Chemical Engineering vs Chemistry

Being a chemistry lover, I have always been amazed by how diverse substances are and I am fascinated to follow the processes of transforming materials into useful products. However, when coming to choosing the degree to study at university, I encountered the dilemma between chemistry and chemical engineering, because I was uncertain of their differences and career pathways, and all the people that I asked seemed unable to provide sufficient knowledge to push my mind towards either choice. Therefore I am writing this article, to help those of you who are facing the same problem as I did make the right choice of your life.

Some may argue that the biggest difference is the working environment, that chemists wear lab coats and chemical engineers work in a plant. It is a bit difficult to completely differentiate the two disciplines since there are some degrees of overlap between them, I, however, believe that the most significant differences lay in their concepts, and I am going to address a few fundamental aspects of them here.

What is chemistry?

Chemistry is a science which involves understanding of compositions, properties and behaviours of matters. A chemist will generally receive very intensive training in chemistry, especially the theoretical knowledge to conduct researches into fundamentals of chemicals and development of new compounds. Chemists are not trained with skills to design equipments to produce chemicals on an industrial scale.

What to expect from a Chemistry course

–        In-depth knowledge about physical, inorganic and organic chemistry

–        Mathematical methods (mainly calculus), laboratory skills and computational methods

What to do after graduating

Usually a chemistry graduate would progress further towards an MSc or PhD, although not necessarily in chemistry. Many have gone on to study for degrees in nanotechnology, pharmacology, forensic science and many other fields including chemical engineering also. However, just because you have studied chemistry does not mean that you have to be in the lab for the rest of your life, many chemical or chemical related industries offer a wide variety of jobs. The training you receive as a chemist also allows you to work in many other industries, such as the financial world, information technology or teaching.

What is chemical engineering then?

Chemical engineering is a branch of engineering rather than a science. It is quite difficult to exactly define, and it was not until I got into chemical engineering that I know what it is really about. So chemical engineers are trained to use mathematical and physical knowledge, including thermodynamics, material and energy balances, and fluid dynamics, together with some background in chemistry, to develop processes which alter the chemical, physical or biochemical state of materials, with an emphasis on safety, sustainability and cost effectiveness. Basically it is making things happen when other factors come into context. It is usually more quantitative and requires a lot of maths. The chemistry involved is mainly physical chemistry.

What to expect from a Chemical Engineering course

–        Mathematics, physics, physical chemistry and thermodynamics

–        Transport processes (mass and heat transport, fluid dynamics)

–        Designing and modelling

–        Management and economic knowledge

–        Laboratory and computational skills

What to do after graduating

Chemical engineers have many career pathways to choose from. There are excellent employment opportunities for chemical engineering graduates in sectors such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology or oil and gas production. Due to the highly transferable skills taught, a chemical engineer will also be highly employable in other sectors, for example management consultancy and finance. You will also be well-prepared for further studies as well as research level.


So there you have it, the most fundamental differences between chemistry and chemical engineering. All of this being said, the key point is to go after the subject that you enjoy most, which can therefore be committed to.  Good luck with your choice and I hope you have found this useful.

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Additional resources:

Chemistry Degree
Best Universities to Study Chemistry in the UK
First Year Engineering Courses

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