What is a Chemical Engineering Degree?

The field of chemical engineering is focused on how the chemical, biochemical, and physical properties of substances can be changed to turn them into something else. Examples of this work are making plastic from oil, developing synthetic fibers for clothing, identifying ways to mass-produce drugs, and finding ways to solve environmental problems.

Aspiring chemical engineers learn how to apply math and science to create the chemical reactions needed to produce new materials and products.

The typical chemical engineering curriculum is made up of courses like these:

  • Biochemistry – studies the chemical concepts of biology; it is used in diagnosis and treatment of disease
  • Organic Chemistry – studies living things and all of the chemical reactions related to life
  • Physical Chemistry – studies how matter behaves on a molecular and atomic levels
  • Thermodynamics – studies the physics of heat
  • Chemical and Biological Reaction Engineering
  • Chemical Kinetics
  • Electrochemistry
  • Material and Energy Balances
  • Heat, Mass, and Momentum Transfer

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Chemical Engineering - Four Year Duration
A Bachelor’s Degree in Chemical Engineering is the minimum requirement to work in the field. Some programs are designed to prepare students for further study at the graduate level; others focus more on practical laboratory experience that gets students ready for employment.

Here are some courses that are commonly part of a chemical engineering bachelor’s program:

  • Introduction to Chemical Engineering – an overview of what chemical engineers do
  • Thermodynamics and Kinetics
  • Fluid Mechanics – the branch of mechanics concerned with the properties of fluids in various states and with their reaction to forces acting upon them
  • Thermodynamics and Kinetics
  • Unit Operations – examination of the process where materials are input, a function occurs, and materials are output mostly in a different form, state, or composition
  • Reactor Design in Chemical Engineering
  • Engineering Ethics – how to ensure that engineering processes are carried out in moral and ethical ways

Master’s Degree in Chemical Engineering - Two Year Duration
With a Master’s Degree in Chemical Engineering, graduates are qualified for many positions as chemical engineers, energy engineers, and product/process development scientists.

At the master’s level, students conduct extensive research and may choose to specialize in a sub-field of chemical engineering, such as thermodynamics, nanotechnology, biotechnology, or biomedical engineering.

In addition to expanding on the subject areas covered at the bachelor’s degree level, master’s programs generally offer courses in the following:

  • Biochemical and Drug Delivery – overview of materials and chemicals used in medicine; how drugs are administered; drug interactions and reactions
  • Chemical Process Design – how to develop and implement processes for the engineering of new chemicals and materials
  • Sustainable Chemical Engineering – sustainability issues in the chemical engineering industry; identifying environmentally friendly chemical processes
  • Separation Processes

Doctoral Degree in Chemical Engineering - Four to Eight Year Duration
Students who choose to earn a Doctorate in Chemical Engineering are typically interested in conducting advanced research in the field or teaching at the university level.

Most chemical engineering Ph.D. programs are research-focused, to prepare students to write their doctoral thesis. However, some coursework may include:

  • Polymer Chemistry and Engineering
  • Advanced Reaction Kinetics
  • Advanced Transport Phenomena

Degrees Similar to Chemical Engineering

The focus of biochemistry is the chemical processes and reactions that occur in living matter. Biochemists apply principles of both biology and chemistry to issues in many different sectors, including the environment, medicine and health, industry and manufacturing, agriculture, biofuels, and marine science.

Biomedical Engineering / Biotechnology
Students of biomedical engineering and biotechnology study engineering and the life sciences, with the goal of engineering new products, such as vaccines, medicines, food additives, and growth hormones for plants.

Chemistry deals with identifying the substances that make up matter. Degree programs in chemistry focus on investigating these substances: their properties; how they interact, combine, and change; and how scientists can use chemical processes to form new substances.

Engineering Technology
Engineering technology programs teach the engineering skills required to assist engineers in their work. Common classes are computers for engineering technology, construction methodologies, structural systems, strength of materials, and technical drawing.

Forensic Science
Forensic science is an interdisciplinary field which combines the biological and chemical sciences and criminal justice. Majors in the field learn how to collect and analyze evidence – blood, DNA, and other kinds of evidence – and how to effectively use it in a court of law.

Materials Science and Engineering
Often referred to as ‘MSE,’ this degree field combines principles of engineering, physics, and chemistry to invent and manufacture new materials that can solve real-world problems. It involves the study of existing materials, their make-up, and how they behave under various conditions.

Pharmacologists study how drugs and medicines work so they can be used in the right way. The work naturally involves an understanding of chemical and biological interactions.

Skills You’ll Learn

Chemical engineering students come away from their studies with a considerable number of transferable skills:

  • Creativity – chemical engineering is about creating new products
  • Problem-solving – chemical engineering is also about finding solutions to problems and challenges
  • Curiosity – in chemical engineering, it all starts with curiosity: curiosity leads to creativity and creativity solves problems
  • Teamwork – scientific discoveries and breakthroughs are often the result of collaboration between different specialists
  • Ethics – students of chemical engineering learn to develop processes that are moral and ethical

What Can You Do with a Chemical Engineering Degree?

Working in the biotechnology industry, chemical engineers contribute to the medical field by creating products like artificial organs, antibiotics, and insulin. They may work with companies that develop treatments for cancer, diabetes, or other diseases.

Chemical Process Companies
This is a diverse sector that includes pharmaceutical firms and companies that specialize in agricultural chemicals; petroleum products; paints and varnishes; pulp and paper; textiles; household cleaning products; soaps and cosmetics; and other areas.

Teaching opportunities for chemical engineers with a master’s or doctoral degree exist at the college and university levels.

Energy and Water Utility Companies
In this sector, chemical engineers work to improve efficiency, develop renewable energy sources, and reduce waste.

Environmental Regulation
In this sector, chemical engineers are dedicated to maintaining the quality of land, water, and air.

Food Industry
In the food industry, chemical engineers develop new products, modify flavors and ingredients, and even design packaging.

Food Science
This field is dedicated to conducting research and experiments to improve the productivity and sustainability of food crops.

Government Research and Policy
In this sector, chemical engineers work with government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Science Writing
This sector presents chemical engineers with opportunities to research, write, and edit news, articles, and features in their field.


See which schools are the most and least expensive.

Read about Tuition