Are Chemistry and Chemical Engineering the Same Thing?

Chemical EngineersI get asked a lot by various people if chemistry and chemical engineering are the same thing. In fact, they are pretty different from each other. What are the differences between chemistry and chemical engineering? Well, there are quite a few and I’ll address a lot of them here.

Some argue that the biggest difference between the two is the difference between a lab coat and a hard hat. That really isn’t the truth though! I believe the main differences are what you learn for each profession, the classes you take, and the jobs available to you when you get a degree in one of the subjects.

A short summary of the differences between a chemist and a chemical engineer (if you don’t want to read the long description below) is that a chemist usually works on the fundamentals of chemicals, such as discovering a new compound or new ways to extract or refine a compound while a chemical engineer is usually concerned with producing that compound on a large scale or lowering the cost of producing the compound. Another major difference is that a chemist has a vast knowledge of usually only chemistry and lab procedures while a chemical engineer has a general knowledge of chemistry and a vast knowledge of thermodynamics and the underlying mathematics. Also, since people are usually concerned with money, a difference is the pay. Chemists with a bachelor of science degree have a median salary of $47,000 while those with a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering have a median salary of about $80,000. [PayScale]

What’s chemical engineering all about? Chemical engineering is a very difficult field to define. A chemical engineer has the mathematics and physics background of any other engineer as well as a basic understanding of chemistry and a vast understanding of thermodynamics and fluid dynamics. It’s a very demanding and challenging subject. Some would argue that a chemical engineering major is usually the most demanding major offered at a university.

What’s it like being a chemical engineering student? From personal experience, I can say that being a chemical engineering student is very rewarding. That being said, it takes a lot of work… more like a ton of work. As a chemical engineering student, you rarely have a moment to rest and have more homework than you can imagine. The homework isn’t just busy work either. Sometimes two seemingly simple questions can take hours to complete. While some say that you give up your social life to become a chemical engineer, I’d have to disagree. Certainly you do have less time to do things outside of school, but it’s still possible to have a social life!

What kind of courses does a chemical engineering student take? You take a lot of chemistry, math, physics, thermodynamics, and lab courses. Here’s a list of some common courses for a chemical engineering student:

  • Chemistry: General chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry
  • Physics: I and II
  • Math: Calculus I, II, III, and Differential Equations
  • Thermodynamics: Thermo I and II, material and energy balances, heat transfer
  • Other: Fluid dynamics, process lab, and courses like microbiology, economics, etc.

What kind of jobs can a chemical engineer hold? Chemical engineers have the choice of holding a wide range of jobs. Many go on to be process engineers or supervisors, some work with software, do hands-on jobs, go into research, academia, law… actually chemical engineers aren’t really all that limited as to a career path. Chemical engineers have a strong background in the physical sciences and mathematics, therefore their skills fit a lot of different engineering jobs. Not to mention you usually have to have a good knowledge of economics if you want to be a chemical engineer, so many are qualified for financial jobs as well.


What’s chemistry all about? Chemistry involved understanding the building blocks of the physical world. As a chemist, you would usually conduct research into the fundamentals of chemicals and the development of useful compounds.

What’s it like being a chemistry student? Before I was a chemical engineering student, I completed two years of undergraduate work as a chemistry student. One thing I can say is that I was almost always in the lab. I loved it. I wouldn’t say the workload is particularly difficult, but some concepts can be challenging. Plus, writing all those lab reports can get tiring! You really do have to enjoying being in the lab all the time.

What kind of classes does a chemistry student take? A chemistry student takes a lot of chemistry classes and lab classes along with math, usually through Calculus II, and some liberal arts electives. The chemistry classes and their respective labs include general chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, analytical chemistry, and a few classes relating to more advanced topics and lab methods. Again, I wouldn’t say the work load is outrageous, but the lab reports can start to get tedious… plus organic chemistry is sometimes a pain!

What kind of jobs can a chemist hold? Usually a chemist with only a bachelor of science degree ends up working as a lab technician. However, some may go on to work for pharmaceutical companies and hold research positions. Usually those who are serious about chemistry will decide to go on to graduate school and be in positions where they can work as a research conductor, as consultants, or as a professor.

While I just touched on the major differences between a chemical engineer and a chemist, I hope it helps you in deciding which you want to pursue! Best of luck to you all. Please feel free to share your own experiences by leaving a comment below.

[Photo Credit] Cushing Memorial Library and Archives

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