Ucas Extra: Tomorrow's world is in their hands

Chemical engineering is about changing raw materials into everyday products, explains Stephen McCormack. Graduates are in demand and have a high earning potential
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You always know when an area of scientific study thinks it's got an image problem. It's when they come up with that plaintive cry: "It's not about labs and white coats." Well, that's exactly what appears in the student section of a sparky and informative website called "It's A Blast", (www.whynotchemeng.com), an off-shoot of the main Institution of Chemical Engineers site (www.icheme.org).

What they're getting at is that, after graduation, as a working chemical engineer in the real world, you don't have to spend all, or even much, of your time in a lab. What the job is about, the website says, is travel, financial rewards, being in demand, choice, pushing frontiers and variety.

The snappy definition of the subject offered by the website is this: chemical engineering deals with changing raw materials into valuable products that are used every day: plastics, toothpaste, catalytic converters, food and human-tissue cultivation. It is maths, chemistry and physics in action.

A few years back, chemical engineering academics became aware that their subject was becoming less popular, partly because of ignorance. Applications to courses were in free fall. But recently, thanks in no small part to the institution's imaginative website, the trend has been reversed and interest is picking up.

One point stressed constantly is the marketability of graduates in the workplace. Because the skills involved in translating chemical processes into industrial and marketable ones are extensive and quite rare, chemical engineering graduates are highly sought after and earn, on average, greater rewards than those from other engineering disciplines.

That comes as no surprise given the entry requirements of three good A-levels in maths and chemistry and probably either physics or biology. Any 18-year-old with those A-levels will have the intellect to be attractive to most employers.

About 20 universities in the UK offer chemical engineering first degrees. Many are four-year courses leading to a Masters (the MEng), as this offers smooth passage to professional accreditation by the Institution of Chemical Engineers, but the three-year BEng is also available.

The leading two are Imperial, in London, and Umist in Manchester, both of which have been showered with awards for the quality of their teaching and research.

Umist, whose chemical engineering numbers began picking up two years ago, is proud of its Pilot Plant laboratory, the only one of its type at a British university. The lab contains the same sort of equipment as is used in a real chemical-manufacturing plant. Students can get invaluable experience carrying out large experiments in a totally realistic environment.

The Umist admissions tutor, Dr Stuart Holmes, says that a degree course starts with consolidating and advancing knowledge in the key sciences, and then moves on to a deeper understanding of how processes work. Among the procedures handled are mixing of components, fluid flow, controlling reactions, heat transfer and extracting the end product. "It's very laboratory-based, gradually allowing the students to work on larger and larger pieces of equipment," Dr Holmes says.

Umist is aiming to take nearly 90 undergraduates this year, all of whom will have to have 300 Ucas points, with an A-level in maths essential.

Most chemical engineering departments are now proactive in trying to enthuse and attract sixth-formers to their subject. Birmingham University, for example, has a two-day taster course for Year 12 students on 30 June and 1 July .

Danish Malik, research fellow at Loughborough University, says the PR campaign has paid off. "When they understand what chemical engineering is all about, it quickly becomes first-choice subject. They see how many exciting things there are."

There's hardly an area of life that is not touched by chemical engineers, without which we wouldn't have chocolate, beer, painkillers, antibiotics, paper or ink.

Recent graduate Emma McLeod, who now works at Cadbury, has no trouble seeing the relevance of her career choice. "The most satisfying thing about my job is walking into a shop and seeing the product that I've just spent a year working on," she says.

Geoff Richardson, now in his thirties, did a four-year chemical engineering degree at Bath University. He remembers it as a tough course, but a varied and interesting one. After leaving university he got a job with a big petrochemicals firm and he's been working in the same field since. He's designed furnaces, commissioned a sulphur recovery plant and dealt with the treatment of effluent water.

He enthusiastically recommends the subject as a degree course. "It's a good area to get into. It gives you a good mix of skills and an awful lot of opportunities after you finish your degree."