Fancy donning a stylish white coat and working in a cool laboratory like a proper scientist? As a process/chemical engineer, it’s all part of the job…
You may research and develop new products, such as synthetic materials and biofuels. You could also design manufacturing processes to turn raw materials into domestic and industrial products such as medicines, toiletries and fertilizers.
So, what will I actually be doing?
If you're working in research and development, you will:
- Test new ways to develop products in the lab
- Use computer models to work out the safest and most cost-effective production methods
- Plan how to move lab tests into a pilot production phase
- Plan large-scale industrial processing
- Develop methods to deal with by-products and waste materials in environmentally-friendly way.
In manufacturing, you will:
- Help to oversee the day-to-day operation of the processing plant
- Monitor production and deal with problems
- Work closely with quality control and health and safety managers
- Work with plant designers and engineers to design machinery and other equipment
Whether you're responsible for both jobs or just one depends on the size of the operation. However, in both cases you're likely to manage a team of chemical engineering technicians.
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The nitty gritty
In research and development you'll usually work 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, with extra hours sometimes to meet project deadlines.
Your workplace would depend on your job but could be a combination of lab, office and processing plant. You may need to use protective clothing and equipment in the lab and some production plant areas.
You could work in a wide range of industries, including paper manufacturing, cosmetics, food and drink, pharmaceuticals, textiles, oil and gas, energy and water. You could also find opportunities to work on overseas contracts.
With experience, you could progress to senior process or design engineer, research and development manager, or plant manager, and eventually overall operations manager. You could also move into consultancy work.
Money, money, money
Figures are intended as a guideline only.
- Graduate starting salaries are around £24,000 a year
- Salaries for experienced engineers are between £30,000 and £45,000
- Senior chartered chemical engineers can earn up to £60,000.
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The good points...
Work your way up the career ladder to a senior position and you’ll be laughing all the way to the bank with a great salary.
...and the bad
After a regular 9-5 office job? This isn't for you. In processing and manufacturing, you could work on a seven-day shift system that might include weekends, evenings and nights.
Is there study involved?
You'll normally need a BEng degree or a BTEC HNC or HND in chemical or process engineering. These are available at colleges and universities all over the UK - see the websites of the Institution of Chemical Engineers at Whynotchemeng and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).
To get onto a chemical engineering degree, you will usually need at least five GCSEs (A-C), and two A levels including maths and a science subject. Some universities offer a foundation year for people without qualifications in maths and science. Check with the colleges for their exact entry requirements.
It may improve your future career prospects to have a Masters degree (MEng) as well as a first degree in chemical engineering.
If you have a degree in a different branch of engineering, or in a related subject like chemistry or polymer science, it may help to take an MSc postgraduate degree in chemical or process engineering.
See the websites for Cogent, IChemE, IET and Women into Science, Engineering and Construction for information about engineering careers.
You'll normally be trained on the job by your company, possibly through a structured graduate training scheme.
You could help your career development by working towards incorporated or chartered status. To do this, you should register with your professional industry body and apply to the Engineering Council.
As an incorporated engineer, you will specialise in the day-to-day management. At chartered level, you would have a more strategic role, planning, researching and developing new ideas, and streamlining management methods.
IChemE and IET also offer a range of short courses for experienced engineers to keep up-to-date with new skills and technologies.
OK, I'm interested... But is it really the job for me?
To be a good process engineer you'll need:
Ability in maths and science, particularly chemistry
- Good problem-solving skills
- Planning and organisational ability
- Excellent computer skills
- The ability to manage projects, budgets and people
- Good spoken and written communication skills
- Good English and maths skills
- The ability to work as part of a team
- A clear understanding of wider commercial pressures.