How to Become a Chemical Engineer
Becoming a chemical engineer requires a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, preferably supplemented with practical experience.
Chemical engineers must have a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, now sometimes known as a bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering. Employers also value practical experience, so cooperative engineering programs, in which students earn college credit for structured job experience, are valuable as well. Having a Professional Engineer license may increase chances for employment.
High school students interested in studying chemical engineering will benefit from taking science courses, such as chemistry, physics, biology. They also should take mathematics, including algebra, trigonometry, and calculus.
Entry-level chemical engineering jobs require a bachelor's degree. Programs usually take 4 years to complete and include classroom, laboratory, and field studies.
At some universities, a student can opt to enroll in a 5-year program that leads to both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. A graduate degree allows an engineer to work as an instructor at some universities or in research and development.
Some colleges and universities offer cooperative programs where students gain practical experience while completing their education. Cooperative programs combine classroom study with practical work, permitting students to gain experience and to finance part of their education.
Programs in chemical engineering, which are also called chemical and biomolecular engineering, should be accredited by ABET (formerly the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). ABET-accredited include courses in chemistry, physics, and biology. These programs also include applying the sciences to the design, analysis, and control of chemical, physical, and biological processes.
Analytical skills. Chemical engineers must be able to figure out why a particular design does not work as planned. They must be able to ask the right question and then find an answer that works.
Deductive-reasoning skills. Chemical engineers learn the broad concepts of chemical engineering, but their work requires them to apply those concepts to specific production problems.
Interpersonal skills. Chemical engineers must develop good working relationships with people in production because their role is to put scientific principles into practice in manufacturing industries.
Math skills. Chemical engineers use the principals of calculus and other advanced topics in mathematics for analysis, design, and troubleshooting in their work.
Problem sensitivity. Chemical engineers must be able to anticipate and identify problems to prevent losses for their employers, safeguard workers’ health, and prevent environmental damage.
Problem-solving skills. In designing equipment and processes for manufacturing, these engineers strive to solve several problems at once, including such issues as workers’ safety and problems related to manufacturing and environmental protection.
Teamwork. Chemical engineers must be able to work with professionals who design other systems and with the technicians and mechanics who put the designs into practice.
Licensure for chemical engineers is not as common as it is for other engineering occupations, but it is encouraged. Chemical engineers who become licensed carry the designation of professional engineers (PEs). Licensure generally requires the following:
- A degree from an engineering program accredited by ABET
- A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
- Relevant work experience
- A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam
The initial Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam can be taken right after graduation. Engineers who pass this exam commonly are called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs). After they get work experience, EITs can take the second exam, called the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam.
Several states require engineers to take continuing education to keep their license. Most states recognize licensure from other states, if the licensing state’s requirements meet or exceed their own licensure requirements.
Entry-level engineers usually work under the supervision of experienced engineers. In large companies, new engineers may also receive formal training in classrooms or seminars. As beginning engineers gain knowledge and experience, they move to more difficult projects with greater independence to develop designs, solve problems, and make decisions.
Eventually, chemical engineers may advance to supervise a team of engineers and technicians. Some may become engineering managers. However, preparing for management positions usually requires working under the guidance of a more experienced chemical engineer.
For sales work, an engineering background enables chemical engineers to discuss a product's technical aspects and assist in product planning and use. For more information, see the profile on sales engineers.