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What Does a Chemical Engineer Do?

So, are you wondering what exactly does a Chemical Engineer do? What does a typical day look like, what skills are needed and how on earth do you become one?

Well, we’ve had a chat with a Chemical Engineer who landed a job in low emission energy research at CSIRO! We ask her all those questions you want answered, like what should you study, highlights of the job, work flexibility and more.

If you’re a science lover, a problem solver or simply curious about the world around you, becoming a Chemical Engineer could be something for you! 

So, let’s get started! 

Meet Sam
What is a Chemical Engineer?
Steps to Becoming a Chemical Engineer
Future Outlook
Best Thing & Worst Thing
Advice for Aspiring Chemical Engineers

Meet Sam

Sam Cridland is a Chemical Engineer who has been working for the past two years with the Low Emission Technologies team at CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation). 

How did you end up in this role? 

She found out about the job opportunity through her university lecturer, applied for it and got it

Throughout her university degree, Sam was always busy, taking on opportunities as they came — volunteer and paid work experience, co-curricular activities and leadership positions (we’ll talk more about these later on).

“Even though I didn’t quite realise it at the time, my extracurricular and volunteer experiences gave me the technical and soft skills to be able to apply for jobs and be recognised in a highly competitive market against my peers,” Sam said.

Studies and Experience 

Sam studied a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) and Masters of Engineering with a dual major in Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Queensland. She did all of this in 5 years including an exchange semester to Copenhagen! 

A Bachelor of Engineering is usually only four years however Sam added the Masters degree to gain an additional qualification whilst deciding on her ideal career pathway.

During her time at university, she volunteered in Nepal with Engineers Without Borders, completed a Harvard University linked course in Borneo, ‘Designing Sustainable Energy Systems for Community Development’, and was the secretary for Power of Engineering (they run one-day events for students to encourage more diversity in the industry).

During her Masters, Sam worked for 6-months at a Biopharmaceutical Contract Development Manufacturing organisation. 

“That was really interesting — I got hands-on experience and I was able to try what an engineer would do in that work environment. And I also realised that one of the most helpful aspects of work experience is deciding what isn’t right for you. This experience helped me greatly to refine my search for graduate jobs,” she said.

What made you want to work in this industry?

Chemical Engineer - Interviewee Quote

However, in high school, Sam didn’t always know what she wanted to do. In fact, it wasn’t until she attended the National Youth Science forum and was exposed to real world STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) that she learnt about her options!

“I found out about so many different types of science and jobs in science, maths and engineering and I left the forum very curious about chemical engineering and biomedical engineering,” she said. 

What is a Chemical Engineer?

Now, that’s a very good question! When it comes to being a Chemical Engineer, there sure is a lot of variety and that’s why they are often called “Universal Engineers”.

In general, Chemical Engineers use science and technology to design solutions related to the industrial world. 

Sam currently works in the renewable energy sector as a Chemical Engineer, however she has friends working in all different kinds of areas as Chemical Engineers — pretty exciting stuff! 

Some of my friends work as process engineers in the food industry — everything from making chocolate to making beer. Others work in water treatment, or in the minerals and resources sectors on rural job sites, while others are working as consultants in offices in the city,” she said.

Roles and Responsibilities 

There’s no such thing as a typical day for Sam because everyday is different and that’s what makes it exciting! Sam said it really depends on what project they’re working on at the time. 

“Some days, I’m working to model or design different renewable energy technology processes. But other days, I could be at the labs running experiments or writing reports. Mainly, I am working with teams on projects that involve hydrogen technologies, energy storage or gasification technologies,” she told us.

Which industries can this career be found in?

Well, this is the really exciting part — there are so many different industries that Chemical Engineers can work in. Some of these include manufacturing, pharmaceutical, food processing, energy and fuel, electronics, environmental health and safety industries, plus more! 

What jobs do people sometimes confuse this with? 

Sam said that she didn’t know what a Chemical Engineer did when she was growing up. The chances are that if you ask anyone to explain in detail what a Chemical Engineer does, it would be fairly tricky — especially because there is such a variety of Chemical Engineering jobs out! 

Characteristics and Qualities 

Chemical Engineering - Skills

“What I have learned throughout my career is how to work with people, how to communicate, how to lead teams, how to operate as part of a team, and how to solve problems using systems thinking,” Sam said.

She added, “I think that what you learn through studying engineering is a way of thinking critically and analytically — and this is helpful beyond just engineering projects.”

According to Job Outlook, the top 5 knowledge, skills, abilities and activities that are relevant to a Chemical Engineer include:

CharacteristicsTypes Required
KnowledgeEngineering and technology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, technical design
SkillsScience, mathematics, operations analysis, critical thinking, judgment and decision making
AbilitiesOral comprehension, written comprehension, categorising, deductive reasoning, oral expression
ActivitiesKeeping your knowledge up to date, making decisions and solving problems, collecting and organising information, thinking creatively, making sense of information and ideas

Steps to Becoming a Chemical Engineer

What should you study? 

If you want to become a Chemical Engineer, you should enrol in a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) — majoring in Chemical Engineering if possible. 

However Sam said there isn’t only one way to become a Chemical Engineer!  

“There are lots of different ways to get into your preferred degree or job. I know lots of people that were able to get into the university that they wanted through bridging courses or that found themselves in my engineering course after first starting another degree. There is no right or wrong way to go about it,” she said.

Although you don’t have to complete post-graduate studies, Sam did complete a Masters of Engineering. 

It’s also a good idea to join Engineers Australia who have a National Engineering Register. Perhaps you’re already eligible through your course — for example, the Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) at UTS is recognised by Engineers Australia

Check out what it’s like to study a Bachelor of Engineering (Chemical) at UNSW!

How long does it take to become a Chemical Engineer?

A Bachelor of Engineering is generally a 4 year degree. If you decide to add on a Masters, this can take anywhere between 1-2 additional years. 

Industry Knowledge

In terms of specific software/programs, Sam told us that there is a lot of different software that Chemical Engineers can use, however it really depends on the job (especially because there is such a variety of Chemical Engineering jobs). 

She explained what she uses in her job: “So, typically lots of process modelling software and fluid dynamic modelling is what I use. Sometimes my work will include doing coding, however, most is done on Microsoft Excel and Word.”

What will this career look like in the future?

How in-demand is this career?

Over the next five years, Job Outlook forecasts there will be moderate future growth for Chemical and Material Engineers. 

Sam believes that different sectors within the Chemical Engineering world are booming and some will continue to do so more than others, especially the renewable energy sector which she is currently working in. 

I also think that engineers in general can be hired in so many different careers. So I think it’s a really safe bet. It’s, I guess, always in demand in terms of the skills that we learn about — systems thinking and solving problems and using the more technical maths and science to help solve problems,” she said. 

Are there opportunities to grow or specialise? 

Since Chemical Engineers are needed in so many different sectors, there is definitely room to move around! 

“When I first started, I thought I really wanted to get into bio-pharmaceutical engineering and now I’m in renewable energy research,” she explained.

Salary

Annual SalaryFuture GrowthSkill Level Rating
$156,000+Moderate over the next 5 yearsVery high skill

Influential Trends

As we head towards Industry 4.0 or the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there is no doubt that automation and digitisation are emerging trends that will continue to influence the Engineering world. From digital twins to 3D printing to Artificial Intelligence — engineers will have to learn how to work with new machines as our world becomes increasingly digitised. 

Engineers shape the world around us and help to create solutions to the world’s biggest problems. So we need greater creative thinking, collaboration and diversity going forward,” she said.

The Future of this Industry

Sam told us that an engineering job will look very different in the next couple or 20 years, however she is very excited for what the future holds in regards to the renewable energy sector.

She mentioned, “Globally, many countries including Australia have committed to meet the 1.5°C global warming target in the Paris Agreement and to therefore reach net zero emissions before 2050. This means that in the next 30 years, we will have had to transition many sectors to low carbon options and we should expect a very different energy landscape.”

“We know that the world is going to transition and look quite different in the next 30 years, so to think that in my career, we’ll be making that change happen is really exciting,” she added. 

Best Thing & Worst Thing

What do you enjoy most about this job?

I enjoy working collaboratively with people to solve problems and that’s what this job allows me to do. I also really love how varied the work can be,” Sam said.

What do you feel is the worst part of this job?

Sam told us, “It can be challenging and a lot of hard work is needed. In particular, the research aspect of my job can mean long days working by myself in the labs, modelling systems on my computer or writing reports.”

Advice for Aspiring Chemical Engineers

What do you wish you had known before you started working in this career?

Sam mentioned that she went into engineering “a little bit blindly” — but she’s very glad she went into now! 

“I would recommend to my past self, to just ask people about what their work is like and what it looks like day to day and maybe see if you can have a look around the offices or work sites and ask questions about jobs that you’re curious about,” she explained. 

She mentioned that this became a strength of hers throughout university because she “sought out opportunities to try different things.” 

She added, “I did lots of volunteer work and had work experience in lots of different places just because I wanted to find out what it was all about. And I would recommend this to others, especially those in high school. It is definitely never too early to start asking questions about jobs that you are interested in.”

Why should people consider taking on this career?

“I think it’s very rewarding and I would completely recommend it to anyone,” Sam said.

Chemical Engineering is about problem solving, collaboration and creative thinking! Sam told us that you don’t have to be the best at science or maths to become a Chemical Engineer. 

Even if you don’t think that you’re the best at science or maths, engineering can definitely still be for you. You should expect some challenging but rewarding work, and use the ways that you think differently to tackle engineering problems,” she said.

Job Flexibility 

There’s a lot of flexibility in my current role for me to experience different projects and responsibilities at this early stage in my career,” Sam told us. 

Within the industry, there is flexibility to work from home and this is something that has become more normal. 

I think finding flexible workplaces and working from home will be much more common after COVID-19,” she said.  

What is the workplace culture like?

Sam hopes that the industry becomes more diverse and inclusive. 

“It is great to see the industry moving forward with an increased focus on diversity, inclusion and workplace flexibility. But there is definitely more work to be done in this space,” she said. 

Last year, Sam was accepted into Homeward Bound, a leadership initiative that aims to heighten the impact of women in STEMM professions making decisions that shape our planet. The online program culminates in a 3-week intensive program whilst voyaging to Antarctica.

“The program has given me a network of incredible women who are leading projects, organisations and communities for the betterment of the planet. They are always inspiring me to create positive change and to put the skills I have developed through the program into action,” she said.


Tanna Nankivell is a Content Writer at Art of Smart Education and is currently in Germany completing a year of study for her double degree in Communications (Journalism) and Bachelor of Arts (International Studies). She has had articles published on Central News – the UTS Journalism Lab and wrote a feature piece for Time Out Sydney during her internship. Tanna has a love for travel and the great outdoors, you’ll either find her on the snowfields or in the ocean, teaching aqua aerobics or creating short films. 

 

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