The headline of the brochure for the American Institute of Chemical Engineers states that chemical engineers are responsible for the production of items, “from microchips to potato chips.” Chemical engineers work in the chemical, fuel, aerospace, environmental, food, and pulp and paper industries, among many others. Responsibilities range from research and design to development, production, technical sales, and, for those with good communication skills, management. Chemical engineering is a problem-solving profession with a practical bias; expect to answer the question “how” more than any other. Chemical engineers translate the discoveries chemists make into real-world products. If a chemist invents a better fertilizer, for example, a chemical engineer might design the method to make mass production of that fertilizer possible. Much of this work is planning: theoretical “modeling” of production processes and analysis that takes place on computer or in preliminary reports. Chemical engineers work with chemists, accountants, human resource personnel, and regulators to create efficient, safe and cost-effective methods of reproducing valuable items. Chemical engineers work in teams, mostly for large corporations. Engineers thrive on the intellectual challenge they get from their work. Good chemical engineers are always trying to refine their systems, improve them, and make them safer and more efficient.
Like all engineers, the would-be chemical engineer must pass a rigorous set of academic requirements. Coursework must include a full spectrum of chemistry courses, some physics, electrical engineering, mathematics, computer science, and biology, as well as some applied materials science courses for those who want to go into manufacturing industries. English courses are extremely helpful, as many chemical engineers must write and review reports. Over 140 colleges and universities offer accredited chemical engineering curricula. Master’s and doctoral degrees are preferred for those who hope to achieve any supervisory or directed research positions.
The most difficult thing about becoming a chemical engineer is adapting theoretical knowledge to a practical discipline. Many engineers find it helpful to attend professional seminars and subscribe to publications, such as Chemical Engineering, which explore their area of responsibility in the light of industry breakthroughs. Others enjoy the support of professional organizations, such as the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). Employers, for the most part, view chemical engineering as a practical discipline and look for experience in production, manufacturing, or management to verify these traits in potential employees. Each state has its own written exam for chemical engineers who wish to work in the public sector.
Chemical engineers use their skills to become entrepreneurs and managers in a number of fields, ranging from patent law to microbrewing. A notable few become astronauts. The majority of chemical engineers rotate within the profession rather than leave it.