Chemical engineers develop raw materials into a range of useful products. A career in the field will see you creating petrochemicals, medicine and plastics

As a chemical engineer, you'll be involved in the design and development of a diverse range of products. Your work will focus on changing the chemical, biochemical and physical state of a substance to turn it into something else, such as making plastic from oil.

You'll need to understand how to alter raw materials into required products, while taking into consideration health and safety and cost issues.

You can work in a variety of industries including:

  • energy
  • food and drink
  • oil and gas
  • pharmaceuticals
  • plastics
  • toiletries
  • water treatment.

Modern chemical engineering is also concerned with pioneering valuable new materials and techniques, such as nanotechnology, fuel cells and biomedical engineering.

Responsibilities

Your daily activities will be extremely diverse and largely depend on the role and the sector in which you work. However, you'll generally need to:

  • work closely with process chemists and control engineers to ensure the process plant is set up to provide maximum output levels and efficient running of the production facility
  • design plant and equipment configuration so that they can be readily adapted to suit the product range and the process technologies involved, taking environmental and economic aspects into account
  • set up scale-up and scale-down processes, including making appropriate changes, to equipment design and configuration
  • assess options for plant expansion or reconfiguration by developing and testing process simulation models
  • design, install and commission new production plants, including monitoring developments and troubleshooting
  • optimise production by analysing processes and compiling debottleneck studies
  • apply new technologies
  • research new products from trial through to commercialisation and improve product lines
  • ensure that potential safety issues related to the project operator, the environment, the process and the product are considered at all stages.

Examples of work activities in specific sectors include:

  • undertaking small and intermediate-scale manufacturing and packaging activities in pharmaceutical product development for clinical trial purposes
  • developing new methods of safe nuclear energy production, including projects such as conceptual design, simulation and construction of test rigs, and detailed design and operations support.

Salary

  • According to a recent salary survey by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), new graduates earn a median salary of around £28,600.
  • The median salary for chemical engineers under 25 in the early stage of their careers is about £30,000, rising to a median salary of £54,000 for more experienced engineers.
  • Salaries for chartered chemical engineers can be significantly higher. For example, the median salary for chartered engineers with a bachelor's degree is around £78,500. Work in certain industries, for example the finance, insurance and risk sector, or oil and contracting, can attract higher salaries.

Salaries vary according to a range of factors, such as your location - salaries for those working in London and the South East are typically higher than elsewhere. Other factors influencing salary levels include the sector you work in, the size and the nature of the industry, and whether you have chartered status.

Income data from the annual IChemE Salary survey. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are typically 9am to 5pm, possibly with some extra hours. Jobs in processing and manufacturing may involve shift work, including evenings and weekends.

What to expect

  • Work may take place in a lab, office or processing plant. Development work may progress from lab to plant or construction site.
  • Safety is a high priority in chemical and nuclear-based industries, and hygiene is critical in food and drink production and water treatment. In certain circumstances, you'll need to wear safety or protective clothing.
  • Jobs are widely available and process plants are located in industrial areas throughout the UK and overseas.
  • Travel and overseas work depend on the sector and profile of the employing company. With many UK-based chemical companies, travel and overseas postings are only occasionally necessary, while overseas projects may be the norm if you work for a global manufacturer or consultancy.

Qualifications

You'll need a degree in chemical, process or biochemical engineering to become a chemical engineer. To gain chartered engineer status as your career develops, your degree should be accredited by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE).

Chartered engineers (CEng) are registered with the Engineering Council, the UK regulatory body for the engineering profession. To become chartered, you'll need to have studied at Masters level, either completing a four-year (five years in Scotland) accredited integrated MEng or an accredited BEng followed by further learning to Masters level or an accredited Masters or engineering doctorate (EngD).

Search the list of IChemE accredited degree courses.

Once you've completed appropriate industrial experience and professional development, you'll then be able to apply to become chartered. When you apply for CEng registration, you can apply for chartered member status of the IChemE (MIChemE) at the same time.

If your qualifications aren't accredited, you may still be able to become chartered. You'll need to supply supporting evidence to show that your technical knowledge and understanding meet the required level. The following degree subjects may be particularly relevant:

  • applied chemistry
  • biochemical/process engineering
  • biomedical engineering
  • chemistry
  • environmental engineering
  • nuclear engineering
  • polymer science/technology.

Find out more about eligibility for becoming chartered at Engineering Council - Chartered Engineer (CEng).

Some employers may accept an HND or foundation degree in the physical or applied sciences, although you might work at a lower level to begin with. You'll need to complete further qualifications if you wish to become chartered.

A number of employers and professional organisations offer financial sponsorship for students studying chemical engineering at university. Companies typically advertise sponsorship schemes on their websites.

For more information on getting into chemical engineering, see whynotchemeng.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • an understanding of engineering principles and mathematics
  • project management skills
  • resource management skills
  • oral and written communication skills
  • analytical and problem-solving ability
  • the ability to work as part of a team
  • the capacity to motivate and lead a team
  • strong IT skills
  • a careful and methodical approach with good attention to detail
  • commercial and business awareness
  • creativity and innovation.

Work experience

Employers look for graduates with relevant work experience and may favour recruiting candidates from their own work placement schemes. These are generally vacation placements, typically lasting six to twelve weeks, or extended placements, which vary in length from six months to a year. This type of placement can offer the opportunity to work on a more extensive project in industry.

Undertaking a period of work experience will give you the opportunity to put into practice what you're learning on your course, learn about different areas of operation, manage small projects, develop soft skills in areas such as communication and problem-solving, and build up a network of contacts.

Some chemical engineering degree courses include a year out in industry. Many university departments offer assistance in securing an industrial placement.

Employers

Any company involved in large-scale conversion of raw materials into a product needs chemical engineers.

Employers are as diverse as the products they produce and cover a broad range of industrial sectors, including:

  • biotechnology
  • business, management and consultancy
  • chemical and allied products
  • energy
  • food and drink
  • materials
  • oil and gas
  • pharmaceuticals
  • process plants and equipment
  • water.

There are also opportunities at companies that design and manufacture chemical process plants and equipment, although this may require mechanical engineering knowledge.

There are also opportunities to work at engineering consultancy and contracting firms. In these roles, you're likely to design and commission a new plant or modify an existing one.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies such as NES Global Talent and SRG also advertise vacancies.

Professional development

Many companies offer internal training schemes for graduates to make sure they get the broad spectrum of experience needed to develop a career as a professional engineer. The IChemE benchmarks many of these schemes, known as Accredited company training schemes (ACTS). This means that the scheme, if followed correctly, should ensure each graduate becomes a well-rounded and competent professional engineer.

An ACTS will also go towards fulfilling the application requirements for becoming a chartered chemical engineer and member of IChemE (CEng MIChemE). As you work towards chartership, you can usually expect your employer to provide a mentor and to supplement your regular development training with relevant technical training for specific projects.

You'll need to provide evidence that you have the relevant professional experience for getting chartered status and have completed enough continuing professional development (CPD).

Once you've obtained CEng status, you'll need to continue to maintain your CPD throughout your career. The IChemE runs a variety of training events. These include:

  • conferences
  • short courses
  • digital training resources
  • seminars
  • e-learning modules and courses.

For information on the sort of activities you can undertake, see IChemE CPD.

Career prospects

Career development is usually dependent on achieving chartered status. The dynamic nature of the industry means you can expect to be offered significant CPD opportunities in order to develop new knowledge.

The nature of the work provides you with a variety of skills and enables you to handle a range of technical, environmental and commercial challenges. This allows for promotion to senior management more quickly than is possible in some other sectors.

Initially, you'll gain experience from a variety of projects, either within the same company or, after gaining chartership, by changing companies. After training in the early years, there are various possible career routes available. For example, you can:

  • continue working on projects in order to become a project manager
  • develop expertise in a new technique or process in demand within the industry and move into research and development
  • move into specialist roles, such as safety and risk management or environmental management
  • move into commercial areas, such as technical sales, marketing, supply chain management, personnel, finance and IT.

Many of the larger manufacturers and consultancies offer roles that involve travel or that are located overseas.

Once you've reached a senior position, you'll have the opportunity to shape the technical leadership and direction of the business. In some cases, there will be opportunities to sit on the board of directors.