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Nickolas Kapaun

Full disclosure, I'm a chemical engineer, so I have more knowledge in this than in chemistry, and I may be a little biased towards engineering. I've worked with both chemists and chemical engineers (with phd and bachelors degrees) but I'll do my best to be balanced.

A lot of it comes down to what you want to do for a career and how much school you're willing to undertake.

First, a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering (four years) can land you a challenging and relatively well paying job in the chemical industry (operations, process engineering, design, et cetera). These jobs are often in the oil, gas, petrochemical, materials, specialty chemicals or related areas. Renewable energy and materials is also a growing focus in the field, though most of the jobs are still in traditional chemical processing. With a phd one tends to work in research either in industry or academia, but often in the same sort of field of study.

A bachelor's degree in chemistry, as I understand it, does not usually lend itself as clearly to a job as a chemist, which usually requires a phd. So if you're looking to be a chemist, definitely you're going to want to go to grad school. I can't speak to exactly what technical jobs are available for a chemistry major with a bachelors degree.

The type of work is also fundamentally different. A chemist is more concerned with creating something new or finding a new reaction pathway to make an existing chemical. The work is mostly in a lab setting from what I've seen. A chemical engineer is more focused on how to scale up production of a chemical to where a useful (re: profitable) amount can be made in a controlled, reliable and safe manner. Engineering is more applied and less theoretical. We tend to work with heuristics and empirical (experience based) models as much as or more than purely theoretical ones. This is because a chemical plant is based around a lot of the same equipment that's been around a long time (reactors, heat exchangers, pumps, compressors, distillation columns, etc) and a lot of the theory hasn't changed, and there's lots of real world data available to draw on.

The day to day work of a chemical engineer can vary. I've worked in a couple different areas, and can break them down:
1. lab/research work. This was small scale experiments testing chemical formulations and doing the scale up work so that larger batches could be prepared. Work was about 50% of the time in the lab or pilot plants (which are small scale plants designed to test out new processes before a full size plant is built) and the other 50% of the time in front of a computer preparing experiments or analyzing data and results.
2. Process Engineering in an oil refinery. This was split about half working outside in the plant, where I was performing checks of new and existing equipment against the design documents, and then supervising the startup and initial operation. The work was not very theoretical and quite physical (climbing up and down ladders, inside and outside of vessels, etc), but still required a solid grasp of chemical engineering concepts. The work also involved a lot of time spent working with the plant operators, training them and troubleshooting operational issues. In support of this work was a fair bit of office work analyzing operational data and reviewing design information.
3. Design engineering. This work is almost exclusively office work. Design engineers use computer simulations to model a plant's flow scheme to design new plants. Then once a flow scheme is designed, detailed hydraulics and equipment specifications are generated. This sort of work is much more textbook and a little more theoretical.

As far as the type of classes you'll take in school, chemistry and chemical engineering are similar for the first 2 years (calculus, physics, chemistry (general, organic, physical)). The last two years, chemistry students take more chemistry specific classes, whereas chemical engineers take engineering specific classes. These deal with the more practical application of science to engineering. These classes are things like mass and energy balances (applying the 1st law of thermodynamics to solving problems), transport (heat transfer, diffusion, fluid flow), thermodynamics, reaction kinetics, separation processes, a lab class where you work with individual unit operations in a lab setting, and a design class where you design a plant. So a tip here is you don't necessarily have to decide right away. Many of the people I went to college with started as chemical engineering majors and decided they wanted to pursue chemistry instead after taking a couple of the engineering classes.

Hope this helps you.

Answered 9 years ago

Nickolas Kapaun