Overview of the chemical engineering profession

Chemical engineering is the profession that has developed because of the need to produce the materials and chemicals of modern society from naturally occurring substances. Processing of raw substances into finished products typically involves chemical reactions and physical (i.e., phase change) transformations and increasingly, requires a biological synthesis step. Chemical engineers are involved in the conception, design, construction and operation of these processes and also in the creation and improvement of many of the products.

Chemical engineering has at its core the basic sciences of chemistry, physics, biology and mathematics. These are combined with the engineering sciences of thermodynamics, transport phenomena, numerical analysis and the uniquely chemical engineering fields of reaction engineering and separation processes. All of these subjects, along with insight from fields outside of engineering, are used in the development of new solutions to important problems.

While chemical engineers have a strong fundamental science background, like all engineers, they use the techniques of engineering analysis to design (i. e., synthesize) working devices and processes even though they have an imperfect understanding of important physical, chemical or biological issues. Furthermore engineers operate under constraints caused by a need to produce a product or service that is timely, competitive, reliable, and consistent with the philosophy and within the financial means of their company. Engineers are result driven and the details of an engineering solution for a needed product, process or service are always determined by balancing competing effects to attain an answer that is optimal (i.e., the best possible) subject to the imposed constraints.

 

Careers for chemical engineers

Technical fields

The curriculum that chemical engineers take is the broadest of the engineering disciplines and prepares students for a very wide range of technical jobs. These include engineering positions in the chemical, petroleum, food processing, consumer products and pharmaceutical industries. The particular niche of chemical engineers, understanding of the chemical nature of matter on size scales from atoms to kilometers, allows contributions to such continuing national problems of pollution prevention, environmental cleanup, and development of clean energy processes.

Business

As with all engineering disciplines, chemical engineering is an excellent degree for students with career aspirations in business. Corporations make money by exploiting technology to make either unique products or services, or they produce these more efficiently than their competitors. Engineers make seminal contributions in business because their understanding of technology makes them better able, than non-engineers, to decide how to best utilize existing technology and how to wisely invest in future technology. Further, the quantitative background provided by an engineering degree is much stronger that other disciplines. Thus engineers make singular contributions to business planning through their ability to interpret data (e.g., sales, inventory, production, commodity markets) and to model these for future planning.

Professional fields

Approximately 10% of the graduates from Notre Dame Chemical Engineering pursue careers in Law or Medicine. The broad technical education, with strong communication and liberal arts emphasis, is perfect for people interested in Patent or Environmental Law. Chemical engineering is an ideal pre-med. degree because physiological processes such as respiration, blood flow, digestion and cell growth can be described by the fundamental chemical engineering subjects of Mass Transfer, Fluid Mechanics, Reaction Engineering and Separation Processes. Furthermore, many chemical engineers, who may also be Md.’s, are actively engaged in research on such topics as drug delivery, synthesis of replacement human tissues and fundamental cell physiology.

Advanced Degrees

Many graduates continue their education and receive Master’s and Ph. D. degrees in chemical engineering. An MS. degree greatly strengthens a student’s technical background and gives her or him an edge in design, process development and other technically challenging engineering jobs. A Ph. D. is required for a teaching career in chemical engineering and is essential preparation for anyone aspiring to conduct research as a career. It is interesting that many chemical engineering Ph. D. s start industrial research careers and then pursue various business functions. John F. Welch, Jr. CEO and Chairman of General Electric, Andrew S. Grove Chairman and Cofounder of Intel and W. Douglas Ford (ND BS ChEg, 1966) Executive Vice President, Petroleum Products Sector of Amoco Corporation are some of the more prominent ones.

More information

More comprehensive information about chemical engineering and careers is available on the AIChE web site:http://www.aiche.org/careers/.