What is a chemical engineer? (With qualifications and jobs)

Updated 31 July 2023

Chemical engineers work with raw materials to study how they react together and create new, innovative or useful products. There are certain skills required to be a successful chemical engineer that often requires degree-level or apprentice-level training. To become a chemical engineer, you may require a qualification in chemical engineering extensive knowledge of the field. In this article, we explore the answers to questions like 'What is a chemical engineer?' and 'What is it like to work as a chemical engineer?'

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What is a chemical engineer?

If you're interested in designing and developing new products and materials across all kinds of sectors and industries, you might want to know the answer to the question, 'What is a chemical engineer?'. As a chemical engineer, you conduct experiments to assess how different processes and conditions might change the state or properties of different materials, for example when making plastic from oil. This requires excellent technical knowledge of chemistry and chemical engineering principles and experience working in a laboratory setting. Today, chemical engineers might also work on creating new materials and new techniques, such as nanotechnology or biomedical engineering.

What do chemical engineers do?

If you're considering a career in chemical engineering, it's important to understand what do chemical engineers do. Chemical engineers are professionals skilled in maths and science who design and develop solutions to global problems relating to food, fuel and other chemical substances. Chemical engineers work on a range of projects to develop new equipment, materials, technologies and oversee the production methods of these innovations. Typical responsibilities of a chemical engineer include:

  • meeting with clients to determine manufacturing goals and assess existing manufacturing processes

  • studying chemical reactions to develop new materials and processes

  • working closely with process chemists and control engineers to ensure that plants run properly and efficiently

  • building prototypes of new materials and testing these materials under various conditions

  • designing and configuring plant equipment to suit the work, taking environmental and other factors into consideration

  • designing and installing new production plants and monitoring the development of new plants

  • researching and trialling new products and improving existing products

  • ensuring that all staff members follow safety guidelines and make safety considerations at every stage

Your work as a chemical engineer depends a great deal on which sector you work in. For example, if you work for an energy company, your work could involve testing and developing new types of biofuel that can be of use in trains or aircraft, or if you work in food manufacturing you could be working to develop recyclable wrapping that can keep food fresher for longer or ways to produce more eco-friendly packaging.

Related: How Much Does a Chemical Engineer Make?

Who do chemical engineers work for?

Chemical engineers work for a huge range of employers in both the public and private sectors across many different materials and types of product manufacturing. Any company that takes part in the large-scale conversion of raw materials into commercial products employs chemical engineers, which makes this career a good choice for applicants who want to be highly employable in their chosen fields. Some of the most common industries that chemical engineers work in include:

  • business and consultancy

  • oil and gas

  • pharmaceuticals

  • energy and utilities

  • food and drink

  • plastics

  • toiletries

  • water treatment

You could also work as an engineering consultant at a consultancy firm, or, if you have mechanical engineering knowledge, you could work for a company that designs the equipment that's useful in chemical processing plants and factories.

Related: How To Become a Gas Engineer

What is working as a chemical engineer like?

As a chemical engineer, you work core office hours of 9 am to 5 pm with some overtime during busy periods. If you work in manufacturing or processing plants, you may cover shift work, which means working evenings and weekends more often and perhaps even 'night shifts' depending on the product. Your work could take place in a lab, an office, a manufacturing plant, or a construction site. One of your primary concerns at work is always safety and hygiene is important if you work in food manufacturing or water treatment. Following strict health and safety guidelines and wearing protective equipment is essential in chemical engineering.

Many big employers of chemical engineers, particularly in the oil and gas sector, are international companies who may expect you to work overseas on a regular basis. The national average salary of a chemical engineer is £34,670 per year. This salary reflects an average across all experience levels. Starting salaries for chemical engineers are be lower than this, while chartered chemical engineers with years of experience can earn much higher salaries than this.

Related: How much does a chemical engineer make?

What university degree do chemical engineers require?

A degree in chemical engineering or a similar subject is required to become a chemical engineer. Process engineering or biochemical engineering degree courses can also qualify you for this career. As you gain experience in your career as a chemical engineer, you can increase your salary and your career opportunities by applying for accreditation by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE).

Going to university to study a degree to Master's level is usually required to acquire a MEng degree. To become chartered, study a degree to Master's level and acquire an MEng degree. If the qualifications you have studied do not have accreditation, you can still apply for a chartership by completing the Individual Case Procedure (ICP). You can use evidence of the courses you have studied and professional experience and technical knowledge to demonstrate that you meet the required standard to become a chartered chemical engineer. For this career path, a degree in any of the below subjects may be suitable:

  • Applied chemistry

  • Biomedical engineering

  • Chemistry

  • Nuclear engineering

  • Polymer science

  • Environmental engineering

Related: How to become an engineer in 5 steps

What other qualifications do chemical engineers require?

Before you apply to study an accredited course at university, you could check to see if any employers or organisations are offering financial sponsorship for students who wish to study chemical engineering at university before going on to work with a particular employer. Some employers may also accept an HND or a foundation degree in physical or applied sciences, though if you start your career in chemical engineering this way you might work at a lower level for a longer period until you have gained a higher grade qualification such as a degree.

Related: What is nanoscience? (Plus how to prepare for a career)

What skills are useful for chemical engineers?

To succeed as a chemical engineer, it's important that you possess a range of hard and soft skills to help you to excel in this field. Some of the skills that it's important for chemical engineers to possess include:

  • project management skills

  • good verbal and written communication skills

  • problem-solving abilities

  • good IT skills

  • creativity and an ability to innovate new ideas

  • a methodical approach to testing and development

  • leadership skills, including motivating team members

  • an ability to work well in a team

Alongside these skills, excellent knowledge of maths and science is beneficial. Chemical engineers use their extensive expertise in chemistry, biology, physics and calculus on a daily basis at work to develop new materials and analyse existing ones. This requires a strong natural aptitude in STEM subjects and a strong background in these areas which you likely developed during your time at university.

Related: 7 ways to communicate effectively at work

What are the career prospects of a chemical engineer?

As a chemical engineer, you usually advance your career by reaching chartered status. Once you're a chartered chemical engineer, you can increase your salary and apply to new roles that you could not apply for without your chartership. During the course of your career, you can take advantage of significant career development opportunities that qualify you to work with new materials and processes. Seeking new development opportunities like this is the best way to progress to supervisory, mid-level and senior management roles the most quickly. The career routes that you can follow include:

  • working your way up to becoming a project manager

  • moving into research and development

  • specialising in a particular area, such as environmental development or safety and risk management

  • moving into commercial roles in sales, IT, or marketing

As you gain more experience as a chemical engineer, you have the freedom and opportunities to control the course of your career and specialise in those aspects of chemical engineering that you're most passionate about.

Related: What it takes to be a successful chemical process operator

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing. Salaries‌ ‌may‌ ‌‌vary‌‌ ‌depending‌ ‌on‌ ‌the‌ ‌hiring‌ ‌organisation‌ ‌and‌ ‌a‌ ‌candidate's‌ ‌experience,‌ ‌academic‌ background‌ ‌and‌ ‌location.‌

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