing methods and develop new processes and proper safety procedures for working with chemicals. Materials like plastics, mass produced pharmaceuticals, cleaner forms of fossil fuels and genetic research are all made possible due to the work of chemical engineers.

Becoming a chemical engineer requires intense instruction from a formal postsecondary program. There are multiple levels of education available to chemical engineers, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels. This guide is intended to give an overview of the chemical engineer profession, as well as the educational paths available and what students can expect from each one.

Choose A Program

What Does a Chemical Engineer Do?

Chemical Engineering Basics

Sitting at the crossroads of design and operation, chemical engineering focuses on creating the chemical reactions needed to produce new materials and products. The field requires a mastery of both chemistry and engineering to see raw materials through the entire lifespan – varying from generating them in a laboratory to producing them in a plant. Because chemical engineering is largely focused on mass-production, the majority of professionals in this field find themselves working in industrial settings.

Chemical Engineering In-Depth

The field of chemical engineering offers many different avenues for building a career. Whether working to create and design new processes, develop new instruments and plants, or overseeing operations of a facility, chemical engineers focus their talents and interests in numerous areas. Those who are more interested in the applied chemistry aspects may elect to spend their days in laboratories, exploring raw materials and discovering new forms. Individuals with a passion for engineering often find themselves using the various forms of a raw material to engineer multiple uses for them. As technology continues to inform every aspect of creation, design and production, chemical engineering promises to be a constantly evolving and fresh field of work.

Chemical Engineer Salaries

Professionals with the skills and knowledge needed to be top chemical engineers are guaranteed a salary well over the national average, with much potential to grow their annual income as their careers mature. The salaries reported below represented the 50th percentile of earners, with those in the top 10 percent earning significantly more.

Top Career in Chemical Engineering Median Salary
Chemical Engineer $96,940
Chemical Technician $44,180
Materials Engineer $87,690

Steps to Becoming a Chemical Engineer

Chemical engineering is an attractive field, not only for its interdisciplinary nature, but also because it tends to be less formal than other types of engineering. Positions abound for those with bachelor’s to PhD level degrees, and graduates are able to enter the field directly after completing coursework. The steps below outline the steps needed to gain the proper education, licensure and experience to enter the field as a strong candidate.

1
Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemical Engineering

Degrees in chemical engineering exist at the bachelor’s level and will prepare graduates for entry-level positions in the field. In addition to chemistry classes, students also study in physics, biology, mathematics and kinetics through a mix of classroom teaching, laboratory experiments and fieldwork placements.

While a master’s degree isn’t required, it can help students advance their careers to managerial levels or into research positions. It will also help those who completed their bachelor’s degree in a different field get up to speed on necessary skills and knowledge. After covering the same areas of a bachelor’s degree more in depth, students at this level typically complete a research project or fieldwork placement.

PhDs in chemical engineering are reserved for students who wish to work in the most specialized areas of development and production, or teach the discipline at the collegiate level. This degree covers the intricacies and nuances of chemical reactors, thermodynamics, transport phenomena, and numerical methods and typically includes a large-scale original research project and comprehensive exams.

2
Complete a Chemical Engineering Internship

While not all chemical engineering degree requirements include an internship or co-op component, these are excellent opportunities for gaining experience and building contacts in the field. Bachelor’s level students typically undertake these during their junior and/or senior years, while master’s and PhD level students can elect to do so after their first year of studies. The American Chemical Society maintains a board of internship and fellowship opportunities.

3
Choose a specialty/Concentration

Because the field of chemical engineering is so broad, numerous programs offer concentrations for students who wish to specialize their knowledge in a particular area. Students typically devote 12 to 18 credit hours to studying specific topics, with options ranging from petroleum/gas exploration or energy systems to material and polymers or biological engineering.

4
Complete Relevant Exams for Certification

Though other areas of engineering are more stringent about licensure and certification, chemical engineering is less formal and has only a few mandates for entering the field. For those in the industry seeking to work in respected firms, there are a number of steps they can take to be competitive. These include:

  • Attend an ABET-accredited institution
  • Undertake the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) examination directly after completing a baccalaureate degree
  • Complete the Professional Engineering (PE) exam after at least four years of relevant work experience
5
Land an Entry-Level job

Finding your first job out of college can feel overwhelming, but it can be made easier by approaching it with a plan. In addition to online job boards, going in with prior internship or co-op experience goes a long way in showing prospective employers an understanding of both the theoretical and practical skills needed to do the job well. The American Institute of Chemical Engineers provides numerous helpful resources for newly graduated job seekers, ranging from bi-annual virtual career fairs to resume assistance.

Chemical Engineering Degrees & Concentrations

Matching Career Goals to Chemical Engineering Degrees

Career Goal and Educational Needs Certificate Associate Bachelor’s Master’s Doctorate Online

I am currently working as a chemical engineer. I would like to take advanced chemical engineering courses, but I don’t want to commit to getting a graduate degree.

I need additional high-level knowledge about chemical engineering, and besides that, I’d like to open the possibility of obtaining a doctorate degree in chemical engineering.

I’m not 100% sure I want to commit the time and money to becoming a chemical engineer. Yet I would still like to work in the chemical engineering field in an entry-level capacity.

I know that I’d like to become a chemical engineer, but I am about to graduate high school. As a result, I have no chemical engineering work experience or background.

I’d like to get a degree in chemical engineering, but I want to continue working full-time. There’s also the issue of not being able to move to attend a new school.

I’ve been in the chemical engineering field for a while, but I want to try my hand at advanced research and teaching future chemical engineers at the postsecondary level.

Chemical Engineering Degree Levels

Chemical engineering degrees are available at all levels along with specialized certifications. Working chemical engineers who wish to add more education to their resume have master’s and doctorate degree programs available, both on-campus and online. It’s important for chemical engineers and aspiring chemical engineers to learn the differences between the degrees available, so we’ve compiled a comprehensive look at chemical engineering degrees.

Associate Degrees in Chemical Engineering

There are no chemical engineering degrees available at the associate level. However, those interested in a career in chemical engineering still have an option available – an associate degree for chemical technicians. This two-year degree includes some general education courses in addition to the major related coursework. Typical courses include:

Introduction to Chemistry

Students will learn the basic principles of chemistry and learn how those principles relate to chemical engineering professions.

Skills Gained
  • Quantitative and qualitative methods of analysis

  • Calculating reactants and products through stoichiometry

  • Laboratory research and safety techniques

Quantitative Analysis in Chemistry

This class teaches students methods for calculating the concentration of one substance in another.

Skills Gained
  • Utilization of gravimetric and volumetric analysis for analyzing substance concentration

  • Familiarity with titration methods and techniques

  • Applying statistical methods to analyze data

Organic Chemistry

This class focuses on the subset of chemistry that involves substances that contain carbon atoms (most of the natural world).

Skills Gained
  • Detailed knowledge of compounds that contain carbon

  • Ability to use laboratory techniques, including spectroscopy, to analyze substances

  • Substance isolation methods

Biochemistry

This course looks at the subfield of chemistry that deals with biological chemical processes.

Skills Gained
  • Understanding chemical reactions in metabolism

  • Analysis of energy transformation through chemical reactions

  • Knowing the effect of the structure biological molecules and compounds on their function

Bachelor’s Degrees in Chemical Engineering

A bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement to become a chemical engineer. If management, research or teaching are part of the career plan, the bachelor’s degree is customarily the first step. Usually taking four years to complete, a typical program will cover all of the major chemical engineering topics plus general education courses to create a well-balanced education. Below are some of the more common classes students may find when pursuing the chemical engineering degree.

Introduction to Chemical Engineering

This course provides a strong overview of what those in the chemical engineering profession actually do.

Skills Gained
  • Ability to use dimension analysis

  • Safety protocols used by chemical engineers

  • Taking economic factors in consideration during the chemical engineering process

Unit Operations

Chemical engineering processes are explained from a unit operations perspective.

Skills Gained
  • Familiarity with the different classes of chemical engineering unit operations

  • Knowing how to utilize differing unit operation classes for a given situation

  • Analysis of mass and heat transfer unit operations

Reactor Design in Chemical Engineering

Students will be taught several types of chemical reactors within the context of underlying theories of chemical reactions.

Skills Gained
  • Identification of proper chemical reactor for a particular application

  • How to design and construct catalytic and tubular chemical reactors

  • Learning how to properly design a chemical reactor

Engineering Ethics

How to maintain morals, ethics and integrity during the engineering process.

Skills Gained
  • Understanding the “big picture” consequences of a given action

  • Tools to assist in the making of ethical decisions

  • Communication techniques for ethically and effectively communicating ideas

Master’s Chemical Engineering Degrees

The master’s degree in chemical engineering can serve multiple objectives for the chemical engineering student. It can be a stepping stone to achieving another degree, such as a PhD, and it can provide additional instruction in a specific area, allowing graduates to enter a subfield within the chemical engineering industry. Depending on the program, a master’s degree can be completed in 18 months to two years. Some of the unique advanced coursework often found in a master’s degree program include:

Biochemical and Drug Delivery

This course teaches students about different materials and chemicals used in medicine, and how they are best delivered, as well as reactions and interactions.

Skills Gained
  • Identification of proper drug delivery methods

  • Understanding the underlying biological principles and chemical reactions to materials and drugs

  • Ability to use effective substrates and materials

Chemical Process Design

Students learn how to create and implement processes to engineer new chemicals and materials.

Skills Gained
  • Utilize engineering techniques to manufacture chemicals in an economic way

  • Develop engineering processes as safely as possible

  • Address current process designs for upgrades

Sustainable Chemical Engineering

This course provides an in-depth view of historical and future trends regarding sustainable chemical manufacturing and engineering.

Skills Gained
  • Methods for environmentally friendly chemical processes

  • Identification of sustainability issues and problems within the chemical engineering industry

  • Awareness of chemical engineering discoveries and their effect on the environment

Separation Processes

This class addresses the various theories and methods concerning the separation of substances and compounds.

Skills Gained
  • Understanding of distillation methods as a means of separation

  • Utilization of non-distillation methods, such as filtration, sedimentation and extraction

  • Application of separation processes from the equilibrium-state point of view

Chemical Engineering Doctorate Degrees

A PhD degree in chemical engineering represents the pinnacle of academic training in organic chemistry. Though the length of the program depends on the student’s pacing, a PhD in chemical engineering can usually be obtained in four to six years and culminates with a dissertation.

A PhD is ideal for students who want to engage in research or would like to teach at the college level. While the dissertation is the key component to a PhD, students will need to take several courses as well; their selection of courses will be highly variable depending on their future career preferences. Some typical classes include:

Advanced Thermodynamics in Chemical Engineering

This class examines how thermodynamic principles can be applied to complex problems found in chemical engineering.

Skills Gained
  • Use of Legendre transformation

  • Application of statistical methods to analyze thermodynamic problems

  • Understanding of fluid theory

Chemical Transport and Kinetics

The theories and concepts underlying the rate of which chemical reactions take places are taught in this class.

Skills Gained
  • Examination of chemical reactions at both the microscopic and macroscopic levels

  • Extrapolation of transition states through understanding of reaction dynamics

  • Understanding safe chemical reaction parameters

Modeling Chemical Reactions

Analysis of chemical reactions through the use of mathematical models is taught in this course.

Skills Gained
  • Engineering review through statistical analysis

  • Design of mathematical models for chemical analysis

  • Information gathering through differential and statistical equations

Advanced Fluid and Heat Transfer Theory

This class provides a review and advanced look at the transfer of heat energy through fluid systems.

Skills Gained
  • Deriving energy conservation equations

  • Application of lubrication and boundary layer theories

  • Investigation into turbulent flow and fluid stability

Chemical Engineering Certificates

There are typically two major graduate certificate possibilities: The first is intended for individuals who are already chemical engineers and seek advanced instruction in certain chemical engineering concentrations. The second option is for those who may not be chemical engineers, but come from an engineering and scientific background and would like to receive a basic overview of chemical engineering without having to get another degree. Though program times can vary, most certificates take one year to complete.

A few classes students will encounter in a chemical engineering certificate program may include:

Advanced Chemical Reactions

Students will understand and examine chemical reactions through the context of chemical kinetics and transfer theories.

Skills Gained
  • Understanding of catalytic and noncatalytic reactions

  • Familiarity with gas-solid reactors

  • Improve the performance of chemical reactions within given parameters

Introduction to Chemical Engineering

This course gives an overview of the foundational principles of the chemical engineering field.

Skills Gained
  • Understanding of mass and energy balances in various types of systems

  • Application of thermodynamic principles in chemical reactions

  • Reactor modeling

Advanced Fluid Dynamics

Students will be instructed on advanced principles and theories regarding the flow of liquids and gases.

Skills Gained
  • Identify specific fluid dynamic theories from real world phenomena

  • Understanding of various types of flow, including turbulent, boundary layer, and laminar viscous

  • Utilize special equations such as the continuity equation to facilitate the application of fluid dynamic principles

Components of a Success Chemical Engineering Career: Skills, Tools, and Technology

Skills
Problem-solving.

Chemical engineers spend their days thinking about how to use chemical compounds to create new materials and products, and inevitably well-laid plans sometimes don’t work out. Being able to take a failed experiment and tinker with it to produce a usable substance or product is key to innovation in this field.

Math-minded.

CEs use advanced math such as calculus, linear algebra, trigonometry and geometry to develop and produce a range of materials and products. Understanding the fundamentals and principals behind math and how they apply to the process is crucial, especially when modeling out a new production phase or analyzing pre-production reports.

Creativity.

A large part of being a CE involves working with chemical compounds and developing them into new materials. Once the raw materials are known, CEs continue working with them to develop innovative ways of using them. The Institution of Chemical Engineers offers a list of five common products and how CEs have continued to develop and innovate these items over the years.

Self-Assurance.

Especially for women, entering this historically male-dominated field requires assertiveness and belief in one’s abilities to truly make a name in the field.

IT literate.

As technology continues to be incorporated into every field and industry, understanding how to use computers and digital platforms to enhance chemical engineering is key. Many CE degrees now incorporate coursework on these topics, ranging from digital simulation to computerized process controls. Auburn University offers a Computer-Aided specialization within their chemical engineering baccalaureate degree.

Professionals in the field must undertake two required examinations administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Survey, known as Fundamentals of Engineering and Principles and Practice of Engineering. Once the second is completed, states recognize individuals as fully licensed. The NCEES reports the number of licensed engineers in each state, ranging from 811 in Rhode Island to more than 66,000 in California. These licenses, in addition to other related certifications available to help engineers solidify their standing in the field, are reviewed below.

  • Fundamentals of Engineering (FE).

    The specialized version of the FE exam, designed for those in the chemical area of engineering, is offered numerous times per year. The test is taken directly after completing degree coursework, and contains 110 multiple-choice questions administered via a computer. During the last two examinations taken in during January and April of 2015, 853 candidates, or 77% of all test-takers, passed the examination.

  • Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE).

    After completing at least four years of post-college work in a professional setting, individuals can take the PE exam in chemical engineering. Candidates sit for four-hour sessions in both the morning and afternoon, answering 80 multiple-choice questions in total. During the April 2015 exam cycle, 215 candidates sat the test with a 69 percent pass rate.

  • Institute of Hazardous Materials Management certifications.

    IHMM offers three certifications, including: Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM), Certified Hazardous Materials Professional (CHMP), and Certified Dangerous Goods Professional (CDGP) for individuals looking to prove their understanding of how to safely create, use and dispose of hazardous materials.

  • Planning and Scheduling Professional Certification.

    The Association for the Advancement of Cost Engineering International offers the PSP professional-level certification to help chemical engineers interested in honing their project planning and management skills.

  • Certified Safety and Health Manager.

    The Institute for Safety and Health Management offers the CSHM certification for chemical engineers looking to add advanced skills in hazard analysis, product safety and environmental laws to their list of professional qualities.

Tools and Technology

Chemical engineers are increasingly using digital tools and advanced technologies to aid them in their work. In addition to physical tools, they frequently use imaging software and simulators to better understand how chemical compounds will respond to controlled experiments. The best chemical engineers use a range of tools and technologies, including the following:

Calculators & Converters: Engineer’s Edge, Sheffield ChemPuter, synthesis calculator, differential equations calculator
Chemical Simulators: Quantum Mechanics interactive programs, semiconductor applet services
Imaging & Modeling software: ChemViz, MIME Types, molecular visualization tools
Heat Measures: Thermal analyzers, calorimeters
Testing Equipment: Density testers, leak testing equipment

Career Trends in Chemical Engineering

As of mid-2014, more than 33,000 professionals were working as chemical engineers in the United States the following areas of: basic chemical manufacturing; artificial synthetic fibers and filaments manufacturing; petroleum and coal products manufacturing; agricultural chemical manufacturing; and chemical product and preparation manufacturing.

The field continues to shift towards embracing technological innovations and digital solutions, calling for creative individuals well versed in not only properties of chemistry and engineering, but also in leveraging technology.

Related Careers

Chemical engineering is an expansive field, with numerous opportunities matched to professionals’ varied interests. Whether seeking to work alone or with a team, to be overseen or to supervise, or to focus on basic or applied chemistry, the following spotlight careers give interested candidates a few ideas about where they may land within the chemical engineering industry.

Chemical Engineering Manager Median salary: $130,620

Handling big picture aspects of the industry, Chemical Engineering Managers devise plans for developing new products, lead teams in research and product creation, develop budgets for ongoing and upcoming projects, oversee staff, create and coordinate teams for specific projects, and ensure work meets all technical and safety requirements. They spend a lot of time thinking about how to move projects and teams forward, keeping the overall goal in mind at all times. All must hold at least a bachelor’s degree, although many elect to complete a master’s degree in an engineering-related topic or an MBA.

Materials Scientist Median salary: $91,980

Whether working with solutions, compounds, or reagents to develop new materials or testing how materials react to other substances, Materials Scientists have exciting careers in a variety of industries. They work in both basic and applied research, examining various chemical compounds and then experimenting with them to see how they can be used to create new materials. Entry-level chemist positions can be gained with a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s degree or PhD will be needed to qualify for the majority of research-based positions.

Biomedical Engineer Median salary: $86,950

With a focus on improving overall patient care, Biomedical Engineers design devices and equipment, such as synthetic veins, to be used in medical operations. Those with a stronger interest in chemistry may work to develop new drugs in laboratories, or they may use their skills in mathematics and engineering to understand human biological systems. They have a strong knowledge of fluid and solid mechanics, materials design and computer programming, which they gain by undertaking a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering. Individuals who wish to take on advanced research positions will need to complete a master’s or PhD level degree.

Chemical Engineer Job Growth, Prospects, and Outlook

The field of engineering in general is changing rapidly as it learns to incorporate technology in the changing face of manufacturing, and growth will depend on chemical engineers finding innovative ways to keep up with technological advancements.

Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports jobs in chemical engineering will grow nationally by only 4 percent between 2012 and 2022, this figure does not take into account differences among states. While careers for CEs are expected to decrease by nearly 18 percent in Tennessee, they’re expected to grow by more than one-third in Utah. Prospective chemical engineers should take these statistics into consideration when selecting a location to work.

What Do Related Occupations Make?

Occupations related to chemical engineering abound, allowing those with interest in the myriad intersections of chemistry and engineering with other disciplines to find a career matched to specific interests. These related occupations also offer options for those who prefer to be in laboratory-based settings versus those who aspire to managerial roles. Within each, the earning potential and employment rates show signs of growth in the coming years.

Related Occupations: What You Need to Know

Individuals may realize that while they enjoy many components of chemical engineering, they seek a slightly different career. Fortunately, there are a number of existing related occupations that allow professionals to pursue a career incorporating elements of CE into similar roles. Below is a sample of related positions to consider.

Chemical Engineering Degree & Career Resources

American Chemical Society (ACS)

A nationally recognized organization with a wide range of objectives including advancement of science, facilitating the growth of chemists and chemical engineers, promotion of professional development and education of the public.

American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE)

The keystone professional organization for chemical engineers, the institute’s goals include facilitating networking among its members and providing industry relevant information.

Association of Energy Engineers (AEE)

This association exists to further the improvement of scientific, technological and educational interests of the energy industry – one of the fastest-growing fields for chemical engineers.

Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE)

Serving as an international organization, IChemE strives to promote the chemical engineering community and help create professional standards for engineers worldwide.

International Association of Engineers (IAENG)

An international non-profit organization working to help all engineers, including chemical engineers; their two main goals are fostering cooperation among engineers from multiple disciplines and promoting the advancement of technology.