What Is the Difference Between Chemistry and Chemical Engineering?

Which Career Is Better for What You Want To Do?

A chemist often works in a traditional lab setting with chemicals and analytical equipment.
A chemist often works in a traditional lab setting with chemicals and analytical equipment. Ryan McVay, Getty Images

Although there is overlap between chemistry and chemical engineering, the courses you take, degrees, and jobs are quite different. Here's a look at what chemists and chemical engineers study and what they do.

Chemistry vs Chemical Engineering In a Nutshell

The big difference between chemistry and chemical engineering has to do with originality and scale. Chemists are more likely to develop novel materials and processes, while chemical engineers are more likely to take these materials and processes and upscale them to make them larger or more efficient.

Chemistry

Chemists initially obtain bachelor degrees in science or arts, depending on the school. Many chemists pursue advanced degrees (masters or doctorate) in specialized areas.

Chemists take courses in all major branches of chemistry, general physics, math through calculus and possibly differential equations, and may take courses in computer science or programming. Chemists typically take 'core' courses in the humanities, too.

Bachelor degree chemists usually work in labs. They may contribute to R&D or perform sample analysis. Master's degree chemists do the same type of work, plus they may supervise research. Doctoral chemists do and direct research or they may teach chemistry at the college or graduate level. Most chemists pursue advanced degrees and may intern with a company before joining it. It's much more difficult to get a good chemistry position with a bachelor's degree than with the specialized training and experience accumulated during graduate study.

Chemist Salary Profile
Chemistry Course List

Chemical Engineering

Most chemical engineers go with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering. Master's degree a popular, while doctorates are rare compared with chemistry. Chemical engineers take a test to become licensed engineers. After obtaining enough experience, they may continue to become professional engineers (P.E.).

Chemical engineers take most of the chemistry courses studied by chemists, plus engineering courses and additional math. The added math courses include differential equations, linear algebra, and statistics. Common engineering courses are fluid dynamics, mass transfer, reactor desgin, thermodynamics, and process design. Engineers may take fewer core courses, but commonly pick up ethics, economics, and business classes.

Chemical engineers work on R&D teams, process engineering at a plant, project engineering, or management. Similar jobs are performed at the entry and graduate level, although master's degree engineers often find themselves in management. Many start new companies.

Chemical Engineer Salary Profile
Chemical Engineering Course List

Job Outlook for Chemists and Chemical Engineers

There are numerous job opportunities for both chemists and chemical engineers. In fact, many companies hire both types of professionals. Chemists are the kings of lab analysis. They examine samples, develop new materials and processes, develop computer models and simulations, and often teach. Chemical engineers are the masters of industrial processes and plants. Although they may work in a lab, you'll also find chemical engineers in the field, on computers, and in the boardroom.

Both jobs offer opportunities for advancement, although chemical engineers have an edge because of their broader training and certifications. Chemists often pick up postdoctoral or other training to expand their opportunities.