What Is a Process Engineer?

Engineer double-checks the safety of a machine.

Are you often curious about how everyday items are manufactured? Do you enjoy solving problems and thinking creatively about how to make things better? If so, you might consider pursuing a meaningful career as a process engineer.

What is a process engineer, and what does a process engineer do? Explore this detailed career guide to start thinking about your future career choices.

Production and Manufacturing Engineers vs. Process Engineers

A process engineer is a professional who works in manufacturing. However, process engineers are not to be confused with production or manufacturing engineers.

Production and manufacturing engineers work in discrete manufacturing, which involves tasks like machining, assembling and riveting components into complete products, typically in an assembly line. For instance, manufacturing engineers may work in plants that produce anything from cellphones to airplanes.

In contrast, process engineers work in continuous flow manufacturing, which is also known as process manufacturing. Process manufacturing involves combining various ingredients in accordance with a recipe to produce a final product that is typically a solid, liquid, gas or powder. For instance, process engineers produce items like baby formula, butter, paint, alcohol and vaccines.

In effect, process engineers are similar to chemical engineers. Their work involves analyzing the chemical makeup of various ingredients and determining how they might react with one another. A process engineer can specialize in a number of areas, including the following:

  • Agriculture processing
  • Food and dairy production
  • Beer and whiskey production
  • Cosmetics production
  • Pharmaceutical production
  • Petrochemical manufacturing
  • Mineral processing
  • Printed circuit board production

What Does a Process Engineer Do?

Process engineers are charged with designing, developing and implementing the chemical and biochemical processes that are necessary to produce various goods. With a background in chemical engineering, process engineers may also evaluate existing chemical and biochemical manufacturing processes to identify ways to improve or enhance them.

How a process engineer spends their days depends largely on their particular specialty and the needs of their employer. In general, however, these professionals may do any of the following tasks on a daily basis:

  • Undertake research to design and develop new chemical and biochemical manufacturing processes or to optimize existing processes
  • Develop safe, effective processes for separating components, such as liquids and gases, or for generating electrical currents
  • Design manufacturing equipment and determine the ideal equipment layout for a manufacturing plant
  • Conduct safety and quality control tests and continually monitor manufacturing processes
  • Identify process and equipment problems and develop solutions
  • Ensure that all manufacturing processes and equipment comply fully with all applicable regulations, such as safety and environmental regulations

Process engineers may choose to specialize in a subarea within their industries. For instance, a process engineer may specialize in oxidation, which refers to the way in which oxygen interacts with chemicals. Other professionals might specialize in biological engineering or nanomaterials.

How To Become a Process Engineer

If you’re a high school student interested in pursuing a career in chemical or process engineering, you should speak with your guidance counselor as soon as possible. A guidance counselor can recommend courses that suit your career interests. In particular, it’s recommended that you take as many science and math classes as possible, particularly courses in chemistry, biochemistry and calculus or pre-calculus.

All aspiring chemical engineers will need at least a bachelor’s degree. Although earning a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering is one option, students might alternatively choose to work toward a general Bachelor of Science in Engineering with an Emphasis in Project Management degree. Though master’s degrees are not generally required for process engineering positions, graduate-level academic credentials can help professionals pursue higher-level job opportunities.

Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Engineering

After completing high school, the first step to becoming a chemical or process engineer is earning a bachelor’s degree. There is limited flexibility regarding the type of degree that an aspiring process engineer can earn; it’s quite common for these experts to have an academic background in chemical engineering because this is their specialty.

However, it’s also possible to become a process engineer with a general engineering degree, which provides students with a well-rounded engineering background. It’s highly recommended that aspiring process engineers who choose to pursue a general engineering degree, rather than a chemical engineering degree, take plenty of elective courses in chemistry and biochemistry.

Curricula vary depending on the school and specific program. In general, however, students working toward a general engineering degree can expect to study the following topics:

  • Calculus concepts and methods and their application to developing solutions to real-world problems
  • Fundamental chemistry principles, including chemical kinetics, chemical equilibrium, thermodynamics, electrochemistry and chemical reactions
  • Concepts in fluid mechanics, including fluid statics, laminar flow and turbulent flow
  • Principles of heat transfer, including conduction, convection and radiation

Students may also study key workplace skills such as production and operations management, organizational behavior and organizational management. At some schools, students take one or more capstone courses during their senior year. A capstone course typically involves completing an intensive research project that draws on everything learned during the previous three years.

While working toward a degree, it’s helpful for students to take advantage of any relevant internships or cooperative engineering programs available; employers who hire process engineers value job candidates with practical, real-world experience.

Do Process Engineers Need a Master’s Degree?

It isn’t necessary to earn a master’s degree in order to pursue an entry-level job in chemical or process engineering. However, some employers prefer to hire or promote individuals who hold a master’s or doctoral degree in chemical engineering. At some point during their careers, process engineers may decide to return to school to earn a graduate-level degree to enhance their qualifications and pursue promotions.

A master’s degree in chemical engineering typically takes one or two years to complete, depending on the student’s schedule. One-year programs usually require full-time study. Professionals who wish to continue working while earning their degrees may opt for a two-year course schedule.

Essential Skills and Characteristics for Process Engineers

All types of engineers, including chemical and process engineers, benefit from a lifelong love of learning and an inquisitive nature. Engineers are problem solvers at heart; they work to improve how the world works and how products are designed and made. In order to carry out this vision, a sense of curiosity and a love of learning are essential.

Other essential skills and characteristics necessary for aspiring process engineers include the following:

  • Analytical reasoning skills
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Creativity and ingenuity
  • Mathematical competency
  • Interpersonal skills

You can begin working toward a rewarding career as a process engineer by applying for enrollment at Grand Canyon University. The Bachelor of Science in Engineering with an Emphasis in Project Management degree program would teach you how to solve real-world problems using hands-on learning experiences, and you’d graduate with skills that are in demand and immediately applicable to your STEM field. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn how to join our dynamic and supportive learning community.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.