The Engineering Major

Engineering programs attract students who like to design, develop, and create solutions, and who have an aptitude for structural visualization. Certainly, a burning curiosity and tenacity to wrestle with physical puzzles, such as building a tunnel through the side of mountain, is advantageous. If that description sounds as if it’s been extracted from your resume, the next step is to figure out which engineering discipline fits best: aeronautical, architectural, chemical, civil, electrical, industrial, mechanical…the College Board’s Majors and Career homepage lists over 40 different engineering degrees.

Another website to help you gain an understanding of what becoming an engineer is about is the Sloan Career Cornerstone Center, For example, let’s assume you’ve decided to major in chemical engineering. On the Sloan site there are profiles and interviews with over 25 chemical engineers working in the field for companies from Chevron to Genentech. Examples of what chemical engineers actually do also abound.

Information on earnings potential (median salary is just under $85,000), key associations, and career outlook is also there. The ‘career outlook,’ by the way, is discouraging for future chemical engineers: the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a decline of 2% employment over the next 7 years. Considering the time and effort required to become an engineer, you might want to explore other fields that hold more promise. In any case, it’s good to do some basic research before entering into any pre-professional major.

What does it take to become a chemical engineer? An undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from an ABET accredited engineering program is required. There are a number of famous engineering schools with solid chemical engineering programs: MIT, Case Western, UC Berkeley, Cal State Long Beach, or Rice University. If we take a close look at Rice’s Chemical Engineering department, as an example, it offers both a BA and BS Ch.E. The BA program is not certified by ABET and falls about a semester short of the requirements of the BS degree. If you want to be a practicing chemical engineer, it’s best to get the BS. If you’re planning to possibly do something outside the realm of engineering, and a portion of Rice’s graduates do go on to medical, law, or other fields, then possibly the BA will do.

Obviously if you desire to become a licensed engineer (which requires also passing the FE-fundamentals of engineering exam; minimum of 4 years of engineering work experience;  passing the PE exam—professional engineering exam), as mentioned, a BS from an ABET accredited program is necessary.

Studying chemical engineering, or any engineering field, is not easy. Only about half of the engineering students are able to finish their degrees in four years. The engineering curriculum contains a full range of science courses: chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, biology, thermodynamics, and of course, chemical engineering. Future engineers also need a range of electives in everything from language arts, computer science, geology and other courses that will supply the breadth and depth necessary to be successful. As with most disciplines, mixing the academic workload with coop programs (working in a business applying new skills) is revered by most employers. Summer internships with firms are also valued.

Additionally, many programs require the completion of a capstone course that culminates in a process or plant design, or some other final project that indicates certain mastery. Furthermore, the more independent research you can do, the better; especially if you think you want to attain a master’s.  A number of engineering 3+2 programs result in combined bachelors with master’s degrees. A good list can be found at

Engineering is a commitment to a demanding multifaceted profession. The workload is extensive, but the rewards, should you have the aptitude and drive, are great, depending on which engineering field you join. The key is to figure out what it is you plan to do with your engineering major and plan ahead to reach your goal. You’ve just taken the first step.