Chemical Engineering vs. Electrical Engineering: What’s the Difference?

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Pharmaceutical pills in a warehouse distribution container.

Just as there are many types of jobs across the country — with openings more numerous than those who are out of work, based on August 2021 job numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — the types of engineering occupations are wide ranging: It’s truly a profession of possibilities. While all engineering fields deal with productivity and design, each branch is unique in its own way. The duties of an engineer in health care are notably different from an engineer in computer science, even though they both may come from a similar educational background.

Two of the more popular engineering options nowadays are chemical and electrical engineering. Both are experiencing similar growth rates around people entering the profession in the United States — approximately 9% and 7%, respectively,  according to the BLS — and the salaries are fairly comparable ($108,540 and $103,390). People in these roles are also employed predominantly by engineering services providers and tend to be enrolled in similar academic programs.

Beyond that, though, the kind of work that an electrical engineer conducts on a day-in, day-out basis is different from that of a chemical engineer. So if you’re trying to decide between the two, learning more about the responsibilities of each can help you determine the engineering degree that’s right for you.

With an online Master of Science in Engineering from the University of California Riverside, you’ll be equipped with the tools, expertise and knowledge that can help you land a good job in chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, bioengineering or one of many other domains within the field. This article will compare and contrast chemical engineering and electrical engineering, both on the academic side of things and in the real world.

How do you decide between chemical engineering and electrical engineering?

Different engineering specializations appeal to different people based on their strengths, interests and goals. Yet because the academic courses of electrical engineering and chemical engineering frequently intertwine, perhaps the best way to choose is by learning more about what they do.

Chemical engineers are very process oriented. They apply the principles of science — specifically physics, biology and chemistry — to solve problems relating to food, health care, energy, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and manufacturing. Because chemical engineers are so process focused, they’re often referred to as process engineers.

Here are some of the job activities chemical engineers perform, as outlined by the BLS. You’ll notice that “process” is a common theme throughout:

  • Establish safety protocols for working with chemicals.
  • Perform research to improve certain work processes.
  • Develop processes for electrical current generation and separating the principal components of liquids, gases and solids.
  • Monitor the performance of production processes by conducting tests.
  • Estimate costs of production.

Chemical engineering is a specialty all its own, but it’s common for chemical engineers to specialize even more closely in one area or discipline. This may include phytochemicals, nanomaterials, large-scale manufacturing, biomaterials or agrochemicals.

Electrical engineers’ duties are further along in the production process in comparison to chemical engineers. As the job title suggests, an electrical engineer participates in the development of electrical equipment, such as electric motors for automobiles or navigation systems for airplanes, jets, watercraft or military equipment.

The following are a few of the tasks electrical engineers are known to do, per the BLS:

  • Test electrical equipment to make sure it works as intended.
  • Come up with new ways to utilize, harness or produce electricity to improve a product’s performance.
  • Take part in the manufacturing of electrical equipment or its installation.
  • Troubleshoot and investigate complaints involving electrical products, components or equipment from consumers.
  • Collaborate with other engineers and project managers so projects are completed in a timely and cost-efficient manner.

Given their similar focus, it’s not unusual to mistake an electrical engineer for an electronics engineer. While they both work with power sources, an electrical engineer is more concerned with the manner in which electricity is used as energy, be it in the form of light, fuel, heat or sound. Electronics engineers focus on the application of that source of energy toward the development of products. This may include software, circuit boards, motors or medical devices.

How should I decide between a chemical engineering or an electrical engineering major?

While the job functions of chemical engineering and electrical engineering are often different, prospective professionals in either field frequently take similar classes. At UC Riverside, both the electrical and chemical engineering master’s academic programs include several of the same core courses. They include Engineering in the Global Environment, Technology Innovation and Strategy for Engineers, Introduction to Systems Engineering, and Principles of Engineering Management. Because of the overlap, you may not know which major to select if you’re undecided.

But there are certain courses that are unique to each engineering discipline. At UC Riverside, some of the classes for the chemical engineering specialization include Advanced Engineering Computation, Transport Phenomena, Advanced Kinetics and Reactor Design, and Advanced Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics.

The courses for the electrical engineering specialization at UC Riverside are Intro to Engineering Optimization Techniques, Power Systems Analysis, Power Electronics, Electric Drives, and Introduction to Smart Grid.

You can decide between the two based on where your strengths lie and what you’ve discovered through your bachelor’s in engineering degree program.

For example, if power electronics was something you enjoyed as part of your bachelor’s degree curriculum, the electrical engineering master’s program may be a better option for you in comparison to chemical engineering. The key to determining the preferable path comes down to your goals, introspection and personal reflection.

Can a chemical engineer graduate apply for electrical engineering job positions?

Yes, it’s possible to become an electrical engineer despite having an educational background that is specific to chemical engineering. There are a few reasons why that’s the case, one of which is their typical work environments.

According to the most recent statistics available from the BLS, both those who specialize in electrical engineering and those in chemical engineering work in industries like research and development, life sciences, manufacturing and engineering services. In fact, the category of engineering services represents the largest employment grouping for the chemical engineer and electrical engineer vocations.

Both types of engineering professionals also bring similar work qualities to their job positions. For example, chemical engineers and electrical engineers need to be proficient in mathematics, especially calculus. They have to use the principles of calculus to conduct analysis and perform tests, and for ongoing process development.

Flash from an electrical reaction in a factory setting.Another core characteristic electrical and chemical engineers share with one another is interpersonal skills. Because much of their work involves collaborating with other engineers or project managers, it’s important for them to be able to communicate clearly in a team environment. However, engineers are also reputed for their ability to work independently, which may be required to conduct field research or for travel.

The pathways to becoming an electrical engineer or chemical engineer share some commonalities as well. Generally speaking, a bachelor’s degree in engineering is a prerequisite, and as previously noted, these engineers frequently participate in the same core classes, particularly mathematics. Algebra, trigonometry and calculus are the primary branches of mathematics that engineers deal with regularly, regardless of their degree.

The same goes for licensure. in general, neither an electrical engineer nor a chemical engineer needs to be licensed or have a certain certification to apply for a job opening. However, those who choose to obtain a professional engineering license may open themselves up for certain advantages and leadership opportunities that typically aren’t available to those with an undergraduate university degree alone.

For example, regardless of their engineering specialty, a professional engineer can serve in an oversight role and be the point person who other engineers come to for assignments or guidance. They can also provide services directly to the public rather than through an intermediary, such as an engineering firm. Thus, a professional engineer can work as their own boss.

Finally, there is a good amount of salary parity between a chemical and an electrical engineer. In some industries — such as health care, business management, finance or information technology — switching from one role to another may bring a substantial increase or decrease in earnings, making a different title unrealistic or unfeasible. But because their annual salaries are comparable, switching from an electrical engineer job to chemical engineer role would likely not significantly affect that person’s quality of living.

In 2020, the median annual wage for chemical engineers was $108,540, according to the BLS. The average electrical engineer earned slightly less at $100,830. The highest 10% of chemical engineers during this period earned $168,960 versus $159,520 for electrical engineers. As reported by information platform Colors New York, of the top 10 highest-paying engineering professions, chemical engineer and electrical engineer are No. 5 and 6, respectively.

Chemical engineering vs. electrical engineering: Which career is harder?

It’s difficult to say which occupation is more difficult. If you speak to a professional from either group, they’re likely to point out their own challenges, whether with respect to problem solving or coming up with new and inventive ideas.

One area chemical engineers may have more trouble with than electrical engineers is job openings. While both disciplines are experiencing similar growth rates, there are notably more job openings each year for electrical engineers than for chemical engineers. According to the most up-to-date BLS data, roughly 12,700 electrical engineer jobs become available in the U.S. annually. When combined with electronic engineering, the number jumps to 22,700. For chemical engineers, it’s less than 2,000 per year. As more chemical engineers retire, though, job openings in chemical engineering are poised to increase at a slightly quicker pace (9%) over the next 10 years than in electrical engineering (7%).

Whether you just received your engineering bachelor’s degree, want to change careers or seek to deepen your understanding of engineering before taking the test to become a professional engineer, an online Master of Science in Engineering can make it happen. UC Riverside offers several academic programs that are specific to electrical engineering, chemical engineering, bioengineering and several other specialties. And since the program is fully online, you can earn your master’s degree on your schedule. Plus, there is no residency requirement. Contact us today to learn more or apply now.

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