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Chemical Engineer Vs. Petroleum Engineer

by Terri Williams, studioD

Although they’re both engineering jobs, chemical and petroleum engineers are different in terms of job duties, market demand, and salaries. For example, petroleum engineering is a very specific area that deals primarily with the extraction of oil and gas. Chemical engineering is a broad branch that encompasses biomedicine, energy, electronics, food production and the environment. Although both pay very well, petroleum engineers make, on average, $45,000 more each year than chemical engineers.

Chemical Engineers

Using chemistry, biology and physics, chemical engineers solve problems related to such products as food, drugs and chemicals. For example, they discover fertilizers and pesticides to protect and enhance food growth and create technologies used to combat pollution in the air, soil and waterways. Chemical engineers also design medical devices that can function as artificial organs and they engineer drug-delivery systems. In addition, chemical engineers develop semiconductor chips used in phones, cars, and communications satellites and they are responsible for the polyethylene used in milk bottles, as well as Kevlar – which is used in lightweight bulletproof vests.

Petroleum Engineers

Petroleum engineers develop ways to extract oil and gas from deposits below the earth. Among other uses, petroleum provides gasoline to fuel vehicles and the oil used to heat homes and other buildings. Petroleum engineers' duties vary and may include focusing on how to identify and increase methods of improving petroleum production. Or, they may work with a team to determine the most fiscally responsible way to utilize oil wells. Some petroleum engineers ensure the safe installation, operation and maintenance of oil field equipment and systems. Still others may serve as consultants to banks, investors or other financial firms.

Chemical Engineer Other Considerations

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an average 14.3 percent job growth rate for U.S. occupations through 2020. However, the BLS only predicts a 6 percent growth rate for chemical engineering jobs, which make it one of the slower-growing professions. Chemical engineers need a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, which is also known as a degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering. Licensure as a professional engineer is preferred, and can be obtained by passing the Professional Engineering exam. According to BLS salary data from May 2012, chemical engineers earned an annual mean wage of $102,270.

Petroleum Engineer Other Considerations

Between 2010 and 2020, the BLS projects demand for petroleum engineers to increase by 17 percent, which it states is as fast as average. The BLS also reports that petroleum engineers need a bachelor’s degree in engineering and preferably in petroleum engineering. Petroleum engineers must also pass a Professional Engineering exam for licensure. May 2012 data from the BLS indicated that this profession paid $147,470. It was also listed as the highest paid major in the class of 2013 according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.


Both chemical and petroleum engineers need analytical and problem-solving skills. They both need strong math skills and the ability to work well with others on teams. Those who want to enter the highest-paid engineering specialty, and enjoy working exclusively in oil and gas extraction -- sometimes on drilling sites -- might prefer petroleum engineering. On the other hand, individuals who want to choose from a variety of industries such as pharmaceutical and scientific research, as well as resin and synthetic rubber manufacturing, may select a career in chemical engineering.

About the Author

Terri Williams began writing professionally in 1997, working with a large nonprofit organization. Her articles have appeared in various online publications including Yahoo, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report University Directory, and the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago. Williams has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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