Chemistry vs. Chemical Engineering: What Are the Differences?

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A chemical engineer examines a sample in a test tube.

Students who are interested in a career in science are often drawn to chemistry or chemical engineering. These disciplines overlap in many areas, especially at the beginning of college studies. However, the goals of chemistry and chemical engineering are quite different and lead to distinct career paths. For many students, the first step in choosing between a chemistry vs. chemical engineering program starts with understanding these differences.

What Is Chemistry?

Chemistry is the study of the atomic and molecular properties of substances. Chemists research these properties and develop new products and substances. They also use chemistry to test the attributes of existing products and other substances.

Chemistry Degree Programs

An undergraduate chemistry program generally covers chemistry and organic chemistry, biology, physics, and math. Students who pursue an advanced degree (master’s or doctorate) can choose to specialize in one of several different areas, including analytical chemistry, computational chemistry, and chemical biology, to name a few.

Careers in Chemistry

Students who earn an undergraduate degree in chemistry can choose between many different career paths. These include the following:

  • Lab technicians perform tests and report on the results.
  • Assistant chemists test and analyze products and substances.
  • Process chemists conduct research and development and oversee lab management.
  • Pharmaceutical chemists (entry-level) conduct pharmaceutical research and development.

Students with advanced degrees in chemistry have even more career options. For example:

  • Theoretical chemists use advanced computation models to investigate theoretical models and methods.
  • Analytical chemists study the composition of substances and develop new methods of analysis.
  • Inorganic chemists study metals, ceramics, superconductors, and other non-carbon-based substances.
  • Medicinal chemists research compounds that can be used to develop new pharmaceuticals.

Industry Sectors That Employ Chemists

Chemists work in many different industries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the largest employers of chemists are as follows:

  • Chemical manufacturing. Chemical manufacturers include BASF, Dow, and Formosa Plastics.
  • Research and development in physical, engineering, and life sciences. Some companies have internal R&D operations, whereas others hire outside firms, called contract research organizations.
  • Testing laboratories. Testing laboratories specialize in materials testing, minerals testing, or blood or clinical testing.
  • Waste management and remediation. Analytical chemists work for hazardous waste remediation companies.
  • Government. Federal, state, and local government agencies employ chemists to identify the presence of hazardous and other substances in the environment.

Salary and Job Outlook for Chemists

The median annual wage for chemists was $79,760 in 2021, according to the BLS. Chemists who work for the federal government had the highest earnings: $117,850. Chemists employed in R&D and by chemical manufacturing firms, meanwhile, made a median annual wage of $101,180.

Demand for chemists is expected to grow by 7% between 2020 and 2030, at about the same rate as the average for all occupations tracked by the BLS.

What Is Chemical Engineering?

Chemical engineering is the process of applying the principles of chemistry and related sciences to produce products such as chemicals, drugs, and food. Chemical engineers also design processes and manufacturing equipment.

Chemical Engineering Degree Programs

At the undergraduate level, chemistry and chemical engineering programs overlap considerably. However, after gaining a foundation in science and math, chemical engineers go on to study engineering science, laboratory processes, and product design.

Careers in Chemical Engineering

While some chemical engineering occupations require only a bachelor’s degree, many employers prefer candidates with a master’s degree or higher. Students who receive a degree in chemical engineering also often need professional certifications as part of their career progression. These include the following:

  • LPE. The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) grants the Licensed Professional Engineer certification.
  • SAChE. The Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) offers the Safety and Chemical Engineering Education certification.
  • CCE. The National Certification Commission in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering confers the Certified Chemical Engineer certification.

Some of the more common chemical engineering jobs include the following:

  • Quality engineer. Quality engineers are responsible for reducing waste, improving product quality, and conducting statistical analysis and testing to identify and fix problems.
  • Process engineer. Process engineers specialize in a particular process, lead process design reviews, and manage processes from raw materials to finished product.
  • Environmental scientist. Chemical engineers can work for companies and government agencies that deal with water and wastewater or other environmental issues.

Industry Sectors for Chemical Engineers

According to the BLS, the following sectors are the largest employers of chemical engineers:

  • Engineering services firms. Top engineering firms include WSP (aerospace, infrastructure, health care, and water treatment), Fluor (energy, chemical, mining, and metals), and ARUP (health care, science, resources, and waste).
  • Research and development. Like chemists, chemical engineers often work in R&D.
  • Petroleum and coal products manufacturing. The energy sector is a large employer of chemical engineers.
  • Pharmaceuticals and medicine manufacturing. Chemical engineering focuses on the manufacturing side of drug development.

Salary and Job Outlook for Chemical Engineers

The median annual wage for chemical engineers was $105,550 in 2021, according to the BLS. Chemical engineers who worked for engineering services firms earned a median annual wage of $152,430, while those who worked in the pharmaceuticals and life sciences sector earned $96,220.

Demand for chemical engineers is expected to grow by 9% between 2020 and 2030. Employment growth will be driven by demand for products in various manufacturing industries.

Choosing Between Chemistry vs. Chemical Engineering

Students who are interested in a science-based career may find it difficult to choose between chemistry and chemical engineering. One way to differentiate between these two fields is that chemistry is about the science behind products, whereas chemical engineering focuses on manufacturing those products.

Looking at the skills that each occupation requires is also a good way to figure out which career is a good fit.

Skills for a Successful Chemist

The most important skills and competencies for a chemist include the following:

  • Research. Chemists need to understand how to conduct research and be proficient in each stage of the research process, from setup to reaction monitoring to final results.
  • Analytics. Chemists must be able to analyze substances to determine their molecular and atomic makeup. They also conduct data analysis.
  • Laboratory skills. As scientists, chemists need to be highly skilled in the lab. This includes a mastery of procedural skills that prevent contamination, proper documentation, and similar best practices.
  • Communication. Communicating results to stakeholders is a vital part of the research process.
  • Product development. Good chemistry isn’t all theory; chemists need to understand the role their work plays in product development.
  • Leadership/Management. Chemists with many years of experience may take on a management role, in which they’re responsible for the work of a team or research department.

Skills for a Successful Chemical Engineer

Chemical engineers need to have technical expertise and experience and be able to solve problems and collaborate with a team. The top skills and competencies that employers are looking for in chemical engineers include the following:

  • Technical skills. Chemical engineers must have the scientific and technical background to perform their jobs, including sampling and testing.
  • Project management. Chemical engineers need to be able to manage projects and workflows.
  • Compliance. Ensuring that products and processes comply with federal, state, and local regulations is essential for chemical engineers.
  • Collaboration. Chemical engineers work with colleagues in their own departments and across businesses.
  • Problem-solving and troubleshooting. Chemical engineers are responsible for solving manufacturing and other issues, which entails troubleshooting and making recommendations.
  • Communication. Engineers need to be able to report on their findings and present their analyses to various stakeholders.

Chart Your Course — Explore Chemical Engineering

Chemistry vs. chemical engineering? The choice is yours. Build a foundation for a career that brings new products into the world. Learn more about the online Master of Science in Engineering program and its chemical engineering specialization at the University of California, Riverside.

Recommended Reading:

How to Become a Chemical Engineer With an MSE Degree and Why You Should Consider It

Career Spotlight: Chemist

Pyrotechnic Engineer Salary and Job Outlook


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American Institute of Chemical Engineers, Reimagine Career Success: A Narrative from the Pharmaceuticals Industry

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