Careers and Jobs in Chemistry: Chemical Engineers

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  • School Subjects: Chemistry, Physics, Math, Computer Science
  • Personal Skills: Communication/ideas Technical/scientific
  • Work Environment: Primarily indoors, Primarily one location
  • Minimum Education Level: Bachelor’s degree
  • Salary Range: $50,060 to $78,860 to $118,670+
  • Certification or Licensing: Required for certain positions
  • Outlook: About as fast as the average
  • DOT: 008
  • GOE: 02.07.01
  • NOC: 2134
  • O*NET-SOC: 17-2041.00


Chemical engineers take chemistry out of the laboratory and into the real world. They are involved in evaluating methods and equipment for the mass production of chemicals and other materials requiring chemical processing. They also develop products from these materials, such as plastics, metals, gasoline, detergents, pharmaceuticals, and foodstuffs. They develop or improve safe, environmentally sound processes, determine the least costly production method, and formulate the material for easy use and safe, economic transportation. Approximately 31,000 chemical engineers work in the United States.


Chemical engineering, defined in its most general sense as applied chemistry, existed even in early civilizations. Ancient Greeks, for example, distilled alcoholic beverages, as did the Chinese, who by 800 B.C. had learned to distill alcohol from the fermentation of rice. Aristotle, a fourth-century B.C. Greek philosopher, wrote about a process for obtaining fresh water by evaporating and condensing water from the sea.

The foundations of modern chemical engineering were laid out during the Renaissance, when experimentation and the questioning of accepted scientific theories became widespread. This period saw the development of many new chemical processes, such as those for producing sulfuric acid (for fertilizers and textile treatment) and alkalies (for soap). The atomic theories of John Dalton and Amedeo Avogadro, developed in the 1800s, supplied the theoretical underpinning for modern chemistry and chemical engineering.

With the advent of large-scale manufacturing in the mid-l9th century, modern chemical engineering began to take shape. Chemical manufacturers were soon required to seek out chemists familiar with manufacturing processes. These early chemical engineers were called chemical technicians or industrial chemists. The first course in chemical engineering was taught in 1888 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and by 1900, “chemical engineer” had become a widely used job title.

Chemical engineers are employed in increasing numbers to design new and more efficient ways to produce chemicals and chemical by products. In the United States, they have been especially important in the development of petroleum-based fuels for internal combustion engine—powered vehicles. Their achievements range from the large- scale production of plastics, antibiotics, and synthetic rubbers to the development of high-octane gasoline.


Chemical engineering is one of the four major engineering disciplines (the others are electrical, mechanical, and civil). Because chemical engineers are rigorously trained not only in chemistry but also in physics, mathematics, and other sciences such as biology or geology, they are among the most versatile of all engineers, with many specialties, and they are employed in many industries. Chemical industries, which transform raw materials into desired products, employ the largest number of chemical engineers.

There are many stages in the production of chemicals and related materials, and the following paragraphs describe specific jobs responsibilities by production stage for chemical engineers. At smaller companies, engineers may have a hand in all of these production phases, while job duties are more specialized in larger plants.

Research engineers work with chemists to develop new processes and products, or they may develop better methods to make existing products. Product ideas may originate with the company’s marketing department; with a chemist, chemical engineer, or other specialist; or with a customer. The basic chemical process for the product is then developed in a laboratory, where various experiments are conducted to determine the process’s viability. Some projects die here.

Others go on to be developed and refined at pilot plants, which are small-scale versions of commercial plants. Chemical engineers in these plants run tests on the processes and make any necessary modifications. They strive to improve the process, reduce safety hazards and waste, and cut production time and costs. Throughout the development stage, engineers keep detailed records of the proceedings, and they may abandon projects that aren’t viable.

Chemists discuss a project in a laboratory.

When a new process is judged to be viable, process design engineers determine how the product can most efficiently be produced on a large scale while still guaranteeing a consistently high-quality result. These engineers consider process requirements and cost, convenience and safety for the operators, waste minimization, legal regulations, and preservation of the environment. Besides working on the steps of the process, they also work on the design of the equipment to be used in the process. These chemical engineers are often assisted in plant and equipment design by mechanical, electrical, and civil engineers.

Project engineers oversee the construction of new plants and installation of new equipment. In construction, chemical engineers may work as field engineers, who are involved in the testing and initial operation of the equipment and assist in plant start-up and operator training. Once a process is fully implemented at a manufacturing plant, production engineers supervise the day-to day operations. They are responsible for the rate of production, scheduling, worker safety, quality control, and other important operational concerns.

Chemical engineers working in environmental control are involved in waste management, recycling, and control of air and water pollution. They work with the engineers in research and development, process design, equipment and plant construction, and production to incorporate environmental protection measures into all stages of the chemical engineering process.

As technical sales engineers, chemical engineers may work with customers of manufactured products to determine what best fits their needs. They answer questions such as, “Could our products be used more economically than those now in use? Why does this paint peel?” and so on. Others work as managers, making policy and business decisions and overseeing the training of new personnel. The variety of job descriptions is almost limitless because of chemical engineers’ versatility and adaptability.

Facts About the Chemical Industry

• More than 881,000 people are employed in the chemical industry in the United States. In addition, nearly five million jobs are indirectly generated by the chemical industry.

• There are more than 15,380 chemical establishments in the United States.

• The average industry wage is $68,174.

• In 2004, 12 percent of chemical manufacturing workers were members of a union or covered by union contracts—slightly less than the average for workers in all industries.

Sources: American Chemical Society, U.S. Department of Labor


High School

High school students interested in chemical engineering should take all the mathematics and science courses their schools offer. These should include algebra, geometry, calculus, trigonometry, chemistry, physics, and biology. Computer science courses are also highly recommended. In addition, students should take four years of English, and a foreign language is valuable. To enhance their desirability, students should participate in high school science and engineering clubs and other extracurricular activities.

Postsecondary Training

A bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering is the minimum educational requirement for entering the field. For some positions, an M.S., an M.B.A., or a Ph.D. may be required. A Ph.D. may be essential for advancement in research, teaching, and administration.

For their college studies, students should attend a chemical engineering program approved by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). There are more than 150 accredited undergraduate programs in chemical engineering in the United States offering bachelor’s degrees. Some engineering programs last five or six years; these often include work experience in industry.

As career plans develop, students should consult with advisors about special career paths in which they are interested. Those who want to teach or conduct research will need a graduate degree. There are approximately 140 accredited chemical engineering graduate programs in the United States. A master’s degree generally takes two years of study beyond undergraduate school, while a Ph.D. program requires four to six years.

In graduate school, students specialize in one aspect of chemical engineering, such as chemical kinetics or biotechnology. Graduate education also helps to obtain promotions, and some companies offer tuition reimbursement to encourage employees to take graduate courses. For engineers who would like to become managers, a master’s degree in business administration may be helpful. Chemical engineers must be prepared for a lifetime of education to keep up with the rapid advances in technology.

Certification or Licensing

Chemical engineers must be licensed as professional engineers if their work involves providing services directly to the public. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have specific licensing requirements, which include graduation from an accredited engineering school, passing a written exam, and having at least four years of engineering experience. About one-third of all chemical engineers are licensed; they are called registered engineers. For more information on licensing and examination requirements, visit

Other Requirements

Important personal qualities are honesty, accuracy, objectivity, and perseverance. In addition, chemical engineers must be inquisitive, open-minded, creative, and flexible. Problem-solving ability is essential. To remain competitive in the job market, they should display initiative and leadership skills, exhibit the ability to work well in teams and collaborate across disciplines, and be able to work with people of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds.


High school students should join science clubs and take part in other extracurricular activities and join such organizations as the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS). JETS participants have opportunities to enter engineering design and problem-solving contests and to learn team development skills. Science contests are also a good way to apply principles learned in classes to a special project. Students can also subscribe to the American Chemical Society’s Chem Matters, a quarterly magazine for high school chemistry students.

College students can join professional associations, such as the American Chemical Society (ACS), AIChE, and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (composed of individual associations with specific fields of interest), as student affiliates. Membership benefits include subscription to magazines—some of them geared specifically toward students—that provide the latest industry information. College students can also contact ACS or AIChE local sections to arrange to talk with some chemical engineers about what they do. These associations can also help them find summer or co-op work experiences.

In addition, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) has a mentor program in which high school and college women are matched with an SWE member in their area. This member is available to answer questions and provide a firsthand introduction to a career in engineering.


There are approximately 31,000 chemical engineers working in the United States. While many chemical engineers work in manufacturing industries, others are employed by federal and state governments, colleges and universities, and research and testing services. The list of individual employers, if cited, would take many pages. However, the following industry classifications indicate where most chemical engineers are employed: aerospace, fuels, electronics, food and consumer products, design and construction, materials, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, environmental control, pulp and paper, public utilities, and consultation firms. Because of the nature of their training and background, chemical engineers can easily obtain employment with another company in a completely different field if necessary or desired.


Most chemical engineers obtain their first position through company recruiters sent to college campuses. Others may find employment with companies with whom they have had summer or work-study arrangements. Many respond to advertisements in professional journals or newspapers. The Internet now offers multiple opportunities to job seekers, and many libraries have programs that offer assistance in making use of the available job listings. Chemical engineers may also contact colleges and universities regarding positions as part-time teaching or laboratory assistants if they wish to continue study for a graduate degree. Student members of professional societies often use the employment services of these organizations, including resume data banks, online job listings, national employment clearinghouses, and employers’ mailing lists.

Typically, new recruits begin as trainees or process engineers. They often begin work under the supervision of seasoned engineers. Many participate in special training programs designed to orient them to company processes, procedures, policies, and products. This allows the company to determine where the new personnel may best fulfill their needs. After this training period, new employees often rotate positions to get an all-around experience in working for the company.


Entry-level personnel usually advance to project or production engineers after learning the ropes in product manufacturing. They may then be assigned to sales and marketing. A large percentage of engineers no longer do engineering work by the tenth year of their employment. At that point, they often advance to supervisory or management positions. An M.B.A. enhances their opportunities for promotion. A doctoral degree is essential for university teaching or supervisory research positions. Some engineers may decide at this point that they prefer to start their own consulting firms. Continued advancement, raises, and increased responsibility are not automatic but depend on sustained demonstration of leadership skills.


Though starting salaries have dipped somewhat in recent years, chemical engineering is still one of the highest paid scientific professions. Salaries vary with education, experience, industry, and employer. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the median annual salary for chemical engineers was $78,860 in 2006. The lowest paid 10 percent earned less than $50,060; the highest paid 10 percent earned more than $118,670 annually. According to a 2005 salary survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, starting annual salaries for those with bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering averaged $53,813; with master’s degrees, $57,260; and Ph.D.’s, $79,591. Chemical engineers with doctoral degrees and many years of experience in supervisory and management positions may have salaries exceeding $100,000 annually.

Benefits offered depend on the employer; however, chemical engineers typically receive such things as paid vacation and sick days, health insurance, and retirement plans.


Because the industries in which chemical engineers work are so varied—from academia to waste treatment and disposal—the working conditions also vary. Most chemical engineers work in clean, well- maintained offices, laboratories, or plants, although some occasion ally work outdoors, particularly construction engineers. Travel to new or existing plants may be required. Some chemical engineers work with dangerous chemicals, but the adoption of safe working practices has greatly reduced potential health hazards. Chemical engineers at institutions of higher learning spend their time in class rooms or research laboratories.

The workweek for a chemical engineer in manufacturing is usually 40 hours, although many work longer hours. Because plants often operate around the clock, they may work different shifts or have irregular hours.


The U.S. Department of Labor projects that employment for chemical engineers will grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014. Certain areas of the field will offer more job opportunities than others. Chemical and pharmaceutical companies, for example, will need engineers in research and development to work on new chemicals and more efficient processes. Additionally, growth will come in service industries, such as companies providing research and testing services. Job opportunities will be best in the energy, biotechnology, and nanotechnology segments of this industry sector.


For information on undergraduate internships, summer jobs, and co-op programs, contact:

American Chemical Society

1155 16th Street, NW

Washington, DC 20036-4801

Tel: 800-227-5558


The American Chemistry Council offers useful information about the chemical industry, and maintains an informative Web site.

American Chemistry Council

1300 Wilson Boulevard

Arlington, VA 22209-2323

Tel: 703-741-5000

For information on awards, accredited programs, internships, student sections, and career opportunities, contact:

American Institute of Chemical Engineers

3 Park Avenue

New York, NY 10016-5991

Tel: 800-242-4363


For information about programs, products, and a chemical engineering career brochure, contact:

Junior Engineering Technical Society

1420 King Street, Suite 405

Alexandria, VA 22314-2750

Tel: 703-548-5387


For information on National Engineers Week Programs held in many U.S. locations, contact:

National Engineers Week Headquarters

1420 King Street

Alexandria, VA 22314-2750

Tel: 703-684-2852


For information on training programs, seminars, and how to become a student member, contact:

Society of Manufacturing Engineers

One SME Drive

Dearborn, MI 48121-2408

Tel: 800-733-4763 Email:

For information on career guidance literature, scholarships, and mentor programs, contact:

Society of Women Engineers

230 East Ohio Street, Suite 400

Chicago, IL 60611-3265

Tel: 312-596-5223



Laura Angiers is a chemical engineer at The Dow Chemical Company. She discussed her career with us below:

Q. What is your job title? Where do you work?

A. My job title is global business manufacturing leader for polyols, polyglycols, and surfactants. I work in Chatsworth, Texas. I am responsible for leading the manufacturing organizations for two global business units, including 23 plants located in 13 countries. I’m responsible for about 500 people worldwide, and account able for the environmental, health, safety, cost, operating reliability, employee satisfaction, product consistency, and customer loyalty for all plants and their products. I represent manufacturing and engineering on two global business teams with the poly urethanes and specialty chemical businesses where we prioritize and approve more than $100 million annually to optimize our global asset base and ensure the most effective operation.

Q. What do you like most about your job?

A. What I like most is being able to see the impact of my work on measurable results. I like seeing our business grow with new product offerings for consumers. I enjoy helping people in the company match their talents against job requirements and watching them grow in their career development.

Q. What do you find most challenging about your job?

A. What I find most challenging is that I have higher quality expectations of my work than I am sometimes able to fulfill. Some times daily time constraints limit the time I have to complete all the tasks I need to handle, especially when my responsibilities stretch across home, family, and work commitments.

Q. Why did you decide to become a chemical engineer?

A. In high school, I was good at math and chemistry, and I loved technical subjects. My dad was an engineer, so it was easy to choose engineering as my degree. In college, I joined a cooperative education program, where a student alternates going to school and working in industry every other semester. It was during one of my co-op assignments that I discovered that I loved the fast pace and the challenge of the manufacturing environment. I have spent 20 years of my 25-year career in plant management roles.

Q. What type of educational path did you pursue to become a chemical engineer?

A. I have a bachelor of science in chemical engineering from Iowa State University. Iowa State offers an alternating cooperative education program where students can experience working in industry during their school curriculum. This allows students to try out different career options before they graduate. It takes a year longer to graduate, but the advantage of knowing the kind of work you enjoy far outweighs the extra school year.

Q. What are the most important professional qualities for chemical engineers?

A. I think the most important professional qualities for a chemical engineer are the same as for any other profession. You need to be able to learn quickly, because the world is continuously changing and work demands change frequently. You need to be able to demonstrate the ability to get results even under difficult conditions. You need to be resilient under pressure. And you need to be able to network with a large and diverse population in the workforce.

Q. What advice would you give to high school students who are interested in this career?

A. High school and college students should get involved in as many different kinds of sports, clubs, and classes as they can to discover for themselves what they are good at, and what they enjoy. This will help them choose a career that aligns their personal values with their work environment. If a student is interested in chemical engineering, they should talk to someone who is currently practicing this profession, or ask to shadow them for a day to see what a typical day is like. They could also visit career fairs, typically offered to high school and college students, and talk to companies that hire chemical engineers. They can also use Google [ other search engines] and check out what information is available online. Most companies have job links that describe their company and the jobs available.

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