The STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields offer some of the highest paying and fastest growing job opportunities. Chemistry, a natural science that focuses on the properties of matter, certainly fits this pattern. A question remains for students who are interested in the subject, however. Should they major in chemistry or in a related engineering discipline called chemical engineering? Both programs of study have pros and cons, but the benefits of earning a chemical engineering degree rather than a chemistry degree include a better salary, the chance to focus on practical application over theoretical scientific research and a multidisciplinary curriculum.
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Higher Earning Potential
In general, engineers often earn more than scientists, and the wage difference between chemical engineer and chemist follows this pattern. The median salary for chemists is $74,740, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. The highest paid chemists, the seven percent who work for the federal government, enjoy a median wage of $108,670. The next most lucrative industry for chemists is scientific research and development, which accounts for 17 percent of jobs in the occupation and pays a median salary of $85,080.
Wages for chemical engineers are more than $27,000 higher per year than for chemists. The overall median salary for this occupation is $102,160, according to the BLS. Among the top industries employing chemical engineers, median salaries for the three highest paying industries are very close, with $107,250 wages in research and development, $107,050 in petroleum and coal products manufacturing and $106,740 in engineering services.
More than one-quarter of all chemical engineers work in one of these three most lucrative industries.
More Emphasis on Practical Application
One of the most important distinctions between chemistry and chemical engineering is the focus on research vs. practical application. Both degree paths relate to the scientific study of the substances that make up matter. Chemists conduct research to answer questions about substances at the atomic and molecular levels too small to see with the naked eye as well as the properties of substances and compounds and how they interact. Some chemists work in theoretical chemistry, with the goal of examining the structure and properties of materials and expanding general scientific knowledge in the field. Other chemists work in applied research, which might include creating new chemical compounds in a laboratory or developing new ways of testing and measuring chemical substances, the BLS reported.
Chemical engineers use the knowledge of material substances that chemists have gleaned from both basic and applied research and use that information to solve real-world problems. They find ways to scale the production of the new chemical compounds chemists discovered in a lab. They develop new chemical processes to improve activities such as creating plastics, resins and polymers. A chemical engineer’s work has an observable impact on the development and manufacture of many kinds of consumer goods, including clothing, food, paper and electronics as well as energy production, the BLS reported.
Both scientific research and engineering application have their merits. However, students who will ultimately get bored working only on laboratory research often find the opportunity to apply their knowledge of chemistry to practical matters to be a fulfilling benefit. Knowing that the work you are doing will influence how products are manufactured, chemical compounds are studied and chemical resources are produced on a vast scale can be rewarding.
Specializations within the field of chemical engineering include process engineering, biological engineering and nanomaterials engineering.
A Broader Curriculum
When you choose to major in chemistry, you will take a lot of chemistry courses. Classes such as inorganic chemistry, Experimental Chemistry, Molecular Biochemistry, Polymer Chemistry and Macroscopic Physical Chemistry will fill up your course schedule, supplemented by general education requirements and some work in math, biology and physics.
Chemical engineering programs, on the other hand, tend to be more multi-disciplinary. In this degree program, you will take fewer pure science courses in chemistry, but you might take more biology, physics and math courses than a chemistry major would. Much of your curriculum will take the form of general engineering courses and more specialized chemical engineering classes, such as Chemical Reactor Design, Chemical Process Design, Transport Phenomena and Chemical Engineering Separations. Students who are avid fans of chemistry might be disappointed to learn that they won’t take as many pure chemistry courses as they expected, but students who find practical application more interesting than theory will count this distinction as a benefit of majoring in chemical engineering.
The chemistry courses students will take in a chemical engineering program may include Chemistry I, Organic Chemistry I and II and Physical Chemistry.