What Do Chemical Engineers Do?

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Chemical engineers play a critical role in shaping our modern world. They design, develop, and improve processes, systems, and equipment that significantly impact everyday life by converting raw materials into useful products. Whether it’s increasing the speed of computer chips, developing new and more effective medicines, or enhancing the production and quality of food, chemical engineers use their expertise to improve people’s lives.

Two chemical engineers work together using a desktop computer in a laboratory.

To ensure that these engineers have the knowledge and skills to tackle complex challenges, employers often look for candidates with experience and an advanced education. Aspiring chemical engineers will find that their specialized skill set is greatly in demand in fields with the potential for lucrative salaries. An advanced engineering degree can help students master what chemical engineers do — innovating new products and tools to advance society.

Chemical Engineer Job Description

A chemical engineer’s primary responsibility is the design and development of processes and equipment used to manufacture various products. Unlike chemists, who focus largely on scientific research, chemical engineering emphasizes product manufacturing, ranging from plastics and chemicals to medicines and fuels. They ensure that the processes used to create these products are efficient, safe, and environmentally responsible.

Chemical engineers may also research ways to improve existing processes and develop new ones. This research is essential to ensure that systems are constantly innovating to reduce costs, improve production without sacrificing quality, and meet customer needs and regulatory requirements. Chemical engineers often perform quality checks on current processes to ensure they remain up to standards.

A chemical engineer’s job description can vary depending on their specialization. Some chemical engineers focus on a specific process, such as oxidation or polymerization, while others focus on a particular field, such as nanomaterials or biological engineering. Chemical engineers can also specialize in developing certain products, such as pyrotechnics.

Chemical engineers often collaborate closely with other engineers, scientists, and production and management teams. They apply their technical knowledge to troubleshoot and solve production-related issues and collaborate with other professionals to identify and implement solutions.

How to Become a Chemical Engineer

While there is no one-size-fits-all method to pursuing a career in chemical engineering, there are a few steps aspiring engineers should follow depending on the role they want to have. While many entry-level jobs only require an undergraduate education and some experience in the field, qualifying for other roles may entail earning an advanced degree and certification. Those looking to advance in this field should consider what level of education they need to succeed in their career.

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

One of the best ways to understand what chemical engineers do is to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering or a closely related field. Bachelor’s programs for chemical engineering typically focus on mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering principles.

While many employers only require a bachelor’s degree, some prefer more advanced qualifications, and prospective chemical engineers should keep in mind that further education may be necessary.

Obtain Fundamentals of Engineering Certification

After completing a bachelor’s degree, graduates can go on to earn the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) certification, which is a necessary step to becoming a licensed professional engineer. This certificate requires a fundamental understanding of chemical engineering concepts such as thermodynamics, heat transfer, and chemical reactions.

Those interested in pursuing further education in chemical engineering should take the exam, as many graduate programs require this certification to apply.

Earn a Master’s Degree

Some employers prefer chemical engineers to hold a master’s degree, particularly for senior and management positions. A master’s program in chemical engineering typically explores concepts such as chemical kinetics, molecular thermodynamics, and biochemical engineering, with an emphasis on research and development.

Obtain a Professional Engineering Certification

A Professional Engineering (PE) license is one of the highest credentials an engineer can obtain, often leading to higher levels of leadership and independence. To become licensed, engineers must earn a bachelor’s degree and FE certification, work for at least four years under a certified professional engineer, and pass the PE exam.

What Can You Do With a Chemical Engineering Degree?

What chemical engineers do can be categorized into various subfields, including petrochemical, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology. Each subfield has its own set of roles and responsibilities:

  • Petrochemical engineers evaluate, develop, and produce oil drilling and gas field processes.
  • Pharmaceutical engineers research, develop, and manufacture different medicines and medical solutions.
  • Biotechnology engineering combines biology and engineering principles to create biomedicine, agricultural, and environmental management products.

A chemical engineer’s role can vary depending on their organization and specific area of expertise. They may be involved in research and development, the design of new processes and equipment, the supervision of production, or the management of projects.

The work environment for these professionals also varies depending on their role. They might work at an industrial plant to ensure equipment maintenance, perform administrative duties in an office, or test whether new products pass regulatory compliance in a lab.

Chemical Engineer Salary

A chemical engineer’s earning potential varies depending on their level of education, experience, and the industry in which they work. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for chemical engineers in May 2021 was $105,550. The BLS predicts that the field will see above-average job growth, with a projected 14% increase in positions between 2021 and 2031.

Begin Your Career in Chemical Engineering

From developing new technologies to improving the efficiency and safety of existing chemical processes, what chemical engineers do is an integral part of evolving the manufacturing process and improving how people live. Those interested in a career in the field should consider the benefits of the University of California, Riverside’s online Master of Science in Engineering program, which includes a specialization in chemical engineering.

The program offers students the chance to explore the field of chemical engineering in a 100% online environment where they can learn at their convenience. In as few as thirteen months, students can earn their degree and gain a deep understanding of topics such as engineering computation and advanced chemical engineering thermodynamics.

Find out how the University of California, Riverside can help you advance your career in chemical engineering.

Recommended Readings

Chemical Engineering vs. Electrical Engineering: What’s the Difference?

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

What Is Pharmaceutical Engineering?


AIChE, What Do Chemical Engineers Do?

Chron, “The Role of Chemical Engineers”

Indeed, “14 of the Best Chemical Engineering Careers (With Salaries)”

Indeed, “What Is Chemical Engineering?”

National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, Fundamentals of Engineering (FE)

CHEMICAL CBT Exam Specifications

National Society of Professional Engineers, How to Get Licensed

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bioengineers and Biomedical Engineers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Chemical Engineers