How to Become a Chemical Engineer with an MSE Degree and Why You Should Consider It

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Petri dish with bacterial microbes.
If the engineering profession was a professional baseball franchise, the chemical engineer would be its utility player, filling a variety of roles in a wide number of fields. But just as a third baseman’s role and responsibilities are different from those of a right fielder, chemical engineers’ work is largely guided by their work environment. One chemical engineer’s on-the-job experience may be with nanomaterials while another is involved in oil and gas.

But chemical engineers do share a number of things in common, which frequently includes their educational track record.

What can you expect from a career as a chemical engineer? What degree do you need to achieve? What are the classes you will take if you seek a bachelor’s? Is a master’s degree a prerequisite?

No matter where you are in your professional career, an online Master of Science in Engineering from the University of California Riverside can propel you to new heights. In as few as 13 months, you can obtain a degree in chemical engineering that can complement your bachelor’s degree and enhance your job opportunities with government agencies, pharmaceutical companies, energy producers and more.

Before getting into the specifics of how to become a chemical engineer, here are a few of the reasons why specializing in this discipline can be a home run for your career moving forward.

Well paying

Generally speaking, engineers are well paid. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a generic engineer in 2020 was approximately $96,300. That’s more than double the median for all occupations in the U.S., which is $41,950.

Chemical engineering jobs pay a median of $108,540, the BLS reported. But estimates from professional organizations suggest that chemical engineers often make more. As noted by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers in its most recent biennial salary survey, the median is $138,500. That’s up 10% from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ 2019 report ($126,000).

Work in a variety of disciplines

Chemicals are everywhere and in everything. The human body is composed of billions of naturally occurring chemicals, while in others — such as pharmaceuticals — they’re synthesized. The ubiquity of chemicals enables chemical engineers to work in just about any industry, as they apply the principles of chemistry, physics, biology and arithmetic to solve problems and create solutions. Here are some of the fields where chemical engineers work:

  • Life sciences
  • Biotechnology
  • Food and beverage
  • Business services
  • Energy
  • Electronics
  • Clothing
  • Pulp and paper products
  • Health and wellness
  • Manufacturing
  • Academia
  • Research and development
  • Wholesale trade
  • Environmental science
  • Law
  • Polymers

Most people want choices when it comes to their careers, and chemical engineers have plenty of them. You name the occupation, a chemical engineer likely plays a role. According to the BLS, 10% of chemical engineers work in research and development, while 9% are employed in engineering services. As of 2019, there were 32,600 chemical engineering jobs across the country.

Travel frequently or stay closer to home

Chemical engineering can be a very process-intensive discipline. From conducting tests and monitoring production to designing safety protocols for chemical handling, chemical engineering is a hands-on line of work. This means that these professionals typically need to be on location, such as in an office or laboratory environment to get their jobs done effectively. This work arrangement may be ideal for those who enjoy consistency and the familiarity that comes with a typical 9 to 5 work schedule.

However, chemical engineers may also travel, be it within the country or even overseas to direct operations or address problems. This is another way that chemical engineers are afforded many opportunities, and why they often love doing what they do for a living. These professionals get to visit places and perform functions that they likely wouldn’t if they were in a different engineering discipline.

Highly multidisciplinary

Another advantage of chemical engineering is the ability to do many different things, often in the same day. Those who can easily get bored with the quotidian won’t find this to be the case as a chemical engineer. Here are a few of their responsibilities and duties, as listed by the BLS as well as the AICE:

  • Estimate production costs for project management.
  • Ensure ongoing compliance with safety and environmental regulations in the evaluation of equipment.
  • Conduct field research in the development of new and improved products or methods.
  • Troubleshoot problems within certain processes, such as manufacturing polymerization or oxidation.
  • Develop methods on behalf of pharmaceutical companies to enhance the production of certain drugs.
  • Offer solutions to high-level problems, such as pollution control, food insecurity or supply chain disruption.

Because chemical engineers work in so many industries, what they do from one day to the next is dependent on their field. This is part of the reason why many of the courses in chemical engineering programs — including the online Master of Science in Engineering at UC Riverside — touch on several aspects of engineering, not just chemicals and chemical processing.

These are just a few of the reasons why a career as a chemical engineer can make a lot of sense. Here’s what you can expect along the journey:

What are some of the common classes associated with chemical engineering programs?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, chemical engineers devote most of their attention to math and science. But it isn’t just one kind of math or science. Aspiring chemical engineers traditionally take courses in algebra, trigonometry and calculus for math and in chemistry, biology and physics for science, starting in high school and into their college studies. These courses form the backbone upon which students can build their understanding of core concepts that they can then leverage in the workplace.

There is a fair amount of overlap in the different specializations students can choose within the online Master of Science in Engineering program at UC Riverside. Each course counts as four credits, and several — Engineering in the Global Environment, Technology Innovation and Strategy for Engineers, Introduction to Systems Engineering and Principles of Engineering Management — are for all the specializations, such as Bioengineering, Data Science and Environmental Engineering.

But the master’s degree program also has coursework that is exclusive to chemical engineering. It includes:

  • Advanced Engineering Computation
  • Transport Phenomena
  • Advanced Kinetics and Reactor Design
  • Advanced Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics

The breadth of these course topics allows aspiring chemical engineers to not only build skill sets that they can leverage in the future, but also to get a sense of the industry where they can apply these skills.

What degree do you need to become a chemical engineer?

Chemical engineers are required to have a bachelor’s degree either in chemical engineering or a similar major, such as nuclear engineering, bioengineering or physical science.

But there are some occupations that require the successful completion of postgraduate work. According to the BLS, these include chemists, material scientists and research scientists. In general, though, a master’s or doctoral degree is not necessary.

Chemist smiling at camera.

However, graduate school enrollment is up among students with chemical engineering backgrounds. According to a Council of Graduate Schools report obtained by Chemical & Engineering News, first-time enrollment has risen nearly 7% for master’s degree chemical engineering programs and 1.3% for doctoral programs between 2007 and 2017.

Postgraduate work helps students differentiate themselves from others who may be competing for the same job. Academic achievement can attest to their proficiency in certain concepts that may not be available in a bachelor’s degree program.

Previous work experience may not be required but highly desired among potential employers. While there is such a thing as an entry-level chemical engineer, those hiring frequently prefer those who have on-the-job experience, whether in a laboratory environment, work-study program, internship or residency. UC Riverside online engineering students seeking their master’s do not need to complete a residency. As an alternative, there are four capstone courses interspersed throughout the program that allow students to apply their knowledge and reflect on the concepts they’ve learned and refine their newly acquired skills.

Do you need any certifications or licenses to become a chemical engineer?

Unlike many engineering branches, licensure is generally not a prerequisite, but it can open the door to more work opportunities. For example, with a professional engineering license, a chemical engineer may be tapped for certain leadership roles. In addition to performing oversight, professional engineers have more autonomy and can offer their services to the public rather than through a private sector employer.

According to the National Society of Professional Engineers, the following are the main requirements to become licensed as a professional engineer:

  • Obtain a four-year degree from a college or university that is accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering & Technology
  • Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering examination
  • Complete four years of progressive engineering experience under a professional engineer
  • Pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering examination

Just as obtaining a license isn’t mandatory, neither is a graduate degree, but an engineer with a master’s is considered more qualified. Certain government laws and regulations specify that only fully licensed professional engineers can hold public sector engineering jobs. The same goes for those who seek to teach engineering, perhaps as a second career in retirement. Many states require that teachers be licensed or to have a graduate degree.

Choose UC Riverside

If you want to make licensure easier, transition from a different engineering job or desire to establish new talents to complement those you’ve already acquired as a seasoned engineering professional, the online master’s degree program at UC Riverside can help you achieve your goal. Regionally accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and ranked among the top third of engineering schools in the country by U.S. News & World Report, UC Riverside has the academics and faculty that supply students with the blend of soft and hard skills employers want. And because the coursework is 100% online, you can choose how many classes you take at once so you’re always in control.

Visit the program’s webpage or call 888-251-7718 now to speak with an enrollment advisor.


Recommended Reading

Career Spotlight: Chemist

7 Types of Engineering Companies to Work For

7 Unusual Careers That Begin with an Engineering Degree


Bureau of Labor Statistics, Chemical Engineers

Chemical & Engineering News, By the Numbers: Who’s Going to Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Graduate School in the US

National Society of Professional Engineers, What is a Professional Engineer

American Institute of Chemical Engineers, 2021 AIChE Salary Survey