Chemical Engineering as a Profession

Student researcher in lab

Chemical engineers contribute to a broad spectrum of technical activity reaching into practically every aspect of advanced technology. This breadth is represented by a vast range of endeavors: renewable energy from biomass; man-made polymers and smart materials; new liquid and gaseous fuels from coal; drug discovery and manufacture; engineering new metabolic pathways in cells; unique chemicals from enzymatic reactions; thin-film processes for electronic devices; new catalysts for energy needs; removal of pollutants from air and water; solar energy conversion; new battery and fuel-cell systems—and countless others.

The chemical engineer's interest in these fields focuses on the invention and development of materials and processes useful to society. Historically, chemical engineers have been pivotal and indispensable.The unique element of their involvement in these fields is their capacity to plan and implement chemical transformations and separations. In the complex processes of both nature and industry, chemical and physical phenomena are nearly always closely associated. It is the interaction between such phenomena that the chemical engineer seeks to master. In addition, the discipline of economics enters as a third dimension in every technological endeavor.

Chemical engineering occupations span the full range of activity from fundamental research to process development, process operations, marketing, industrial and government liaison, and company management. Contributions to nearly all of these pursuits are made by graduates of the four-year Bachelor of Science program. A master's or doctoral degree is needed for research and teaching. In industrial enterprises technical work is often conducted by teams, and the young engineer may expect to become an active member of such a team from the start. Teamwork fosters rapid professional development in mastering complex situations, contributing ideas, and communicating with people in diverse technical and nontechnical areas. In some organizations, an engineer may follow a project from its laboratory developmental stages through pilot plant evaluation, commercial plant design, plant startup, and plant operations.

Capable engineers may expect to assume a supervisory role within five to ten years after having begun their industrial careers.These assignments may lead to positions as task-force director, laboratory director, plant manager, division director, or company president. Some engineers with an entrepreneurial bent will form their own companies and might, for example, manufacture a novel instrument, develop and market a new process, or capitalize on their knowledge as a consultant.

Because of their breadth of function and breadth of field, chemical engineers at all degree levels are actively sought by industrial enterprises, governmental agencies, and academic institutions, and the remuneration offered to starting engineers has consistently ranked among the highest offered to university graduates.