A Day in the Life of a Chemical Engineer
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.
Paying Your Dues
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.
Present and Future
Chemical engineers have been around since the first distilling process took place. Chemical engineering became a science beginning in the Renaissance, with the codification of experiments and results. This organization was coupled with achievements in pure (not applied) chemistry. Chemical engineering began to be taught as a discipline in 1888 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Currently, 40 percent of chemical engineers are employed by the chemicals industry, followed distantly by environmental organizations, the food industry, biotechnology companies, and electronics. The level of employment is expected to remain static, with the notable exception that many employed in the chemicals industry, which includes the petroleum industry, will migrate to the emerging bio- and electronic-technology fields. While the number of jobs is expected to remain stable for the next ten years, fewer applicants are expected to vie for these jobs, leading to a potentially bright future for the aspiring chemical engineer.
Quality of Life
PRESENT AND FUTURE
Chemical engineers work in teams as data collectors and computer modelers. Many have limited input and low levels of responsibility during these early years. Hours are unremarkable, but professional associations, professional reading and additional research may eat up the time of the ambitious chemical engineer. Those who leave get the yearnings to do so in these early years, but few follow through until later. Satisfaction is average.
FIVE YEARS OUT
Five years into the profession, many chemical engineers have specialized in research, design, production, development or technical sales. Responsibility has increased, and many get their first taste of managerial status. Significant input is expected from the five-year engineer. People skills become more important. Five-year veterans are judged on the success of their track record. Those who leave to start their own companies most often do so between years seven and nine.
TEN YEARS OUT
Ten-year chemical engineers are “senior” engineers and many have been promoted to levels of personnel and project management. Many are involved in the coordination and development phase of projects (the initial planning stages) and offer experienced direction without having to do any of the more mundane modeling that more junior chemical engineers undertake. Private firm employees earn larger wages than those in the public sector, but many choose to work for the EPA or the Department of Agriculture, citing more regular hours and less corporate politics.