When we say chemical engineers, you are probably picturing dudes in lab coats who spend all day mixing volatile substances together in test tubes to see who can create the biggest explosion. Or you may picture an independent entrepreneur in a trailer somewhere in the desert of central New Mexico, running his own private meth lab. No, no, no—that’s just not how they spend their days. (If anything, blowing stuff up is more of a 3am thing.)
The fact is that chemical engineers do spend some of their time in labs performing experiments, but that stuff is just the tip of the dry-iceberg. You're forgetting the "engineer" part of the (chemical) equation. Or maybe you noticed this part of the job description but bypassed it because, although you’re familiar with "chemicals," you're not so sure exactly what an "engineer" does. We're here for ya.
Unlike the scientists who spend the bulk of their time trying to discover the cure for a disease or finding theoretical ways to save the environment, chemical engineers are basically those who bridge the gap between science and product manufacturing. However, when the products in question have to do with healing cancer patients, or more efficiently recycling glass bottles, then the overlap is greater and the chemical engineer's work that much more valuable. Which is not to say the work of those researching lesser pursuits is any less honorable or important. There are people out there in really severe need of having their hair blow-dried.
It gets even worse in high humidity.
Chemical engineers increasingly work in the fields of biology, microfluidics, and polymer chemistry. They are less likely to work onsite in an oil field—although it can happen—but are instead more likely to do benchwork to optimize tertiary/enhanced oil recovery. What's the best chemical to inject to get the oil out? Is a combination the best answer? Can I design a polymer or surfactant that will coat the oil droplets, get them out, and then release them after I add another chemical? After they have answered these questions, they will likely then be responsible for optimizing the actual extraction. They don't leave it to someone else to do their own dirty work.
Chemical Engineers are also concerned with optimizing the performance of things. The main question they ask is, "Does it work well?" If the answer is "no," they next have to ask, "What do I need to do to make it work well?" Notice that this process does not always include the "why?" part of the equation (cough cough, chemists). Chemical engineers get paid more than chemists, whether that's fair or not. In general, chemical engineers tend to think it's totally fair, while chemists feel it is not so fair. Imagine that.
You know it’s bad when a cheerleader stops cheering.
As a chemical engineer, you may be responsible for optimizing DNA sequencing (the reading of the letters ATCG in someone's DNA, which does not stand for Any Two Chromosomes are Good) by engineering the solution and conditions that the DNA went through. You could be working on microchips, spending your days making polymer solutions at different concentrations, and then observing the effects on the DNA strand that passes through the solution. To be sure, the traditional polymer and plastics industries are huge for chemical engineers, but the number of non-bio groups at universities is dwindling rapidly. Hm…maybe they'll find a way to engineer new ones….
Just about everything revolves around researching and designing/optimizing chemical conditions, though, even if it is ultimately for a biological application.
If you're wondering about the money (and who wouldn't wonder about the money?), chemical engineers are some of the highest paid of any individuals who have obtained only a bachelor's degree. So…if you’re looking to be four and done but want to make some bank after college, this field may not be a bad one for you. The work is interesting and ever-changing, you get to keep your analytical muscles in shape, and you get to be a part of creating useful, pragmatic products for public consumption. Just think how proud your Nobel Prize-winning father will be when he finds out you’ve invented a faster drying deodorant. We can almost see the tears in his eyes. Might have something to do with the fact that your creation's main ingredient is onion extract.