Chemical engineers are the "jacks of all trades" in the engineering profession; their knowledge is broad enough to cover an expansive range of fields, such as physics, mathematics, and mechanical and electrical engineering. For example, one chemical engineer may work on creating a new chemical, another may find ways to maximize the chemical's production, and another may discover the optimal ways to use the new chemical. As they continue their work, chemical engineers will focus on one chemical process or a specific area that becomes the center of their career. Chemical engineers generally work in teams, which fosters an environment at once competitive and cooperative.
About 70 percent of the chemical engineers in the U.S. work in the manufacturing industry. Others work for research and testing firms, engineering consulting firms or as independent consultants. Consulting firms and consultants work on a contract basis on projects such as designing chemical plants.
Most entry-level engineering jobs require at least a bachelor's degree in engineering. A master's degree or PhD in chemical engineering is encouraged. Furthermore, earning that graduate degree will require you to do research, which will translate to hands-on experience when you're looking for your first job.
Entry-level chemical engineers do a lot of number-crunching, tests and experiments. Within a year or two, engineers graduate to projects with greater responsibility. After gaining experience with a corporation or the government, some engineers choose to strike out on their own, establishing engineering consulting firms or starting their own engineering companies, where they pull down six-figure salaries.
If you enjoy "fixing things, improving things, and creating new and innovative processes," then you might just want to be a chemical engineer. The hours vary depending on the employer and position. Says one chemical engineer, "There's a lot of work to get done and it can be done in a variety of settings, including occasionally working from the home office or a coffee shop." Some chemical engineers who work for corporations handle "swing shifts," while others work the regular 9-to-5 schedule. Chemical engineers who work in the field generally have more flexible hours and have to wear "clothes that can get dirty." Engineers who meet with clients must dress in "business fatigues," says one engineer, dryly referring to suits.
From chemical engineering, one can "go into almost any field," as chemical engineers work with all types of other engineers. However, be prepared to log long hours in developing this wide expertise; many chemical engineers log "40 to 100 hours a week in classes to learn new skills." Having a "good mentor" in college or graduate school "makes for more successful engineers." Once you're done and have that PhD, "you do get a lot of instant respect due to the academic rigor inherent in the achievement."
Good pay; Wide variety of career options
Some initial grunt work; Weird smells
Detail-oriented; Perceptive; Cooperative
Average about 45 per week
Median salary: $78,860; Average starting salary with a bachelor's: $51,356; Master's: $59,240
BS, MS or PhD; General computer and statistical skills