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What Is the Difference Between a Degree in Chemistry & in Chemical Engineering?

by Laura Fletcher

Chemistry is the fascinating study of the properties and interactions of different forms of matter. What chemists and chemical engineers study is remarkably similar, except that chemists focus primarily on researching and developing chemical products, while chemical engineers focus on manufacturing chemical products at a large scale.

Chemistry Coursework

Undergraduate chemistry coursework focuses on mastery of the properties of chemicals and chemical reactions as well as a basic understanding of the relationship between chemistry and other sciences. This includes a strong foundation in general chemistry, calculus, physics and biochemistry. Students then go on to study different aspects of chemistry, such as the chemistry of carbon-based compounds, chemistry at the molecular and atomic levels or properties of surfaces and colloids, including some courses that overlap with engineering, such as thermodynamics.

Chemical Engineering Coursework

Like chemists, chemical engineers take core courses in physics and calculus. They also take many of the same major courses that chemists complete, including organic chemistry, physical chemistry and analytical chemistry. However, some chemical engineering courses are focused specifically on helping manufacturers to produce chemical products on a small, medium or large scale, such as Process Design and Transport Phenomena. Chemical engineering courses also tend to incorporate more computer science and electrical components than chemistry courses do. The blossoming specialty of biomolecular engineering within chemical engineering trains engineers in the development of medical nanotechnology and human tissue development, among other skills.

Job Functions

Chemists tend to work on the front lines of research in companies, universities and government agencies. They test the actual properties of chemicals, and they also apply this knowledge to test how chemicals function within different potential products, such as food or drugs. Chemical engineers, on the other hand, will often take a product developed by chemists and figure out how to develop it on a business scale, determining whether cheaper or higher-quality components should be used and deciding what kind of manufacturing processes to use on the factory floor.

Demand for Workers

While politicians often bemoan the country’s lack of engineers, surprisingly, the number of chemistry jobs in the U.S. is about 50,000 greater than those for engineers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Chemists make an average of $77,000 per year, while chemical engineers average $102,000. Both professions are expected to grow only six percent by 2020, which is slower than the rate for most jobs, but due to the general shortage of math and science students in U.S. colleges, job prospects should still be good.

About the Author

Laura Holland Fletcher has graduate level training in ESL, linguistics and the teaching of writing. She taught ESL and college writing for more than 10 years in both the US and Asia. She also writes for local and national magazines that cover legal, educational and social justice issues.

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