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10 Different Types of Jobs for Chemical Engineers

Chemical engineer examining a chemical in a test tube at a research laboratory.

Chemical engineers have a broad education that covers chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, and design. Yet, they must have an intimate understanding of how all these disciplines come together in processing, be it in manufacturing or at an oil refinery. So what types of jobs are there for chemical engineers?

Chemical engineers work as process engineers, operations technical support, and in design. Popular industries are petrochemicals, fertilizers, plastics, and paper. But due to their core education, they are often recruited to work in management consulting roles and investment banking.

A chemical engineering degree is a door opener. While many do go on to work as chemical engineers because their education requires problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, and complex mathematics, they are often hired outside of their field. Many eventually acquire an MBA (Masters of Business Administration).

Industries Wanting Chemical Engineers

The oil industry is known for needing chemical engineers. But they are far from the only fields where chemical engineers build a career. Chemical engineers work in biotechnology, renewable energy, sewage treatment, pharmaceutical, nanotechnology, and a plethora of manufacturing.

Jobs For Chemical Engineers: Oil and Gas Industry

Chemical engineers develop wide-ranging careers in the oil and gas industry. Some jobs only require a bachelor’s of science. However, there are also specialist roles that will require advanced degrees. Once your foot is in the door, it is easier to assess roles best suited to your interests and pivot within this field.

Here are three common job titles in this vast industry.

Design Engineer

Design engineer working on his 3d design on a computer with dual screen.

Design engineers are found throughout the oil and gas industry. They are similar to architects, as they are responsible for designing the equipment used in the industry, such as a refinery. They have to design within the client’s budget and ensure it will meet targets while staying with environmental and safety parameters.  

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Design engineers must liaison with procurement of the materials, the contractor building the equipment, and, of course, the client. Design engineers often have a broad scope.  However, there are specialized roles, such as those that are fired heater specialists. 

Operations Technical Support

Operations technical support making a client call via a headset.

Operations technical support, or sometimes called operation support, is a collaborative role. It requires the engineer to work with the people operating the system(s) and keep it working optimally and safely.

It is a technical role that requires someone proactive. They must constantly monitor that the systems are working at optimal performance, troubleshooting whenever the numbers drop outside their zone, or an alarm signals a problem.
They are crucial players during maintenance periods that have a tight turnaround from shut-down to start-up.

Processing Engineer

Processing engineer working on business process algorithm in his office.

Whether they work in the oil industry, process engineers must oversee the process and systems in a refinery or company. The goal is to design, implement, and improve the process and systems to work in the most efficient and cost-effective manner. Sometimes the focus is on a specific process stage, such as “upstream” and “downstream.”

The key goal in this role is “optimization.” The entire process must be assessed to maximize output while minimizing waste and expenditure, from the equipment to the people working and maintaining the system. It requires a person who can see the big picture while also zeroing in on the tiniest of details.

Jobs For Chemical Engineers: Biotechnology

Biotechnology is a vast field that uses chemical engineers in various roles. Like the oil industry, some roles are broad, and others can be highly specialized. It is a field where a master’s or a Ph.D. will provide opportunities for better paying and more enjoyable positions. This is also a field where programming skills are often required.

Biotechnician wearing a white coat and stethoscope working on his laptop.

Process Development and Scaleup

Biotech isn’t restricted to lab work. Eventually, those products move outside the laboratory must be rolled out through production. Thus, two incredibly common jobs for chemical engineers in Biotch are process development and scaleup. The two positions also overlap and sometimes are combined.

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Some of the processing work a chemical engineer does in biotechnology mimics that of any other plant: the chemical engineer oversees the process and systems optimization. But those placed in positions of scaleup side of process development face even a tougher (although arguable much more fascinating) challenge.

Scaleup is just that: taking something done successfully in a lab and making it work on a commercial scale.

For example, a fermenter in a laboratory is small, as they are designed for research. But the size of a fermenter required to manufacture the product on a consumer demand scale is vastly larger. This is a challenge because it isn’t as simple as just using mathematics to scale up a bigger fermenter.

For example, the original fermenter in the lab might have tiny variables that had no noticeable negative impact on the quality of the product. But scaleup, these seemingly insignificant and overlooked variables now matter and can render production unsuccessful.

To put this in real-world terms, this is one of the challenges of producing lab-grown meat on a commercial scale. What is working beautifully in the lab isn’t always feasible to scale up. Thus, working in scaling up requires people who love to try to solve puzzles.

Specialized Positions For Chemical Engineers in Biotechnology

Many positions advertised within biotechnology for chemical engineers have broad-sounding names but require specialized and diverse skills. This is not unusual in the field of chemical engineering, is required to be a “Jack of all trades,” yet a specialist.

For example, take this job for Staff/Senior Engineer. The title, in itself, is common in many different industries. But this is actually a specialized role in fluidics. While the position is open to other engineers outside of chemical engineering, the applicant needs a Ph.D.

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They’ll also need programming skills (Python, C++, Matlab) and are accustomed to working with simulation tools (COMSOL).

Jobs for Chemical Engineers: Sustainable and Renewable Energy

Engineers working over wind turbine farm and green renewable energy.

The umbrella of sustainable and renewable energy goes well beyond solar and wind power and includes the occasionally controversial nuclear power. But they, like any other industry, require processes engineers who are skilled at optimization and troubleshooting those pesky bottlenecks.

Scaleup

Like Biotech, sustainable and renewable energy schemes run into challenges when implementing them on a larger scale. What might work beautifully for an individual home, farm, or small community swiftly runs into challenges when tried on a grander scale.

Thus, chemical engineers are finding themselves being recruited by renewable energy providers and research teams. Many of these laboratories have innovative ideas and groundbreaking solutions, but the know-how to scaleup often requires a different skill set.

Chemical engineers are also valuable for these projects because they are well versed in carbon capture systems and dealing with catalytic conversions. These are skills commonly required in the oil industry, too.  

Cooling Process Development

Cooling process development is another job title that crops up in various industries, including petrochemical, nuclear, solar, and wind. The process of creating power also creates heat. Equipment cannot operate properly if it overheats, and also, in some processes, overheating will create explosions (not good).

The challenges involved in cooling process development are unique in each field. The systems in nuclear power are not the same as solar. But what they all share is a need for skills in thermodynamics, risk assessment, problem-solving, mathematical modeling, and optimization.

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It is a challenging and collaborative position that deals with numerous variables on a variety of levels.

Jobs For Chemical Engineers: Environmental Waste Management

Back profile of an engineer managing recyclable waste.

Processes create waste: be it the slag from car batteries or the wastewater produced from factories or human ablutions. Waste comes in various forms, included noxious gasses. Thus, many chemical engineers build careers trying to process this waste as safely as possible or reduce its creation in the processing pipeline.

Even greener initiatives, such as electric cars, still produce waste. Recycling is not a waste-free zero-sum emissions process.  Nor is it necessarily energy-efficient.

Back in 1991, research was showing recycling glass was barely saving any energy, if at all. However, optimization of systems and lowering temperatures to extend furnace life helped make the process more environmentally friendly.

Thus, chemical engineers are used both to make waste proccing more efficient, cleaner, and safer. Common job titles in the industry include:

  • Process Engineer
  • Industrial Waste Manager
  • Chemical Process Engineering for Water & Waste Management
  • Water Process Engineer

Jobs For Chemical Engineers: Pharmaceutical Industry

Chemical engineers provide various roles in the pharmaceutical industry, such as technical support on the manufacturing side, process design, scaling up, optimization of existing production, quality control, project management, and working in research and development. 

Chemical engineers are often attracted to the pharmaceutical industry since the world always needs medicine regardless of what the markets are doing and which energy sector current political trends are promoting, subsidizing, or discouraging. Thus, the pharmaceutical industry is considered a safe choice for those wanting a long and stable career.

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Pharmaceutical Engineering

Pharmaceutical engineers in sterile suits analyzing data on computer.

Pharmaceutical engineering is a sub-specialization of chemical engineering. These engineers tend to work on the more pharmaceutical side of the pharmaceutical industry, where the chemical engineer tends to focus more on the manufacturing equipment.

Thus, those wishing to work closely with the chemical process within the pharmaceutical industry should consider this branch of study. That said, there is a lot of skill overlap.

Jobs For Chemical Engineers: Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology, nanoengineering, nanomaterials, and nanoparticles are all terms rising in popularity and are not industry-specific.  Nanotechnology, for example, is a broader term for the scientific field where nanotechnology is more on the practical engineering side.

The rise of nanotechnology careers is found in almost all the big industries: pharmaceutical, waste management, manufacturing, energy storage, and research. For example, chemical engineers are often interested in nanoparticles and materials because they can make great catalysts.

Many are finding it helpful to first get a bachelor’s degree in something like chemical engineering, biology, chemistry, or physics, then go on to get a master’s in nanoengineering.

Like other chemical engineering careers, problem-solving abilities are crucial. Process design experience, with knowledge of system modeling, process modeling, and cost estimation skills, is also commonly desired in nanotech careers.

7 Alternative Careers With A Chemical Engineering Degree

A chemical engineering degree can be a springboard into alternative careers. These will usually require an additional degree sooner or later, be it an MBA or certification for that profession.

Accountant

An accountant working with invoices on her computer and desk.

A person can’t become an accountant straight from chemical engineering. Some exams need to be passed to gain certifications, such as the world-recognized CIMA or the CMA. There will probably be some additional classes required, but it depends on many factors, including own personal goals in the industry.

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Analysis: Market, Research, and Investment

Market analysts discussing business finances in the office.

Market analysts, research analysts, and investment analysts require overlapping skills but are also very different careers. Some are closely tied to the banking and finance world; others work for companies specifically related to an industry.

Chemical engineers often thrive in these jobs because they can sort through data, generate modeling and predictions, and think critically yet creatively. These are all detailed careers that need strategic thinkers that are comfortable working around numbers.

Coding, Software, and Web Development

A programmer working on his codes in dual screen monitor.

A computer science degree is not required to work in many computer-based industries. That said, if a person wants to be a programmer, they do need to know how to code. But many with chemical engineering degrees do, as the industry itself often values people with coding skills.

However, even without a computer science degree, some formal training will help open doors. Yes, a chemical engineering degree is an attractive asset, as it shows a development in key skills. But a certificate in something, such as software engineering, will help. Here is Garrett Halstein’s story on how he pivoted from chemistry to coding.

Food Scientist

Food scientist inspecting specimens of groceries in the laboratory.

Many food manufacturing companies will hunt for chemical engineers and not just for process optimization. This is because chemical engineers make good food scientists: evaluating nutritional value, checking that the products meet regulation standards, and taking samples to check that there are is no unwanted bacteria. 

Investment and Retail Banking / Investment Consulting

Woman processing a credit card transaction on a terminal.

Chemical engineering graduates are sometimes directly recruited into the investment and retail banking sector and various finance and consulting areas. They usually work for a few years before needing to gain further education, depending on where they are headed in their new career.

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Opinions vary on this choice, although none deny that there is money to be made by looking into the world. Those interested may want to read How To Break into Investment Banking as an Engineer and How Engineers Get into Banking. The two articles have very different tones and outlooks.

Oil And Gas Contract Law

Chemical engineers can make great careers for themselves in the stressful (yet often lucrative) world of oil and gas contract law. However, it does require additional training, and how much depends on where you live.

In the United States, this means going to law school with a focus on oil and gas contract law. There is a certificate of oil and gas contract law in the UK that must be obtained through future study.

Project Management

Manager touching a virtual screen of project management icon along its areas including cost, time, scope, human resources, risks, quality and communication.

Due to the nature of chemical engineering, being a project manager is not a large leap. Furthermore, many of these skills are already required as a chemical engineer. Thus, it is not unheard of for someone to switch careers without taking on additional studies.

That said, some advancement opportunities do require a higher degree, be it an MBA or a PMP certification (Project Management Professional credentials). Some companies will help pay for this expense if they feel the employee is worth the investment.