What is a chemical engineering degree?

Find out what a chemical engineering degree is, and learn about the available programs and the postgraduate paths they can open.
Written by Doug Wintemute, Contributor

To properly answer the question "What is a chemical engineering degree?" we have to examine each component of the broad field. Chemical engineering combines the sciences, math, and various engineering disciplines. 

Chemical engineering programs prepare students to use their knowledge of chemicals and chemical processes to improve products and develop solutions for people, organizations, and industries. 

Depending on the level of their training, graduates can access careers as chemical engineers, engineering managers, and postsecondary teachers. Chemical engineers work in many fields, including medicine, energy systems, manufacturing, and environmental solutions. 

Here, we explore chemical engineering degree types and levels, highlighting considerations for prospective students and possible professional paths. 

What skills do chemical engineering programs teach students?

Chemical engineering programs teach different skills at each level. These lists highlight people (or "soft") and technical skills these programs instill in students.

Undergraduate skills:

  • Problem-solving 
  • Critical thinking
  • Math and science
  • Engineering principles
  • Computer-aided design
  • Materials manufacturing and conversion
  • Process development

Graduate skills:

  • Leadership
  • Project management
  • Research
  • Advanced math and science
  • Compliance and regulations
  • Test designing, planning, and troubleshooting
  • Biochemical processes
  • Component mixtures, transfers, and separations

What kinds of chemical engineering degrees are there?

You can find chemical engineering degrees at all levels, each offering unique training and postgraduate opportunities. You can also get an online bachelor's degree as an alternative. Below, we examine each degree and highlight possible chemical engineering jobs available after graduation.

Certificate program in chemical engineering

Chemical engineering certificate programs typically offer specialized or graduate-level training in subdisciplines such as chemical engineering health and safety. 

Certificates typically feature graduate training for students looking to advance professionally or prepare for a master's program. Less commonly, non-chemical engineering bachelor's graduates can use certificates to pursue chemical engineering training. 

These non-degree programs usually run for 3-12 months. Graduates from these condensed and accelerated programs can often compete for the same positions as bachelor's and master's graduates. Career options include chemical engineer and process engineer. 

Associate degree in chemical engineering

An associate degree in chemical engineering equips graduates for entry-level careers, including chemical engineering technician and occupational health and safety specialist positions. 

These programs usually feature two years of training and include foundational courses in mathematics and science, along with bioprocess and materials engineering fundamentals.

These programs typically feature practical training, including lab practices, instrumentation, and control protocols for lab work. Graduates can apply these lessons to the workforce or transfer credits toward a bachelor's program. 

Bachelor's degree in chemical engineering

A bachelor's in chemical engineering usually runs for four years and covers the principles of engineering, science, and mathematics. Students also learn how to control chemical processes and manipulate materials. In addition to theoretical training, learners complete extensive practical training via lab work and practicums. 

The programs may feature courses in chemical reactions, energy conversions, and measurements and instrumentation. A bachelor's degree qualifies graduates for most major chemical and process engineering positions. Graduates can also continue their training in a master's program and beyond. 

Bachelor of arts in chemical engineering vs. a bachelor of science

Differences between a BA and a BS in chemical engineering are usually minor. Typically, BA and BS programs feature different electives, with BA programs focusing on the humanities and BS programs focusing on the sciences. 

However, these programs may take different approaches overall. For example, some BA programs emphasize interdisciplinary studies, while some BS programs take a more technical approach. BA graduates might thus pursue more interdisciplinary fields, whereas BS graduates will usually pursue technical careers. 

Master's degree in chemical engineering

A master's in chemical engineering takes students from mastering fundamentals to research proficiency. The one- to two-year programs usually include courses in process analysis, interfacial phenomena, and advanced chemical reactions. Learners also complete an extensive practical or research assignment, depending on program requirements.

Most chemical engineering master's programs allow students to choose a research specialization, such as biomanufacturing, sustainable energy, and environmental solutions. In addition to preparing graduates for a doctoral degree, master's programs may grant access to engineering management and chemist careers.

Doctoral degree in chemical engineering

The field's terminal degree, a doctoral degree in chemical engineering qualifies graduates for most available positions. Most graduates pursue postsecondary teaching and research careers, though they may seek for engineering and production management positions. 

These programs typically run for three to seven years, depending on the degree's requirements and how quickly the student completes their dissertation.

The training at this level focuses on advanced and specialized research. For example, students can study bioengineering, water and energy technologies, and process systems engineering. In addition to completing independent research, learners may take courses in topics like transport phenomena, biochemical engineering, and polymer properties and characterizations. 

Ph.D. in chemical engineering vs. a doctorate of science (D.Sc.)

Chemical engineering doctoral students may encounter Ph.D. or D.Sc. degree types. While these degree types may only differ by name in some schools, other institutions may distinguish between them in other ways. 

For example, some Ph.D. programs may focus more on research, whereas D.Sc. programs emphasize practical fieldwork. In these instances, prospective students should choose the degree type that better aligns with their career goals.

Accreditation for chemical engineering programs

Regardless of their degree level, chemical engineering students should look out for regional and programmatic accreditation at their prospective colleges. Learners in unaccredited programs might not have access to adequate federal funding and employment opportunities. 

Regional accreditation must come from one of the official accrediting organizations, while the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology provides programmatic accreditation in this discipline.

How hard is a chemical engineering degree?

A chemical engineering degree can challenge students. Especially in the program's early years, learners may find building mathematics and science foundations difficult. This engineering discipline also includes a heavy workload with research, many exams, and rigorous projects, all of which can be daunting. 

Chemical engineering overlaps with other subdisciplines, adding complexity to the training. The field's more comprehensive approach, for example, is one of the major differences between chemical and biological engineering. Despite the difficulty, determined students who commit to their studies and develop the engineering, math, and science fundamentals should succeed. 

In conclusion

Chemical engineering training can lead to careers in science, medicine, manufacturing, and academia. Knowing what a chemical engineering degree is, what types of training are available, and what career paths are accessible can help you choose the right program.

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