- What do chemical engineers do?
- Chemical engineer career path
- Chemical engineer salaries
- Qualifications and training
- Chemical engineer skills
- Pros and cons of being a chemical engineer
- Chemical engineer work-life balance
- Typical employers
- Related jobs
- More information
Are you interested in a career in chemical engineering? Explore the engineering sector jobs available right now.
What does a chemical engineer do?
Chemical engineers are responsible for developing raw materials into a wide variety of different products. You will work on transforming the chemical and biochemical states of a substance into required products while factoring in both health and safety and cost considerations. Chemical engineers are essential to a range of different industries such as pharmaceuticals, energy, food and drink and plastics. Here are the responsibilities and tasks that you may have as a chemical engineer:
- Use computer modelling to calculate safe and cost-effective production methods
- Test innovative ways to develop products in the lab
- Develop methods to safely deal with by-products and waste material
- Apply new technologies
- Liaise with plant designers to create production equipment
- Oversee the operation of the processing plant
- Organise scale-up and scale-down processes for plant expansion or reconfiguration
- Manage the journey of new products from trial through to commercialisation
Chemical engineer career path
Your career path as a chemical engineer can take you in many different directions. You have the option to explore other career paths like side-stepping into other types of engineering if you like the innovation side of the job without the chemical facet. Or, you could go into project management if you like the overseeing and organisational side of chemical engineering without the technical requirement. Here is a career path typically followed by chemical engineers:
You could begin your career in a junior chemical engineering job. This is a highly supervised role and so you will check off the work you do with your manager or supervisor who is a senior member of the team to make sure there are no issues with your designs that could pose a safety risk. The purpose of the junior role is to learn all the professional skills that you need for your future career which is why it’s heavily monitored by your senior colleagues.
Having gained experience from working on a variety of projects under supervision, further career progression often hinges on securing chartered status. Lots of employers provide internal training programmes for graduates to ensure they develop the wide range of experience needed to advance as a chemical engineer.
The IChemE lists a wide range of these programmes which are known as Accredited Company Training Schemes (ACTS). The successful completion of a scheme like this will positively contribute towards the application requirements for becoming a chartered chemical engineer and member of IChemE. Employers often provide mentors and supplement development training as you work towards these charterships.
Having gained experience on a wide variety of projects in the process of gaining chartership, there are various possible career routes available if you wish to remain in chemical engineering. These include moving into commercial areas such as marketing, supply chain management and technical sales, or into specialist roles such as safety and risk management or environmental management.
Having completed the IChemE schemes you will have excellent experience and a huge range of skills under your belt, so promotion to senior management is often possible much quicker than in some other sectors. And if you do reach a senior position, there will be opportunities to shape the leadership and direction of the business - including opportunities to sit on the board of directors.
Chemical engineer salaries
Alongside exciting career progression, chemical engineering jobs often boast good pay rates too. Here are the salaries that you could earn when working as a chemical engineer:
- In an entry-level position, graduates earn £28,600 per year on average as chemical engineers.
- For chemical engineers under 25 in the mid stages of their careers the average is £30,000 and rises to £54,000 depending on experience.
- Senior jobs for those who become chartered chemical engineers rise to £65,000 on average.
If you’re keen to know more about earning potential as a chemical engineer - the annual IChemE salary survey is a good place to start.
Qualifications and training
To work as a chemical engineer you need a combination of skills and experience. Here is the education that you need to kick start your career as a chemical engineer:
To become a chemical engineer you’ll need a degree in chemical engineering, biomedical engineering or process engineering. There is also the possibility to do a postgraduate conversion course if you already have a degree in a similar area like engineering, polymer science or chemistry. Additionally, some universities offer a foundation year for those without qualifications in maths and science, which enables them to move onto a specialised degree course afterwards.
However, if the degree route isn’t for you, some employers may accept an HND or foundation degree in the physical or applied sciences, although it’s worth bearing in mind this may mean you work at a lower level when you start out. And you will certainly need to complete further qualifications if you wish to become chartered further down the line. If you want to get into engineering but don’t like the idea of a degree - take a look at how to get into engineering without a BEng.
Another option is an apprenticeship. Many companies offer apprenticeships where you learn about the role by working in it with industry experts. Some apprenticeships include a university element where you work towards a degree while working for the firm. You’re often offered a moderate salary and a job at the end of an apprenticeship whilst gaining the practical experience that you need to do the job. You can explore the apprenticeships available with this government apprenticeship search tool.
Having relevant work experience gives you a headstart in the job market and some employers may favour recruiting candidates from their own work placement schemes. Some chemical engineering degree courses include time in industry, which could be a few months or even a year during the third year of your course where you work for an engineering firm. But having some work experience in addition to this is a good idea and that’s where internships can be really useful. Many top firms offer internships during the summer aimed at university students. Take a look at our currently available internships in engineering.
In addition to searching for advertised internships, networking with existing employees in the company you want to work with can be a fantastic route in. Here is our bright advice for networking successfully.
Chemical engineer skills
Combining your education with the right skills helps you impress hiring managers and demonstrate why you would be great for any chemical engineering job. Here are the skills that you need to work as a chemical engineer:
- Engineering principles and mathematics. The foundation of your role as a chemical engineer will be an understanding of engineering science and technology and also strong maths skills. It’s these core skills that will be developed during your degree course or apprenticeship prior to employment.
- Chemistry. Knowledge of the fundamental principles of chemistry and an understanding of how to safely use and dispose of chemicals is another skill you will need to develop during your degree or apprenticeship.
- Analytical ability and problem-solving. To be a great chemical engineer, you need good problem-solving skills. This is so you can think of innovative ways of dealing with the issues that you come across in the development process. Take this Bright Network Academy creative problem-solving module to improve your skills.
- Communication. You need to be a great communicator when collaborating with your client and updating them on the product development process. Improve your communication skills with this Bright Network Academy module on adapting your communication style.
- Project and resource management. Some areas of chemical engineering require sustained organisational skills to oversee the management of product development on an industrial scale. A great chemical engineer will be able to look at the big picture and see the development of an idea into completion.
Pros and cons of being a chemical engineer
Being a chemical engineer has positive and negative aspects and these will vary depending on which sector you choose to go into. For example, the pros and cons for research and development will be different to those if you go into big scale manufacturing. But learning about the good and bad parts of either sector will help you decide what the right career path is for you. Here are some general pros and cons of going into a chemical engineering role:
- Modern chemical engineering is often at the forefront of innovation. Many sectors are pioneering valuable new techniques and materials to make positive and exciting changes in the world. (For example nanotechnology, fuel cells and biomedical engineering).
- The nature of project work is varied. Projects can last from months to years - but there is always an exciting new challenge to embark on when one project is completed.
- It’s a high-paying career path.
- Team-based problem-solving can be incredibly satisfying and challenging.
- Opportunity for international travel.
- You can often split your time between office and onsite work which can vary your days and break up the working week.
- If you’re working in manufacturing then travelling long distances to plants can add to a long working day.
- The pressure of big-scale manufacturing can be intense as there is a lot of responsibility.
- There is the potential for long working days around big deadlines.
- The first few years of work can be stressful because you have lots of deadlines and have to report all your work to your supervisor or manager.
Chemical engineer work-life balance
Your working days are typical office hours of 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. This is assuming that you don’t have any deadlines coming up which might mean you have to work beyond your allotted hours. In entry-level positions, you often have deadlines which means your working week can be long. Furthermore, if you’re starting a brand new project this can sometimes demand more time to get it off the ground.
Depending on the area you choose to specialise in you may spend most of your time in the lab working on research and development, or you may split your working week between the office and the plant or factory your product is being developed in. The working site might require a longer commute which adds to your working week. But it can be nice to separate the places that you work and make your working life more varied and interesting. If you’re working on a large scale project there is often an opportunity to travel to places all around the world such as India and China.
Knowing the typical employers that hire chemical engineers can help you find out the type of organisation that you’d like to work for. Here are some of the employers that you could work for in chemical engineering:
Related jobs to chemical engineer
Do you have a feeling engineering is the right sector but you’re not sure about being a chemical engineer? Take an in-depth look at the different types of engineering.
Feeling overwhelmed by all the jargon? Read this guide to engineering terminology and get a better idea of what a career in engineering might involve.