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Chemical Engineer Career Guide

What is a chemical engineer?

A chemical engineer is a professional who applies the principles of chemistry, biology, physics, and mathematics to solve problems in producing or using chemicals, fuel, drugs, food, and many other products. They design processes and equipment for large-scale, safe, and sustainable manufacturing, plan and test methods of manufacturing products and treating byproducts, and supervise production.

These engineers contribute to various sectors, including pharmaceuticals, energy, food processing, and environmental technology. They are integral in developing and optimizing processes and products. Their expertise lies in driving industrial efficiency and addressing significant societal challenges, such as resource scarcity, environmental sustainability, and health and safety issues.

Duties and responsibilities

Chemical engineers are responsible for designing, implementing, and optimizing chemical processes and equipment. They develop operational plans for chemical plants, monitor production performance, and troubleshoot issues that arise during manufacturing. Research is also conducted to create new and improved manufacturing processes.

In addition, professionals in this role often conduct safety and environmental assessments, ensuring that plants and processes comply with environmental regulations and workplace safety standards. They may also work on waste treatment and pollution reduction processes.

These engineers may develop estimates of plant construction and operation costs, assist in developing new products, and apply green engineering and sustainability principles in their work.

Work environment

The work environment for chemical engineers can vary widely depending on the specific role and industry. They may work in office settings, laboratories, or industrial plants. Some positions may require fieldwork and travel, such as visiting plants, overseeing operations, or addressing on-site problems.

The work can be challenging and complex, often involving sophisticated software and mathematical models to simulate and analyze chemical processes. Safety is a crucial concern in many environments due to the nature of materials and handling methods. 

Typical work hours

Chemical engineers usually work full-time and may occasionally work additional hours to meet project deadlines or address operational issues in the manufacturing process. In roles where these engineers oversee production, they may need to be on call or work shifts to ensure continuous operation.

Work hours can also vary depending on the specific industry. For example, they may need to be on-site for extended periods during exploration or drilling operations in the oil and gas industry. In contrast, research and development or consultancy roles may offer standard office hours.

How to become a chemical engineer

Becoming a chemical engineer involves acquiring the necessary education, experience, and skills. This career guide section covers the steps you need to follow to achieve your goal:

Step 1: Complete a bachelor’s degree

The first step is obtaining a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering or a related field. A solid educational background will provide you with the foundational knowledge necessary to succeed in this role, including chemistry, physics, mathematics, and engineering principles.

Step 2: Complete internships or co-op programs

Internships or co-op programs during undergraduate studies can help develop the practical skills and knowledge required. Focus on working in laboratories, research facilities, or manufacturing plants, and gain experience with process design, chemical reactions, and safety protocols.

Step 3: Develop strong problem-solving and analytical skills

These engineers solve complex problems, analyze data, and design processes and systems. Developing strong problem-solving and analytical skills is vital for success. Practice working with data sets, creating models, and using data analysis tools such as Excel, MATLAB, or specialized software.

Step 4: Obtain a master’s degree or Ph.D. (optional)

While only sometimes required, some employers may prefer candidates with an advanced degree in chemical engineering or a related field. A master’s degree or Ph.D. can provide advanced knowledge and research opportunities in areas such as process design, materials science, or biotechnology, which can enhance career prospects.

Step 5: Develop strong communication and teamwork skills

Professionals in this role often communicate with colleagues, senior management, and other stakeholders. Strong verbal and written communication skills and teamwork are essential for success. 

Step 6: Obtain relevant certifications (optional)

Pursuing certifications helps to stand out among other candidates and advance your career. While not required, obtaining certifications related to chemical engineering can demonstrate commitment to the profession and enhance credibility. Some popular certifications include the Professional Engineer (PE) license or certifications from organizations like the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).

Step 7: Apply for jobs

With the necessary education, experience, and skills, start applying for chemical engineering positions. Tailor your resume and cover letter to highlight relevant qualifications and accomplishments in chemical engineering or related fields. During interviews, be prepared to discuss your experience with process design, chemical reactions, and safety protocols, and highlight your problem-solving and communication skills.

Step 8: Pursue professional development opportunities (optional)

Participating in professional development opportunities, such as workshops, seminars, or online courses, can help enhance skills and stay up-to-date with trends and best practices, furthering your career. Additionally, consider joining professional organizations, such as the AIChE, to network and stay informed about new developments in the field.

Here is are some online course options available for continuing education:

How much do chemical engineers make?

Several factors can influence the salary of a chemical engineer. One of the most impactful is the level of education, particularly in chemical engineering or a closely related field. Those with advanced degrees, such as a master’s or doctorate, generally command higher salaries.

As engineers gain experience and demonstrate abilities to manage projects and solve complex problems effectively, they can expect an increase in earnings.

The industry in which they work can also significantly affect their salary. For instance, those working in oil and gas extraction or the pharmaceutical industry may earn more due to these industries’ high value and complexity. Additionally, geographical location, especially areas with a high concentration of chemical manufacturing or research facilities, can influence salary.

Highest paying industries

  • Oil and Gas Extraction: $133,010
  • Basic Chemical Manufacturing: $123,540
  • Synthetic Fibers and Filaments Manufacturing: $122,410
  • Pharmaceutical and Medicine Manufacturing: $120,270
  • Engineering Services: $119,770

Highest paying states

  • Alaska: $137,170
  • Texas: $135,380
  • New Mexico: $126,290
  • Louisiana: $124,700
  • Delaware: $122,990

Browse chemical engineer salary data by market

Types of chemical engineers

The role can be quite diverse, depending on the specific industry, type of products, or stage of the production process. In this career guide section, we explore the various types and specializations of chemical engineers, shedding light on their unique responsibilities and areas of focus.  

Process chemical engineer

Chemical or biochemical processes for large-scale manufacturing are standard in the petrochemicals, material science, and food processing industries. Process engineers focus on the operation, control, and optimization of chemical, physical, and biological processes.

Product development chemical engineer

Product development engineers work on designing and developing new products at a molecular level. They often work in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, or specialty chemicals and contribute to creating new drugs, skin care products, or advanced materials.

Biochemical engineer

Biochemical work often intersects with biotechnology in the pharmaceuticals and environmental science industries. Biochemical engineers apply engineering principles to biological and biochemical processes to design bioreactors, develop biofuels, or work on genetic engineering projects. 

Environmental chemical engineer

Environmental engineers focus on developing processes and products that are environmentally friendly or help mitigate environmental damage. This could involve strategies to reduce emissions, develop new water purification methods, or create sustainable energy solutions.

Chemical process safety engineer

Chemical safety is crucial in any industry where chemical processes pose significant risks, including oil and gas, petrochemicals, and other sectors. These engineers ensure safety in chemical manufacturing processes by assessing potential risks, developing safety protocols, and designing systems to prevent accidents. 

Food process engineer

Food process engineers use engineering principles to design and optimize processes for large-scale food production. Their work helps to maximize efficiency and ensure the end product’s safety and quality.  

Top skills for chemical engineers

To excel in this field, chemical engineers must have strong analytical skills, problem-solving abilities, creativity, and a solid understanding of chemical processes and engineering principles.

Chemical engineering involves dealing with complex systems and processes. It requires the ability to analyze different variables, from the properties of individual substances to the interactions between materials and energy forms. Strong analytical skills are needed to understand and predict the behavior of these systems, contributing to better process design and control.

Problem-solving is at the core of chemical engineering. Whether optimizing a production process, troubleshooting an issue in a chemical plant, or developing a new strategy to produce a desired product, these professionals must find practical solutions to various challenges. This requires technical knowledge, innovative thinking, and considering different factors and potential impacts.

While chemical engineering is technically demanding, creativity also plays a vital role. Thinking outside the box is often necessary to develop new ways to process materials, solve problems, or improve efficiency. Creativity can lead to innovative designs, breakthrough technologies, and safety and environmental sustainability improvements.

A solid grounding in chemical processes and engineering principles is fundamental for these engineers. This includes knowledge of chemical reactions, separation processes, thermodynamics, and fluid mechanics. It also involves understanding how to apply these principles to design, control, and optimize chemical processes.

Chemical engineer career path

Choosing a career as a chemical engineer provides you with many opportunities across different industries. Often, you’ll start your professional journey as a junior chemical engineer or process engineer. Here, you’ll work under experienced engineers and focus on tasks like process simulations, basic design, and quality control. You will learn the intricacies of material science, thermodynamics, and chemical kinetics.

As you accumulate experience and possibly pursue further qualifications or specialized certifications, you can transition to roles such as a senior engineer or lead process engineer. In these roles, you’ll be more responsible for overseeing project elements, leading small teams, and coordinating with other departments like R&D and manufacturing. You may also have the chance to engage in groundbreaking research and development projects.

From here, you can advance to managerial positions like plant manager or chemical engineering manager, where your focus may shift from hands-on engineering tasks to broader project and people management. You’ll oversee budgets, timelines, and resource allocation while ensuring projects align with organizational goals and regulatory compliance.

For those with a strategic mindset and considerable experience, management positions, such as director of engineering or chief technical officer (CTO), could be the next step. These roles often require a more comprehensive understanding of business operations and may involve direct interactions with C-suite executives, stakeholders, and board members.

Additionally, there’s the option of exploring specialized sectors like bioengineering or becoming a consultant, offering expertise in process optimization and sustainability efforts, among other things.

In chemical engineering, trends are often driven by the needs of society and emerging technological capabilities. A significant trend in recent years has been the increased focus on sustainability and environmental considerations. This includes the development of renewable energy technologies, such as advanced batteries and biofuels, and processes to reduce emissions and waste in industrial operations.

The growing interest in nanotechnology has also opened new avenues for chemical engineers. This involves designing and controlling materials at the nanoscale for various applications in medicine, electronics, and energy, among other fields.

Advancements in biotechnology are another crucial trend affecting professionals in this role. With the rise of bioengineering and synthetic biology, there’s a demand for engineers to design processes and systems that utilize biological agents and molecules.

Employment projections for chemical engineers

According to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for chemical engineers is projected to grow 14% through 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations. Demand for their services depends mainly on demand for the products of various industries. Those with a broad knowledge base that includes familiarity with the latest technological advancements will likely have the best job prospects.

Chemical engineer career tips

Cultivate a solid understanding of fundamental principles

Chemical engineers need a thorough understanding of chemistry, physics, and mathematics principles. This foundational knowledge will allow you to solve complex engineering problems, innovate processes, and make informed decisions on the job.

Stay updated on industry regulations and standards

Industries that employ these engineers, such as pharmaceuticals, energy, and manufacturing, are subject to strict regulations and standards. Stay updated to ensure compliance in all your projects and maintain safety and quality.

Embrace technological advancements

From simulation software to new manufacturing technologies, the field of chemical engineering is continually evolving. Stay up-to-date with emerging technologies and tools that could improve efficiency, accuracy, or safety in your work.

Develop strong problem-solving skills

Chemical engineering involves tackling complex problems, whether optimizing a process, designing a new system, or troubleshooting equipment. Strong analytical and problem-solving skills can help you identify issues, assess potential solutions, and implement effective strategies.

Continuous learning

To stay current and advance in your career, continuous learning is crucial. Some ways to do this include:

  • Keep up with your field’s latest research by reading scientific journals and attending conferences
  • Learn about new software or technologies relevant to your work
  • Pursue advanced degrees or certifications such as the PE licensure or Certified Professional Environmental Auditor (CPEA) certification

Build a professional network

Networking can provide valuable opportunities for learning, collaboration, and career advancement. Some professional associations and networks include:

  • American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE)
  • Society of Chemical Industry (SCI)
  • American Chemical Society (ACS)

Enhance communication and teamwork skills

These professionals often work in teams and may need to communicate complex concepts to non-engineers. Strong communication and teamwork skills can help you collaborate effectively, present your ideas clearly, and lead projects successfully.

Prioritize sustainability

Sustainability is becoming increasingly important in chemical engineering. It involves designing processes that minimize waste, conserve energy, reduce emissions, and use resources responsibly. Emphasizing sustainability can lead to cost savings, compliance with environmental regulations, and a positive impact on your company’s reputation.

Where the chemical engineer jobs are

Top companies

  • ExxonMobil
  • Pfizer
  • Dow
  • Procter & Gamble

Top states

  • Texas
  • California
  • New Jersey
  • Illinois
  • Ohio

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • Glassdoor
  • EngineerJobs
  • CareerBuilder


What educational background is typically expected of a chemical engineer?

A chemical engineer typically holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. This degree involves chemistry, physics, and engineering principles coursework. Many also pursue a master’s degree or Ph.D., mainly if they are interested in research or academic positions. PE certification may also be beneficial and is required for specific roles.

What are the key responsibilities of a chemical engineer?

A chemical engineer’s responsibilities often include designing, testing, and troubleshooting chemical manufacturing processes and equipment. They might develop safety procedures for handling dangerous chemicals, optimize production methods, and work on scaling laboratory processes for large-scale manufacturing. They also complete research to develop new manufacturing processes or products.

What skills are essential for a chemical engineer?

Chemical engineers need a strong math and science background, especially in the principles of chemistry, physics, and engineering. They also need strong problem-solving and analytical skills to troubleshoot and improve chemical processes. Good communication skills help when working in teams and explaining projects to non-engineers. Familiarity with computer modeling software and other technical tools is also often necessary.

What role does a chemical engineer play in product development?

In product development, a chemical engineer might complete research to create new materials or improve existing ones. They may also develop new processes to manufacture these products more efficiently and sustainably. This work often involves laboratory research, computer modeling, and testing and requires a deep understanding of chemical properties and reactions.

How does a chemical engineer contribute to sustainability and environmental protection?

Many work on developing cleaner, more sustainable chemical manufacturing processes. This can involve reducing waste, improving energy efficiency, or developing techniques that use renewable resources. Some chemical engineers also work in environmental remediation, developing methods to clean up pollution and contamination.

What role does safety play in the work of a chemical engineer?

Safety is crucial to their work because dangerous chemicals and processes are used. They must design safety procedures and protocols to protect workers and the environment. This can involve developing equipment with safety features, monitoring chemical processes for safety risks, and training other staff on safety procedures.

Does a chemical engineer need a strong understanding of economics and business?

While not their primary focus, understanding business and economic principles can benefit chemical engineers. This helps to understand the financial implications of different manufacturing processes, make decisions about scaling operations, and contribute to cost-saving or efficiency initiatives.

What role does a chemical engineer play in quality control?

Quality control initiatives include developing processes to test raw materials or finished products, monitoring manufacturing processes for variations affecting quality, and troubleshooting issues.

What kinds of industries employ chemical engineers?

Chemical and pharmaceutical industries employ engineers to develop and manufacture drugs, chemicals, and materials. Positions are also available in oil and gas, food and beverage, and consumer goods. Some choose to work in environmental remediation or consulting.

Do chemical engineers usually work in labs or office settings?

It is not uncommon to work across various environments, including labs, manufacturing plants, and offices. Lab work includes researching and developing new substances or processes. Roles in manufacturing plants include overseeing production processes and troubleshooting issues. Computer modeling is used in office settings to design and optimize chemical processes.