How Hard Is Chemical Engineering?

How Hard Is Chemical Engineering?

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Chemical engineering often stirs up images of white laboratory coats, chemicals, and a curriculum that has made many students weep. In short, it can be intimidating. But is this field that difficult, or is it just a journey less taken due to fear? 

Chemical engineering is a tough engineering major to undertake because it’s a broad field that requires a strong foundation in mathematics, basic sciences, and engineering studies. The retention rate is around 40%, which follows the trend of other engineering fields. However, career prospects make it worth it. 

This article will discuss chemical engineering both as a university course and a career prospect. I will explain what chemical engineering is, how it is being tackled in university, some essential concepts you would need to learn, tips to survive the program, and its future. 

What Is Chemical Engineering?

Chemical engineering is about applying chemistry in the industry, especially in manufacturing. It can solve problems, improve productivity, and innovate by applying principles. For instance, polymerization, a chemical process, is widely used in industries like the manufacture of plastics. 

When large-scale industries started emerging, the importance of chemical engineering was acknowledged. Chemical engineers are now essential in numerous aspects of various fields, including: 

  • Designing and maintaining production plants
  • Researching new products and applications
  • Establishing safety procedures, etc.

How Is Chemical Engineering Delivered in Universities? 

Bachelor’s degree programs in chemical engineering are usually set for four (4) years. Some universities offer a program that lasts for five (5) years or more, with the student earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. You may also pursue a master’s and Ph.D. after your bachelor’s. 

While curriculums may vary across institutions, there are standards set by organizations with which they must comply. These standards may include student outcomes, which will be discussed in the next section. 

Chemical Engineering Student Outcomes 

The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc. (ABET) has set specific student objectives that chemical engineering students must meet. Universities offering the course must ensure that their curricula are crafted according to these. Also, they must make sure that facilities and faculty are adequate for the students. 

These were among the objectives outlined by ABET: 

  • Critical thinking and problem-solving skills 
  • Design solutions for actual-world application 
  • Practical communication skills 
  • The concept of ethics and responsibility 
  • Leadership and team skills 
  • Experiment and data analysis skills 
  • Application of new knowledge 

They have also set specific curriculum requirements. For instance, the curriculum must require students to complete at least 30 semester credit hours of college-level mathematics and basic sciences. They should also accomplish at least 45 semester credit hours of engineering classes. 

Essential Concepts for Chemical Engineering

Given the high expectations set by ABET for engineering students, it would be to your advantage to learn about essential concepts or subject areas for chemical engineering students. Being a chemical engineering aspirant is like a jack-of-all-trades, and you need to know a bit of everything – from math to communication skills. 


Algebra would not be enough to cut it in the world of engineering. You’ll also need to learn about calculus topics like differentiation and integration. A good grasp of statistics would also be necessary. 

ABET specifies that for chemical engineering and related programs, the curriculum must allow students to apply mathematics to engineering problems. 

A study regarding student retention barriers for chemical engineering also discussed how a poor background in mathematics might lead to higher tendencies of shifting out or dropping out of the program. 

The more solid your mathematical background is, the more likely you are to complete your degree. Thus, it would be great to brush up on your math skills, like algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. 

Basic Sciences

The basic sciences refer to biology, chemistry, and physics. While a foundation in chemistry is an obvious requirement in pursuing chemical engineering, you may wonder why biology and physics are also needed. 

Certain principles and concepts in physics are a must-know in chemical engineering, such as thermodynamics, process operations, and fluid mechanics. These concepts allow you to design and manipulate processes like distillation. ABET also requires advanced levels of physics for chemical engineering. 

Meanwhile, knowledge of biology is important for those who go into industries like pharmaceuticals or biotechnology. 

Computer Science 

Computer programs and applications like Computer-Aided Design (CAD) are essential in synthesizing designs. They also allow the simulation of ideas, which makes implementation easier. A particular study even explored having students take these classes earlier, given their importance and complexity. 

Engineering Science

Engineering science is about design, analysis, and control. It endows you with the skills you need to use theories in real-life. This course may also tackle hazards and how you, as an engineer, can anticipate and prevent those. 

Communication Skills

While technical science skills are critical for understanding theories and designing applications, you still need to learn how to connect and talk to people to implement them. 

Communication skills are important for engineers to effectively propose their ideas to companies, governments, or the general public. Successful project pitches realize plans and ensure that engineers’ ideas are not just theories but can be implemented. 

Chemical Engineering Retention and Dropout Rates

Engineering courses have always been notorious for being difficult, with many students shifting out after a year or two. In general, these types of programs have a retention rate of 37% to 66%. But, they did note that it is not just the program’s complexity that affects this rate, as school policies may also influence students’ decisions. 

Meanwhile, for chemical engineering specifically, I was able to look into a few universities’ retention rates. For the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the four-year graduation rate is 54%; that is, 54% of students were able to graduate from chemical engineering within four years. 

For a certain public research university, their chemical engineering program mainly caters to Hispanics, and the overall four-year retention rate was 41%. These numbers align with the trend of other engineering programs. 

They noted a 40% dropout rate among chemical engineering students around the first and second years for the same university. After this, the rate of students dropping out of the program would decrease, especially around the third through fifth years. 

Aside from this trend, the same research group also monitored a batch of students who took up an introductory chemical engineering class and determined that 34% of them dropped out of university. It was found that these dropouts often performed worse in science and mathematics compared to those who were able to graduate from the program – for instance, whereas graduates would get an average grade of A-, dropouts tend to get a grade of C.

Chemical Engineering’s Failure Rates

After surviving your degree, you will have to get your license to practice in the field. To do so, you must pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam (PE). While you might think that you can leave behind exams in college, you might find yourself taking the PE exam administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) if you are in the United States.

According to recent data from the NCEES, 57% of first-time PE takers were able to pass the exam. That also implies that 43% of the first-time takers failed the exam. These numbers on their own and compared to other fields are bleak; for instance, the PE passing rate for computer engineering was 71%, which is much higher than chemical engineering. 

The same source also provides data about repeat takers. The passing rate for those who retook the PE Chemical was 38% only – much lower than the first-time takers’ rate. These figures imply that the licensure exam for chemical engineering is difficult and is a challenge you may need to prepare yourself for should you wish to pursue the field. 

Surviving Chemical Engineering Is Possible

Now, the student outcomes, essential concepts, and retention rates discussed above may all seem intimidating, but these do not make chemical engineering an impossible dream for you. With the right amount of grit, determination, creativity, and time management skills, you can make it. 

Grit and Determination

It takes an immense amount of persistence to stay in the program. You will find yourself flunking exams, failing majors, or staying up all night to understand this one lesson your professor discussed, seemingly at double speed. 

Grit and determination are important to have to stand your ground even in the face of these hardships. It gives you the strength to keep trying even after getting your equations wrong or mixing up your chemicals in the worst way possible. 


It would help if you also think outside the box. As a chemical engineer, you will not just solve problems but also anticipate them. For both of these, you need creativity to create flow diagrams and design solutions and preventive actions. You will also need it to flesh out principles and make them applicable. 

Time Management Skills

Chemical engineering is a broad field, and you need to learn a lot of things simultaneously. Managing your time well helps not just in chasing deadlines but also makes your university life less stressful. 

You can map out sufficient time for studies, making requirements, and pursuing relevant opportunities, like internships. But do set time to take a break! After all, you need to stay sane if you want to graduate. 

Study Habits and Work Ethics

Study habits and work ethic go hand-in-hand with time management. You can plan a great schedule, but you need to put effort into sticking to it and get working. Having healthy study habits makes you more productive and less likely to procrastinate. 

Interpersonal Skills

It is hard to survive university just by yourself. At some point, you will need to work with other students on projects, or you might have to approach a smart classmate for help. Interpersonal skills help you deal with interactions and allow you to seek help. 

Chemical Engineering Career Paths

When you complete your bachelor’s degree, you can go into many industries – petroleum, food, and manufacturing. You may find yourself working in an office or laboratory or traveling to inspect plants and factories. But there are more options you can take. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job opportunities for chemical engineers and chemistry students will grow by 9% within the next decade, with around 1,800 jobs expected to open yearly. Retired chemical engineering can also work in related fields.

Final Thoughts: How Hard Is Chemical Engineering?

Compared with other engineering degrees, chemical engineering is not a piece of cake. It is a broad field covering nearly everything from chemistry, mathematics, physics, and other subject areas. Besides grit and determination, one would need science and technical skills that take much effort to learn.

However, it is not as impossible as it seems – many have endured and survived, and others can do the same. It takes both dedication and brains to become a chemical engineer, but all other fields also need those, so if you’re willing to put in the work, you can succeed.


About The Author

Nathan Brunner
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Nathan Brunner is a labor market expert. He is a mathematician who graduated from EPFL.

He is the owner of Salarship, a job search engine where less-skilled candidates can find accessible employment opportunities.