What is chemical engineering?
At its simplest, chemical engineering is the science of converting one thing to another. A relatively recent subject, studied for only around 125 years, chemical engineering has been responsible for a huge number of products and processes that now seem essential.
Consider a world without oil and gas, or without electronics and plastics, for example. As a chemical engineer, you will quite literally be changing the world.
Chemical engineering is a challenging, but highly rewarding subject, which will take you from classrooms to laboratories to real industry, and back again. It’s a highly practical degree, which will teach you how to work in a range of environments, and across chemistry, mathematics, engineering, and physics.
Chemical engineers are also some of the most in-demand graduates in the UK, with some of the best career prospects of any subject.
Chemical engineering course entry requirements
Chemical engineering degrees are competitive, so expect to face some steep entry requirements. When it comes to subjects, you’ll almost certainly need maths, chemistry, and physics in your application. Other subjects which will help you may include further maths, statistics, design technology, product design, and engineering.
In your personal statement, consider the characteristics of what might make a good chemical engineer. Play on your skills and talents in research, experimentation, calculation, analysis, and your hands-on curiosity.
A levels – Entry requirements range from BBC to A*AA, with the universities and colleges most commonly asking for AAA.
Scottish Highers – Entry requirements for Highers (the most common qualification) range from BBBB to AAAAB, with universities or colleges most frequently requiring AAABB. Occasionally, universities ask for Advanced Highers to supplement Highers. If Advanced Highers are requested, universities or colleges typically ask for AA.
Vocational courses – Other Level 3/Level 6 qualifications (e.g. Pearson BTEC Level 3 National Extended Diploma, or an SCQF Level 6) may be accepted as an alternative to A levels/Highers by some providers. It’s essential that you check alternative entry requirements with universities or colleges.
- Apply by the January deadline
- Write a personal statement
- Attend an interview
- Show work experience
- Submit a portfolio
- Audition for a place
- Pass an entry test
What’s the difference between chemists and engineers?
Chemists are concerned with developing materials and processes on a small scale, often in an academic or theoretical practice. Chemistry is a pure science and will involve lots of lab work.
Chemical engineers may work with the same materials or processes, but will transform them into industry and find practical applications in the real world, often for commercial use. Chemical engineers will be trained on industrial equipment and technology, spending much more time in the field.
Why study chemical engineering at university?
Despite its youth, chemical engineering has changed a lot in recent years. It's traditionally just been about fuel (oil and gas), but now it’s much, much more than that.
Power is still a big part of chemical engineering, but many graduates now go into the sustainable and ecological side of fuel. Many more will play their part in developing new materials, in nanotechnology, in mineral processes, and in bioengineering.
A degree in chemical engineering will give you the talent and opportunity to make a real difference in the world, and get paid a handsome fee for doing so.
Chemical engineering graduates are hot prospects for organisations all around the world, ranging from the biggest private sector companies like BP, to national government departments and research facilities. Even outside the sector, a chemical engineer’s range of talents and specialised skills will stand them in good stead for applying to well-paid jobs in a wide range of industries.
Some modules you may study are:
- Separation processes
- Heat, mass, and momentum
- Petroleum engineering
- Fluid mechanics
- Industrial chemistry
- Environmental management
- Cell biology
Do I need to be good at maths to become a chemical engineer?
While the name implies that chemistry and engineering are the most useful topics, both physics and maths are hugely important for a chemical engineer. From simulations to experiements to modelling, you’ll be using maths skills to calculate and predict the outcome and safety of your work. Maths is very important for chemical engineers.
What can you do with a chemical engineering degree?
Chemical engineering graduates will most often go on to careers in:
But, your range of skills will also make you highly employable in:
- renewable energy
- nuclear engineering
What’s it like to study chemical engineering?
Chemical engineering is a challenging degree. You’ll most likely be studying for three years to earn a BSc or BEng, but many courses will include a sandwich year or industry placement, making them four years.
You’ll spend around 20 hours per week in lectures or labs during your degree, which is more than most. You can also expect a high amount of self-study, as chemical engineering will introduce you to many subjects, topics and principles. If you’re planning on taking advantage of the industry placement opportunity in chemical engineering degrees, be prepared to work 40 hour weeks.
As you start your course, you’ll be building a foundation of knowledge in the subject, so expect a lot of introductory modules which span chemistry, physics, and maths. You’ll begin to specialise in the second and third years, as you understand more about chemical engineering as a science.
And you’ll be developing this understanding in a range of environments. From mastering theories and calculations in the lecture hall, to running simulations in computer rooms, to putting your knowledge into practice in laboratories, to seeing them in action during site or visit fields – it’s fair to say you won’t be sitting still for long.
Once you’ve completed your degree, you can expect employers to be fighting for your signature. As some of the best paid graduates, chemical engineers can expect to earn up to £28k straight from university, making them second only to doctors.
Studying a chemical engineering degree is likely to involve:
- writing reports and essays
- attending lectures and seminars
- laboratory and experimentation work
- placements and industry experience
- project, presentation, and group work
- independent research projects
Are you considering an accelerated degree? Click here to read more about the possibility of completing your undergraduate course in two years rather than three.
If you want to combine work and study while earning a salary, you could consider an apprenticeship. Which apprenticeships are available, and how you apply, depends on where you live.
Find out more about apprenticeships across the UK.
There are approximately 120 apprenticeships in the engineering sector available in England, with more in development.
Each apprenticeship sets out occupational standards for specific job roles, designed by employers. The standards outline the skills, knowledge, and behaviours required to demonstrate that an apprentice is fully competent in the job role.
Higher apprenticeships (Level 4)
- Nuclear welding inspection technician
- Nuclear technician
- Process leader
- Technical dyer and colourist
Degree apprenticeships (Levels 5 – 7)
- Non-destructive testing engineer (degree)
- Nuclear scientist and nuclear engineer (degree)
- Ordnance munitions and explosives (OME) professional
- Power engineer (degree)
- Science industry process/Plant engineer (degree)
Discover more about apprenticeships in engineering
Our guide has all the info you need to know about doing an apprenticeship in this industry. Find out what it's really like from current apprentices and decide if it's the right route for you.