10 October 2023

How to find Chemical Engineering Work Experience

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You’re approaching the end of your degree in chemical engineering, and you can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. You live and breathe thermodynamics, reactors and process systems – but what are you actually going to do with all of this knowledge?

We’ve put together this guide to advise you on everything you need to know to find the right chemical engineering graduate job for you.

What is chemical engineering?

Chemical engineers understand how to alter the chemical, biochemical or physical state of raw materials in order to turn them into something useful, such as making petrol or plastics from oil.

Using their scientific knowledge and knack for solving complex problems, they ensure the everyday products we all rely on – from paracetamol to face cream – are produced in a safe, cost-effective and environmentally-friendly way.

Chemical engineering plays a pivotal role in answering important questions such as:

  • How do we reduce the use of fossil fuels?
  • How do we prevent disease spreading in remote areas?
  • What can we do to alleviate the pressure on the climate from CO2 and pollutants?

“With increasingly severe warnings about the impact of human activities on our climate and planet, there has never been a more crucial time to maximise our efficiency and minimise our footprint. Working in some of the most energy and resource intensive industries in the world, chemical engineers are uniquely positioned to address these challenges.” Mark Aspey, Vice Chair of the IChemE Energy Centre Board

A brilliant example of chemical engineers doing just that is Canadian waste management company Enerkem, who have found a way to convert 100,000 tonnes of landfill waste per year into 38 million litres of liquid biofuels.

These waste-based biofuels emit 60% less greenhouse gases than fossil fuels do!

Watch this video from the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) to find out more:

To become an expert on all things engineering, take a gander at our comprehensive guide to Engineering Work Experience.

Getting work experience in chemical engineering

You might think that paying upwards of £9,000 a year to get a degree would be enough to guarantee you a graduate job.

Think again. There are around 51 applications per graduate engineering role, so you need to do everything you can to keep your CV from ending up at the bottom of the pile.

Doing an industrial placement (whether it’s a few days or a whole year) will put you miles ahead of the competition when it comes to applying for chemical engineering graduate jobs.

Let’s take a look at your options…

Chemical engineering placements

Duration: 5-13 months
For: 2nd or 3rd years
When to apply: Sep-May

A placement, or a year in industry, is a chance to work with a team of experienced engineers and scientists on real projects that matter. This will give you a competitive edge in the job market and put you ahead of your peers in your final year of university.

You could find yourself working on a single research project for the duration of your placement, or you may be tasked with a series of smaller projects rotating through various departments.

Either way, it’s a brilliant opportunity to start thinking about what you want to get out of your career.

Internships in chemical engineering

For: All students
Duration: 4-16 weeks
When to apply: Sep-Mar

If your degree doesn’t incorporate a year in industry, you can apply for chemical engineering summer internships instead. These shorter schemes can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, so you might be able to fit more than one into your summer holidays!

An internship gives you a unique insight into working life, company culture, and what it’s really like to be a chemical engineer in that sector. It will give you a much clearer idea of which career path you want to pursue when you graduate.

Top employers offering work experience for chemical engineers include BASF, BP, Johnson & Johnson, Johnson Matthey, Nestle and Unilever, but there are also hundreds of companies you may not have heard of.

For example, how much do you know about Sabic UK Petrochemicals?

Ranked among the world’s largest petrochemicals manufacturers, SABIC employs over 35,000 people across 50 countries.

Their breakthrough work helps customers meet key sustainability goals such as cleaner energy, higher crop yields and better healthcare solutions.

For a bit of light bedtime reading, head to our reviews page to hear from chemical engineering placement students and interns.

Chemical engineering jobs: where can my degree take me?

Coupled with a star-studded CV, a chemical engineering degree opens doors to a vast range of career options. If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all, here are a couple of questions to help you narrow down your options…

Which industry do you want to work in?

Start by thinking about which industry you’d like to break into – you might be influenced by your personal interests or where your specific skill set is most suited to.

Last year, the majority of graduates secured employment in the pharmaceuticals and personal care products sector, followed by water, and oil and gas exploration.

However, chemical engineers can be found hanging out in laboratories, factories and offshore rigs in any one of the following industries:

  • Energy
  • Environmental
  • Healthcare
  • Food and drink
  • Manufacturing
  • Plastics
  • Water
  • Waste management

Have you heard about?

The researchers at the University of Portsmouth who accidentally created an enzyme capable of “eating” PET plastic.

The enzyme works by speeding up the degradation process that normally takes hundreds of years. In theory, it could be used to help recycle millions of tonnes of plastic.

You’ll find chemical engineers like these in every sector – all of them united by their mission to reduce the environmental impact of human activity.

What type of role interests you most?  

Most roles fall into two groups: the development of new substances and materials or the design, manufacture and operation of machinery.

Within each group there are zillions of different roles to choose from. You could find yourself developing new vaccines, working on stem cell treatments to cure blindness, or manufacturing microchips with a tech giant like IBM.

Here are just a few places you could take your career:

Use your scientific knowledge to advise policymakers in parliament

Erin Johnson spent three months working with the UK Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire.

She compiled a report that investigated how building materials are regulated, tested and classified for use in the residential buildings.

Become a planet-saving process engineer

Want to do something that has a real impact on the world around you?

Process engineers are responsible for the design, implementation, control and optimisation of industrial processes. In the water industry, this means tackling the water scarcity problem by optimising the processes that supply us with ‘the next gold’.

Gain chartership

Do you seek fame and fortune as a chemical engineer? Rise up through the ranks by achieving chartered status (CEng) with The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE).

These post-nominal letters are the gold standard in chemical, biochemical and process engineering. Not only do they validate your expertise, they usually come hand-in-hand with a hefty salary.

To become chartered, you will need to have a Master’s degree that has been fully-accredited by IChemE, alongside evidence of your advanced chemical engineering knowledge and professional experience.

How much is a typical chemical engineering salary?

After analysing the thousands and thousands of reviews on RateMyPlacement – each written by a student who has done a placement or internship themselves – we can reveal that the average salary for engineering work experience is £17,709 a year.

Those who decide to stick with chemical engineering after university can expect to start on a salary that’s up to 60% higher than that of their peers, with chemical engineers who graduated recently earning a median salary of £30,000.

Once you have some professional qualifications and a few years experience under your belt, this could jump upwards of £41,300. If money is high on your priorities, the oil and gas industry dishes out the juiciest pay packets (often in excess of £70,000).