What Chemical Engineers Do and the Education They Need

Many of the mass-produced items ordinary people encounter and utilize regularly — ranging from cosmetics, electronics and fuel to plastics, medicines and processed foods — could not have been created in bulk at factories without the assistance of chemical engineers.

“Chemical engineers are many times tasked with bringing to life something that is just an idea,” Brandon Webster — a senior chemical engineer at Battelle, a global research and development firm — wrote in an email. “Without chemical engineers product development would be phenomenally slow and the products (electronics, food systems, energy, anything plastic, paper/pulp, pharmaceuticals) would be much less efficient and in some cases would not exist.”

[See: Best Chemical Engineering Graduate Program Rankings.]

Chemical Engineering Careers: What Chemical Engineers Do in the Workforce

Chemical engineers work in many industries, including not only the petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries — two areas where they are often employed — but also numerous other industries which involve building and selling tangible objects, such as beverages, clothing, fertilizers, paper, toys and shoes. They can also work at water desalinization and sanitation facilities, and they can be employed by recycling plants.

“Over 50% of global gross domestic product is enabled by chemical engineers,” Sean Hunt, chief technology officer and co-founder of the Solugen technology firm, wrote in an email.

“Simply put, chemical engineers convert Earth’s natural materials into the products we use every day,” added Hunt, who has a bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. in his field.

[READ: What Materials Engineering Is and How to Use a Degree in This Field.]

Chemical engineers design and set up whatever manufacturing plant systems are necessary to churn out purified substances, combine recipe ingredients and dispose of hazardous waste. These engineers occasionally choose the elements and compounds that are used to make an object with particular qualities such as the ability to conduct electricity or to tolerate heat. They analyze the atomic and molecular composition of whichever solids, liquids and gases an organization is using in order to determine how those materials should be handled and develop strategies for minimizing environmental pollution. One of their key tasks is to ensure that every chemical-infused product is nontoxic and that it works properly before it reaches a consumer. Another aspect of their mission is to protect factory workers from poisons and prevent accidental explosions.

Chemical engineering is a lucrative profession where a bachelor’s degree can lead to a six-figure salary. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary reported by U.S.-based chemical engineers in May 2020 was $108,540, and the typical entry-level credentials for this occupation are a college degree in either chemical engineering or a related academic discipline plus a relevant internship or co-op experience.

André Taylor, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, says the role of a chemical engineer differs from that of a chemist.

Taylor — who has bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. in chemical engineering — compares chemists to cake-bakers who figure out how to make a cake. “The chemical engineer is a plant designer, so the chemical engineer can say, ‘OK, this chemist can bake this cake. How do I take this where I can mass-produce this?’ So if I wanted to make 100 cakes or a thousand cakes per hour, then what is the equipment that is involved to make the same quality of that same unique cake? Or, if I want to scale up that cake and make it super big — maybe with a 10 foot diameter — what are the things I need to do, what kind of equipment do I need … to make that cake bigger and yet still have the same properties?”

[Read: How to Evaluate Different Types of Engineering Degrees, Jobs.]

The Skills, Classes and Hands-On Training Necessary for Chemical Engineering

Chemical engineering is a field where the ability to predict potential catastrophes and prevent disaster is essential, according to chemical engineers, who note that this is an area which requires problem-solving skills.

Creativity is also mandatory for this profession, chemical engineers say, emphasizing that they are frequently asked to figure out how to perform difficult tasks. They add that aptitude for, interest in and advanced training in math and science is a must within their profession, which is extremely technical.

Christi Luks, associate chair for academic affairs with the Missouri University of Science and Technology, says a bachelor’s degree is sufficient for most chemical engineering positions, though a graduate degree may be beneficial for some jobs.

Faculty within chemical engineering programs acknowledge that their curriculum is demanding and suggest that completion of these programs requires persistence, since it requires passing a variety of difficult classes in mathematics, basic sciences and applied sciences.

Luks — who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, a master’s degree in applied math and a Ph.D. degree in chemical engineering — says any high school student who intends to become a chemical engineer someday should be sure to strengthen his or her abilities in math, even if the introductory coursework in that area seems dull at first. “It turns out that if you’ve got good math skills, you can solve some way cool problems,” she explains, noting that one of her students used the calculation abilities he cultivated in her course to distill alcohol.

Andrew Zydney, a professor of chemical engineering with an endowed faculty post at Pennsylvania State University, notes that chemical engineers were involved in creating monoclonal antibodies used in cancer treatments and also helped with the development of coronavirus vaccines; he notes that these engineers also assist with the production of lightweight, fuel-efficient vehicles

A quantitative mindset is valuable for a future chemical engineer, adds Zydney, who has both a bachelor’s and Ph.D. in chemical engineering. “They should be comfortable solving problems where the goal is to come up with a number as the answer as opposed to just a qualitative description,” he suggests.

Brian Marshall, a senior process and environmental engineer with Guernsey — a professional service company — who has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Oklahoma, notes that there are often a variety of chemical engineering positions within the same industry. For example, within the oil and gas industry, some chemical engineers focus on drilling and extracting substances while others focus on transporting those chemicals and pumping them through pipes, mitigating environmental risks or refining materials, he explains.

Jacob Borden, an associate professor of chemical engineering at Trine University in Indiana, contends that chemical engineers tend to be practical.

“Most people would think that chemical engineers have a love of chemistry, and that’s true. But a chemical engineer truly loves what chemicals can do way more than the chemical itself,” says Borden, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering and a Ph.D. degree that focuses on both biological and chemical engineering.

According to Borden, the “foundation” of a chemical engineering degree is coursework in math and a variety of science disciplines including not only a significant amount of chemistry but also biology, materials science and physics. “Above the foundation there is a lot of time spent on processing — processing data, managing projects, using engineering software and using the equations inherent to the art of chemical engineering to answer a question or solve a problem,” he says. “From an education standpoint, the best outcome for a student is not to appreciate yesterday’s solution, but to have the tools to solve the problems that remain unsolved.”

Searching for a grad school? Access our complete rankings of Best Graduate Schools.

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What Chemical Engineers Do and the Education They Need originally appeared on usnews.com

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