What is the Best Degree Path to Becoming a Chemical Engineer?

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When you decide to pursue a career in chemical engineering, you are making a major decision that will greatly impact your future professional opportunities and your earnings potential. Over a lifetime of work, engineers can earn over $3.5 million, even without holding an advanced degree. To accomplish the dream of becoming a chemical engineer, though, you will need to first prepare for the career by earning a college degree, passing multiple examinations, getting professional work experience, and obtaining a license.

We detail the best degree path to becoming a chemical engineer below.

A Chemical Engineering Education

To become a chemical engineer, you must first earn a college degree in chemical engineering. Most chemical engineers hold bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering from an ABET-accredited engineering program. ABET-accredited engineering programs are valued by employers. Without ABET accreditation, you may not be eligible for certain jobs, especially those with larger and more reputable organizations or engineering firms.

The curriculum of an accredited chemical engineering degree program will cover material such as engineering design and analysis, as well as the processes at work in chemistry, physics, and biology. Lectures, laboratory work, and cooperative opportunities will teach students both the theory and application of how to incorporate these important engineering concepts and strategies into chemistry and biology to create new processes and chemical materials.

In preparation for a college engineering program, high school students will benefit from taking four years of science courses, four years of math courses (progressively more advanced and including calculus), and even a statistics class. Algebra, trigonometry, and calculus are beneficial math courses to take in high school. Important science courses to take in high school include biology, chemistry, and physics.

Once admitted to a college chemical engineering program, students will work toward their engineering degree. Some schools offer bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering, while others offer engineering degrees with a specialization or concentration in chemical engineering. Some universities, especially larger research institutions, offer five-year engineering programs or 3-2 engineering programs. In these programs, students work toward both a bachelor’s and master’s degree.

Advanced educational opportunities exist in chemical engineering and can open new doors for ambitious students. Some students choose to earn a master’s degree or even a Ph.D. to prepare for job opportunities in research and development. Students who know that they want to earn a graduate-level degree may wish to enroll in a five-year degree program that combines undergraduate and graduate studies and awards both degrees. Ph.D. programs are essential for those who wish to teach at the college level.

There are programs that offer students direct access to internship opportunities. Some school partner with engineering firms and organizations. These cooperative programs and partnerships give students access to unique training and skill development that they wouldn’t necessarily receive in the classroom. But as stated above, reputable engineering programs are ABET-accredited, and it is important to research accreditation prior to sending in your application for admission.

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Licensing and Training

After completing a formal college education in chemical engineering, the next step is to take the Fundamentals of Engineering examination. Completing this test will qualify you as an engineer-in-training or official engineer intern. You can then begin working under the supervision of a licensed and experienced engineer. Hands-on experience is very important in chemical engineering. You might also be expected to undergo additional formal training as well, particularly if you begin your professional work with a large company or organization that employs many entry-level engineers.

To become a full-fledged engineer, you must gain the required amount of work experience necessary in your state and then pass another test, the Professional Engineering exam. Then you can finally get your license and realize your dream of being a chemical engineer.

When pursuing work as a chemical engineer in the United States, know that each state issues its own licenses. While most states recognize licensure from other states, some states may not. Licensure candidates must meet all state’s licensing credentials. In some cases, certain states may require continuing education to maintain licensing. In order to keep your license, you may need to complete ongoing education requirements.

Advancement Opportunities for Chemical Engineers

Most entry-level engineers, including recent college graduates, work under the direct supervision of a more experienced engineer. These new engineers are often referred to as junior engineers. Junior engineers work alongside senior engineers, acquiring more advanced projects and working with greater independence once certain skills are mastered. Junior engineers eventually begin developing their own designs, solving problems, and making decisions with less assistance from more experienced engineers. Once a junior engineer has proven him or herself, he or she can move on to even more advanced projects. Soon, he or she will become eligible for advancement.

Chemical engineers may advance to supervise a team of engineers and technicians when they have showcased their skills. Some junior engineers may return to school to receive advanced training, while others may acquire additional licensing. For those preparing for management positions, the requirements may be slightly different. A chemical engineer looking to become a supervisor or manager will work under the guidance of a more advanced engineer until they are ready to oversee their own team.

Other Important Qualities to Have as a Chemical Engineer

Chemical engineers must possess certain qualities and characteristics that make them successful. These qualities may not be taught in the classroom but can be honed with experience. Some of the most important qualities to have as a chemical engineer include:

Ingenuity: Ingenuity is the quality of being clever, inventive, and original. While chemical engineers work with proven engineering techniques, their work requires them to apply broad concepts to very specific manufacturing and production issues. Chemical engineers use their ingenuity to solve complex problems.

Math skills: Advanced math concepts are commonly used in the role of a chemical engineer. Chemical engineers utilize calculus to analyze, design, and troubleshoot their work. Most math skills are honed in the classroom, but it helps to be comfortable working with numbers.

Problem-solving skills: Problem-solving skills are necessary as a chemical engineer. From equipment design to solving manufacturing errors and issues, chemical engineers must be able to anticipate issues and determine ways to fix them.

Strong analytical skills: When a design doesn’t work as planned, a chemical engineer must troubleshoot issues. They must ask the right questions and determine the answers that fix problems. To do so requires strong and effective analytical skills.

Strong interpersonal skills: Engineers work closely with colleagues. Their role requires them to put scientific principles into practice while developing strong relationships with other team members, clients, and manufacturing experts. Strong relationships are built with equally strong interpersonal skills.

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Earnings Potential for Chemical Engineers

A job as a chemical engineer is rewarding on many levels. Financially, you, like other engineering professionals, can expect to earn a profitable salary. In fact, chemical engineers earn a median annual wage of $108,540, even higher than the $96,310 annual salary that engineers generally earn, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

With experience comes advancement in this occupation. BLS reports the top 10% of earners working as chemical engineers earn an average salary of $168,960; however, entry-level chemical engineers may earn less. According to BLS, the lowest 10% earn less than $68,430, but a survey reported by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers indicated that even without supervisory experience six-figure earnings were possible.

To ensure high earnings, certain factors come into play. According to BLS, there are five top paying industries for chemical engineers. These industries offer wages above the national average for all engineering occupations. The highest paying industry is petroleum and coal products manufacturing. In this industry, chemical engineers earn an annual average salary of $123,360. The second highest paying industry for chemical engineers is listed by BLS as engineering services. In engineering services, chemical engineers should expect a median annual wage of $111,090. Other high paying industries and corresponding salaries include research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences ($106,500); pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing ($101,780); and wholesale trade ($99,490).

There are other factors that impact earnings potential of chemical engineers. These factors include geographic location. According to the most recently published Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics by BLS, there are five top paying states for chemical engineers. Texas, Delaware, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Idaho all pay higher than average salaries for this occupation. In Texas, chemical engineers see an annual mean wage of $138,600, while chemical engineers in Delaware earn an annual mean wage of $131,630. Louisiana offers an average annual salary of $127,260 and New Mexico offers a slightly lower salary of $125,070. The fifth highest paying state still offers annual wages above the national average. In Idaho, chemical engineers see an annual mean wage of $123,400.

But states are not the only regions with high salaries for chemical engineers. Certain cities also pay favorable wages. According to BLS, top paying metropolitan areas for chemical engineers include Midland, Texas ($158,110), Houston metro area ($147,310), and Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas ($140,750). Other high paying metropolitan areas for chemical engineers include Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Idaho Falls, Idaho. In both of these metro areas, chemical engineers earn an average salary above $132,000.

But what if you don’t live in a metro area? According to BLS, nonmetro areas also pay well for chemical engineers. In fact, Southeast Iowa nonmetro area offers an annual mean wage of $132,750. Other high paying nonmetro places with salaries in excess of $120,000 per year include West Texas region of Texas and North Texas region of Texas nonmetropolitan areas.

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Job Outlook and Demand for Chemical Engineers

In addition to high wages, working as a chemical engineer provides a stable work environment and favorable job outlook. According to BLS, employment for this occupation is projected to grow 9% through 2030, which is 2% faster than the average for all engineering occupations.

The 9% growth rate equates to about 1,800 projected openings each year for chemical engineers, on average, over the next ten years. What exactly will cause this growth? BLS projects many of the job openings to result from a growing need to replace workers who exit the labor force through retirement. But there will also be a need to replace chemical engineers who transfer to different occupations or return to school for advanced training.

As of 2020, chemical engineers held approximately 26,300 jobs. Today, this number continues to grow. According to BLS, the largest employers for this occupation are engineering services and research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences. Approximately 10% of all chemical engineers work in engineering services and an equal number works in research and development. Other large employers of chemical engineers include petroleum and coal products manufacturing (5%), wholesale trade (4%), and pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing (3%).

The demand for chemical engineers over the next decade depends largely on the demand for certain products. Since most chemical engineers work in manufacturing industries that provide products to other firms, demand for products will lead to an equally strong demand for chemical engineers.

Also projected over the next several years is the growing demand for chemical engineers migrating to other fields. Alternative energies, biotechnology, and nanotechnology will look for chemical engineering specialists to help sustain the demand for engineering services in these manufacturing industries.

Due to the increased demand for chemical engineers in many manufacturing industries, now is a great time to earn a chemical engineering degree. Working as a chemical engineer brings fulfillment beyond earnings and stability. The role of a chemical engineer is to create new, innovative, and more efficient processes for answering social needs, such as creating new fuels, forms of energy, food products, and medicines. Chemical engineers forge the future in manufacturing industries, providing benefits that last lifetimes.

BDP Staff
October 2021

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This concludes our article on the best degree path to becoming a chemical engineer.

Ben Karleen

Brenda Rufener

Laura Kilmartin