Thursday, May 9, 2013

What does it take for a chemist to become a chemical engineer?

Here's a hypothetical question that I get a lot, that I don't have an answer to:
Hey, CJ: 
I'm a [insert here: junior undergraduate/new B.S. chemist/experienced Ph.D. chemist] and I'd like to get some of that sweet, sweet fracking cash and become a chemical engineer. How can I go back to school for this? 
Love, a reader
I honestly have no idea, even though I know some people who have gone this route. It seems to me that most of it requires some remedial undergraduate level classes/prerequisites and maybe a graduate degree. So, a couple sets of questions for my very knowledgeable readership:
  • If you're a senior undergraduate in chemistry, how many more years of courses would you have to take to get a B.S. in chemical engineering? 
  • If you've graduated with a degree in chemistry, how many more years of courses would you need to get a B.S. in chemical engineering? Should you just apply to graduate programs in chemical engineering?
    • Would you get laughed at for applying to graduate programs in chemical engineering as a B.S./M.S./Ph.D. chemist? What programs are best for this transition?
  • If you've become a Ph.D. chemist, how long would it take to make this transition? Does anyone know anyone who has done this? How have they done? 
  • What level of math do you need? If p-chem was hard for you, are you completely screwed or what?
Thanks in advance. 


  1. Back in the day (mid 90's) at the small liberal arts college I attended in the midwest, you could major in Physics or Chemistry I believe and do a 3:2 program with Univ. of Washington St. Louis and get a BA from the aforementioned liberal arts college and an MS in Chem E from Wash U.

    1. Carleton correct?

    2. Did anyone ever do that, though? None of the professors could remember anyone doing it when I attended. U of MN would have made more sense, they have a great ChemE program.

      It seemed to me that to be well-prepared for a ChemE program, you would need to have taken so much math + physics that you might as well have gone to engineering school instead.

    3. I did B.Sc physics but I realized I m not interest in it. So continue bsc chemistry then MSC organic I realized that organic person r all rounder if u want own company then choice organic do 4-5 job in basic process development then process transfer then come in chemical manufacturing company the u become industries owner 100% with basic inventory and accounting knowledge. I also do in filter nebosh diploma then CFA. I can make any processes now.

    4. wow are you talking about Kalamazoo college because thats where I am right now thinking of 3:2!

  2. I spoke to a brothers friend who is on management track at a large fracking company about this but phrased it as "I'm a chemist, would they take me as is?"
    His answer was; if you're willing to move to middle of nowhere texas, work your butt off at a bad but high paying job for 80 hours a week for a few years and take their training successfully then they will take you as is.
    Basically he felt that they were so desperate for people it was fine, but his caveat was that a lot of people don't want to work outdoors in middle of nowhere Texas at a job that initially involved a fair amount of physical work.

  3. As was mentioned, you can bust your butt working incredibly hard for great pay, but a lot of that pay will be gobbled up by the inflated cost of living in the middle-of-nowhere boom towns. You can live in a man camp, if you call that living, or you can buy a place that you will have a hell of a time selling once the boom goes bust. Oh yes, it will bust. These shale oil and gas fields are depleting much faster than conventional fields, so things will probably come crashing down pretty quickly. The claims in those ads with that nice lady in the pant suit saying there are 200 years of gas and we are the new Saudia Arabia are laughable. You should not plan for a long term career in the oil fields. In the mean time, what color jumpsuit do you want to wear: red (Halliburton) or blue (Schlumberger)?

  4. Figured I'd contribute, as the post-B.S. chem-to-chE switch is pretty much what I'm doing right now.

    I graduated a year ago with a B.S. in chemistry (organic focus) from a selective research university. After a couple years of wanting to be a Ph.D. chemist, I started paying attention to all the horror stories and figured I'd go for a degree where my skills would transfer, but I could get a job. I took a couple intro chE classes before graduating (more for my own edification than for anything else; I doubt they did me much good during the application process), then started applying to chE M.S. programs. One thing to note -- as I was beginning my senior year, I took note of the fact that my university's chE department had a joint B.S./M.S. program that allows students to start taking graduate coursework for credit before they finish their bachelor's degree. At least at my university, the barrier to admission to this program, even for a chemist, was extremely low, and while it expanded my options it required no commitment on my part. I'd recommend that anyone still in undergrad looking to make the switch investigate similar opportunities at their schools.

    I ended up entering a Masters program at a large midwestern research university, where I am now (CJ, to answer your question, I wasn't laughed at, I was welcomed with open arms). The department recommended that I take two undergraduate courses (Fluid Mechanics and Heat/Mass Transport) before taking their graduate analogues, so I did. I began doing research in a lab that focuses on biophysics (research in chE is an extraordinarily interdisciplinary) and eventually decided that I wanted to stay for a Ph.D. My quals are next week; assuming I pass, the transition will be seamless. A lot of chemists have this concept of chE as something you only study if you want to do boring work in a plant somewhere while pulling down a six-figure salary. There's a grain of truth to that, but it breaks down at the graduate level. Research in chE can be just as nuanced and compelling as research in chemistry is, and the applications to the larger world are often more apparent.

    In terms of the material -- yes, it's mathy, and I didn't have to take much math for my chemistry B.S. All engineering requires a lot of differential equations, so it's good to have at least some familiarity with them. Fortunately, students in the first semester of my program take a "math for chemical engineers" class that covers diffeqs in detail. In general, although it's ranked highly, the program I'm in doesn't make any assumptions about the undergraduate background of the students it admits; there's a fair amount of review and catch-up, at least at the beginning. This was helpful. The other main gap between my chemistry education and the skill set of a chE was coding -- my chemistry program didn't require knowledge of any programming languages; I now use MATLAB and Mathematica regularly. There's a learning curve, but after you learn one language, the rest are fairly straightforward to pick up.

    If anyone has any questions about the transition process, feel free to shoot me an email; I'm tomschro at gmail.

  5. I graduated ChemE - there was a HUGE difference between the chemistry and chemical engineering curriculums at my university. In fact, only 2 years of actual chemistry was required for a chemical engineering degree. For engineering, a minimum of Fluid Mechanics and Heat/Mass Transfer is required - not to mention training on ChemE-CAD software (ASPEN, MAPLE, MATLAB, etc). You will also be required to take much more in-depth Thermodynamics courses (in a Chem degree, thermo was covered in 2 months of a P-Chem course). Switching as an undergraduate would be difficult and likely required another 2, maybe 3, years. A co-op in industry would also be highly recommended (I feel this was my biggest failing during my undergrad years, so I will repeat this advice often).

  6. My B.S. is chemical engineering, but my M.E. and Ph.D. are environmental engineering. I can't really comment on converting to chemical engineering from chemistry. What I can say is that ALL engineering programs in the U.S. are accredited by ABET, and if it's not, it's a worthless degree. ChemEng majors have to take Calc 1-3, Diff Eq, plus elective normally; several basic engineering classes (statics, strengths, etc.); thermodynamics, fluids, mass transfer, heat transfer, engineering economics, and other classes that I have forgotten now. (I got my B.S. in 1995). Chemistry and chemical engineering are not interchangeable.

    When it comes to graduate degrees, there seems to be a difference with people who get a graduate degree in an engineering department and those who get an engineering graduate degree. I really don't know the specifics of this, but the school where I got my Ph.D., I was in the environmental science and engineering department. A large portion of the graduate students there were not engineers, and their degree would not qualify for use towards a Professional Engineer's license (which I have). My department offered several different Master's degrees, including MPH, but most importantly, they had an M.S., and a M.S. Environmental Engineering. In order to qualify for the M.S.E.E., you either had to have a engineering undergraduate degree or you had to go back and fulfill all the engineering undergraduate requirements.

    Finally, a person should really understand what chemical engineering is and is not. Fracking in particular is more the domain of petroleum engineering not chemical engineering.

  7. May be this does not really answers your hypothetical question, but I think I have a story that might give an idea. I have an engineering (civil) degree in some other country and decided to become a chemist. I came to the US and picked a college that would allow me to substitute some of the required courses such as history, anthropology, physics etc. so that I can get the degree faster. To do this I contacted with several schools and asked if that's possible. You know every school has different rules sometimes. Some say we can waive these, but not those etc. Anyway, I picked the one that offered the best options for me and started there. It's not a top school. May be an average school, but I am glad I picked this one. So, basically I am just taking chemistry and math courses now. This means I can finish the school in 2 years ( and yes I am finishing in two years). There are American citizens like me in the school and it's pretty much the same. As for the "math level", I'd say if someone is not good at P.Chem(especially the quantum chemistry part) and really have hard time understanding equations etc., has to put a lot of effort for engineering. I am not a chemical engineer, but math is math. For example, I took Fluid Mechanics just like Tom above and I think it is the hardest course ever. It really requires a very well understanding of calculus. My suggestion for the people want to start chemical engineering should take Single Variable and Multi variable Calculus again even though it is not mandatory.

  8. One of my former students did a 5 year BS/MS in chem with me and now is doing a PhD in ChemE. They did make him take entrance exams in Eng and he failed the fluid mech and heat transfer ones but passed the thermo one. So they made him take the relevant ugrad courses just like chem depts do when people can't pass the entrance exams. He did fine in those (and his other courses) and is now on the research part. From what I understand it's not that difficult to go from Chem --> ChemE if you have the ability (the prof he is working with has had several students take that route) but you better be prepared for the tougher math; it's at a whole different level.

  9. I earned a PhD in 2010 from a top 5 university in materials chemistry, and took my first professional position in Denver, CO. The position has turned out to be a dud, but I have enough spare time to work full time go back to school. My wife and I don't want to leave Denver, but the employment options for chemists are slim to nil. There are many employers for chemists, but after applying to many opening for engineers with requirements which I possessed some related experience and never getting a response, I decided to get a degree in engineering to make myself more marketable.

    I didn't want to be a poor grad student, so I'm keeping my current job and going to school. This meant master's programs. My first choice was a MS in MatSciE, but only the the Colorado School of Mines and UC Boulder offered that option. Mines was too much $$, and Boulder is too far to commute. Next on the gradient towards engineering was MechE. UC Denver offers a MS in MechE, and is much more affordable than Mines.

    I went and talked to the department chair about applying to the program. He explained what would be involved, and I decided that I would make a go of it. My application was accepted, and I'm just finishing my first semester.

    There are 6 remedial undergrad courses required: thermodynamics, dynamics, system dynamics: vibrations, heat transfer or fluid mechanics, and strength of materials. After theses, there are 8 or 9 grad courses. Lastly a semester or two of research to do a project.

    I'm planning on taking 2 courses at a time, every semester. This means 1 year to complete the remedial courses, and 1.5 to 2 years to complete the grad courses and research project.

    My experience so far has been very positive. There's definitely a cultural difference between core sciences and engineering. It basically boils down to, "Lets get the job done correctly," compared to a drive for a deep understanding and the development of anything new I felt while earning my PhD.

    Engineering is MUCH more intensive on mathematical concepts. You're going to have to develop the equations to describe a system, including all the calculus. This means you'll need to know single and multivariable calculus as well as differential equations. You're NOT expected to memorize calculus identities, just know where to look and find them. If P-chem was hard, you'll be in for a tough time in engineering.

    I know the use of programming (MATLAB, SOLIDWORKS, AUTOCAD, Mathematica) is important, but I haven't had to play catch up with that yet.

    To answer the rest of your questions:

    With a PhD, I definitely wasn't laughed at when I sat down in the department chair's office the first time asking about getting a MechE degree. I had very clear and valid reasons for seeking the degree. They were very welcoming, and happy to have me join the program.

    The best programs to make the transition are any that fits your life and goals. Personally, I didn't need another degree from a top tier school like Mines or Boulder. I also wasn't willing to pay the price tag for Mines, because the ROI just isn't there for me.

    I looked into a BS ChemE my senior year as an undergrad at the University of Florida. It would have added an additional 2 years to my time in school. The one benefit to get a second bachelor's degree would be the lower cost of tuition. Once you have a BS in anything, you're going to be paying graduate tuition for any level of class you take.

    I'd say that basically covers all the questions.


  10. You should have gone to Mines. There are tons of alumi in oil (texas, OK, LA) and with a Mines degree you get lots of attentions. Mining Engineering is desperate for people right now, all my friends got jobs after interning their junior year. The companies basically says give us a call and we will take u on

    1. From Anon 5/9 11:39pm I work for MSHA, and I have ABSOLUTELY no interest in working in the mining industry. As I said in my post, the goal is to stay in Denver and get the best ROI engineering degree possible. Not that I couldn't do engineering work with just my PhD, but apparently one needs a piece of paper from an ABET institution before anyone will even consider you for a job in engineering. In addition, I grew up in OK, and have no interest in going back to 'where the wind comes sweeping down the plains.' Yes, they pay really well in mining, but the BS in that industry that I've seen from the GOV side makes me want to run the opposite way and never look back.

    2. I'm always amazed at how few mining engineering programs there are, given the demand there seems to be for the degree.

  11. If you're a senior undergraduate in chemistry, how many more years of courses would you have to take to get a B.S. in chemical engineering?
    >It will probably take 2 - 3 years to actually finish the degree, depending on whether you're in a BS chemistry program (shorter) or a BA chemistry program (longer). You will have to take two semesters of transport phenomena, one of thermodynamics at least, a "capstone" plant design course or research project, several semesters of lab courses, and probably a semester on separations. My degree additionally required a professional writing course, a statistics course, four semesters of calculus/differential equations (not sure how many are required for a chemistry BS), three semesters of physics, and a number of engineering electives (I took an environmental engineering and a materials science course).

    However you shouldn't try to get a BS in chemical engineering, you should try to get a masters in Chemical Engineering after you graduate.

    If you've graduated with a degree in chemistry, how many more years of courses would you need to get a B.S. in chemical engineering?
    Should you just apply to graduate programs in chemical engineering?
    Yes. Most graduate programs I've been familiar with have had some informal mechanism for how to admit non-ChemE-BS holders. Usually this means you have to take 2-4 undergraduate Chem E. courses before they feel you could handle Masters level stuff. Much easier than actually finishing the BS degree.

    Would you get laughed at for applying to graduate programs in chemical engineering as a B.S./M.S./Ph.D. chemist? What programs are best for this transition?
    Masters and Ph.D. programs are best for the transition. Obviously Ph.D.s take a long time compared to Masters degrees.

    If you've become a Ph.D. chemist, how long would it take to make this transition?
    If you're still in a position where full-time school is an option, I think only 1-2 years would be required for most Masters programs.

    Does anyone know anyone who has done this? How have they done?
    I'm fairly sure that in my time in my Ph.D. program, I ran across a few folks who'd been admitted despite having different undergraduate degrees. They all did fine.

    What level of math do you need? If p-chem was hard for you, are you completely screwed or what?
    Yeah there will be lots of math. :-)

  12. Curt F. advices seems sound based. Industry experience might be useful so can learn to work in team approach which is more common in ChemE undergrad than chemistry.

    I minored in ChemE for a couple years before decided would seek a Chemistry PhD and would have needed another year to achieve that as minor. I mostly only had entry level ChemE courses so would suggest the following preparations might be useful: Buy a good wrench and Plumber's Handbook (if you might some day actually be in a plant setting), Purchase a fancy graphics calculator (although today's computers may have made obsolete) so can at least look impressive when presenting all that "estimated" data, Watch a lot of children's program or other mind-numbing shows to prepare for majority of entry level ChemE jobs, then plan your path into business, sales or management so indeed that degree can lead to riches (if not fame or actual productive applications).

  13. Most chem eng schools would welcome a chemistry graduate; I got into Imperial College on that basis, but had to do a full undergraduate course; three years at the time. Don't let fear of math stop you; you just have to pass the unit; it's rarely needed in the real world. And I would not consider a higher degree if you want to get into industry; In my experience it's unlikely to make you more attractive to an employer.

    Financially it will be worth it, but be aware that chemistry and chemical engineering have very little overlap. There is rarely any chemistry to do in plant design or operation, since it has been built into the process. A billion dollar plant has to work, so you use what you know does work. New ideas have to be proved elsewhere.

    You don’t have to spend your career doing dirty work on site (although this is available to the willing). On graduating I joined a large EPCM engineering company and got straight into plant design, followed by commissioning the plant I’d worked on. Travel to remote places is part of the deal, but the conditions are, usually, good. Most of my career has been spent in offices in London, San Francisco, Johannesburg and Melbourne.

    Forget about research; it’s not a core activity for most chemical engineers unless you’re in academia, and then you’re back to low pay and security (although a lot of the staff at IC did well as part-time consultants).

    Job security is not guaranteed. Plants will shut down, projects are cancelled, recessions slow investment. The business goes in cycles, and as a process design engineer you may be out of work from time to time.

    Chemical engineering, in the end, is mostly duplicating designs and following procedures. On balance, for me, it was a good move, although I still think chemistry is more interesting. But chemical engineering pays.

  14. I am a chemical engineer. Chemist and chemical engineer are different. You should get chemical engineering degree. It is a must. There are a lot of engineering topics that you do not get in chemistry.

    The good news is that you will not need to take chemistry topics, while you follow chemical engineering study.

  15. People who say thermodynamics and mechanics are not covered in chemistry curricula are not engineers themselves, these subjects toghether with methamics are actually stressed more in chemistry and physics than in any other discipline. I studied Bsc in chemistry and physics and later a graduate diploma in metallurgical engineering. The content i did in industrial chemistry 1 and 2 really helped me ease through my GDE.

  16. hi, i am a south african and i would like to do this transition , do you know of any college or university that offers the transtion from B.S. chemistry to chemical engeneering with jus two or three years maximum time

    1. Hi there, 2 years have passed since you asked this question. I now have the same question (I am South African). Did you discover a good university?

    2. I know schools here in the USA like Cornell University which offers admission to non engineering undergrad students.

  17. Please can somebody tell me if material science is a good course to study and if it has a good pay in Nigeria?


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20