1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Chemistry Chemistry or Engineering major for environmentally-minded?

  1. Apr 17, 2016 #1

    I'm entering college this Fall and I'm not sure whether I want to pursue a Chemistry degree or an Engineering degree. The college I'll be attending has a very strong chemistry program, and a comparably weaker engineering program, but they have both programs nonetheless.

    I'm interested in renewable energy/resources, and sustainable materials/design. Yes, it's a very broad interest, mostly because I haven't been able to take courses related to those things in high school, so I don't know exactly what sector I'm interested in.

    As for my academics, I really enjoy chemistry (almost done with AP Chem and thought it was a great introduction to chemistry, although again, I haven't taken organic or advanced college level chemistry, so I'm just skimming the surface), I enjoy creating prototypes of little inventions I think of, and I love learning about people's solutions to environmental/energy problems.

    I feel a bit more confident with chemistry than with physics/math, at least at the introductory level I'm at (taking multivariable calc right now - I can do the psets and do fine on tests, but I'm not sure if I'll really understand Stokes theorem as much as I'll understand the kinetic molecular theory...) But, that could all change once I start taking advanced college courses. I also like learning about a wide variety of subjects within the sciences (like physics and EE), not limited to chemistry. I definitely enjoy multi-disciplinary, hands-on learning.

    I don't really know which one would suit me best, and I'm looking for some help.

    I guess the questions from me are:
    Which option would better allow me to pursue my environmental interests (in college and in the workforce)?
    Would I feel "stuck" in a chemistry major with my interdisciplinary mindset?
    Would chemistry open up more opportunity for me (job-wise/ financially) then a degree in engineering?

    Thanks for reading this... please let me know if you have any thoughts on the subject.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 17, 2016 #2


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I have to imagine that Chemistry offers myriad opportunities in sustainable materials, less so in the other areas that interest you. Since you are not yet in college I would take a wait-and-see approach. You should be able to take a survey course in renewable resources early on and that may well help you decide on which major best aligns with your growing skills and interests.
  4. Apr 17, 2016 #3
    Why not chemical engineering? I work as a lab tech at a large geo analytical facility for a mining company at night while working towards my mining engineering degree during the day. We have a lot of chemists that work here, all of them either have gone back to get engineering degrees or wish they had done chemical engineering to begin with. According to them, they could do just about anything with a chemical engineering degree that they could do with a chemistry degree, but there is a lot they could do with an engineering degree that cant be done with just a chemistry degree, especially in the metallurgical area of their career field. Another example is I used to work in maintenance under an engineer in charge of maintenance and projects, typically an mechanical/industrial engineer position, at the same facility. But his degree was in optical engineering, but just having an engineering degree allowed him to get a job outside of his specific field of study, and now he has moved to a job as a, get this, metallurgist in the leaching department at a nearby mine site, all because he had an engineering degree. Just my .02$ and again, a lot of this is coming second hand and I myself and still trying to figure life out so take it for what its worth. Good luck to you.
  5. Apr 19, 2016 #4
    If you want to be able to see (and smell) the difference you make for improving the environment, you can do no better than getting a chemical engineering degree and working in industry as a control systems engineer. Working from the inside, you will see a realistic view of what the issues actually are. A lot of what passes for "environmentalism" is unfortunately little more than an ignorant affectation. These so-called environmentalists often emphasize trivial things while larger issues remain unaddressed.

    The real environmentalist finds ways to save energy, by making existing processes work more efficiently, by reducing waste, and by reducing chance for accidents.

    A degree in chemical engineering is a good gateway in to the field of Control Systems Engineering. There are very few programs explicitly for control systems engineering, so they draw from three other engineering disciplines: Mechanical, Electrical, and Chemical Engineering.

    The downside is this: you're not likely to see the full spectrum of what the field of chemistry has to offer. Your concern will be about a few processes with maybe a dozen reactions and measurements. However, the logistics and practicalities of sustaining these systems does convey a great deal of authority to a recent graduate. Most engineers in this field make a decent living. Finally, if you choose to move up toward management, I've seen it done successfully more than a few times.

    (Full Disclosure: I am a registered professional engineer of control systems and I enjoy this work a lot, so I am very biased)
  6. Apr 22, 2016 #5
    I don't think it really matters but I do think that when you get a straight chem eng degree, a lot of job opportunities will be at companies that are dirty and don't care for the environment (basically all of corporate industry).
  7. Apr 23, 2016 #6
    Nonsense. I work at a water and sewer utility. We keep the rivers and drinking water clean --and we do a very good job at it. That's chemical engineering too. We use lots of chemical processes including chlorinators, sulphonators, various coagulants and biological processes, lime slakers, methanol injection systems, and then we look at the water with gas chromatography systems to figure out what chemicals it may have. Water, being a very effective solvent, can dissolve and carry lots of interesting things. If you think this job is dull, you have no idea what we do.

    The thing you have to understand is that big industry will always exist --whether you choose to participate or not. If you choose to stay out of such endeavors, what do you think happens? They keep doing what they've been doing without much improvement. You also need to realize that you have been taught for an entire generation by teachers who have almost no industry experience in the field. Your opinions are based upon blather from "journalists" with significant ignorance as their bias. If you're in your mid 20's you need to realize that your opinions are still very much a result of that educational experience.

    So tell me, if you could engineer a new blend of gasoline that would burn cleaner with fewer waste byproducts, is that such a bad thing? Think of the multiplicative effect on society. Yeah, it's a "dirty" industry. Do you leave dirt where you see it, or do you try to clean it up?
  8. Apr 24, 2016 #7
    If you work for a corporation, yes you are a good, neutral or bad cog in an overall bad machine.
    Your first argument is fallacious. Apply it to other decisions and it will lead to absurd results.
    Your second argument almost sounds like you think there is a conspiracy going on against corporate pollution. Laughable.
    As for the third part, if you are in your mid 20's your decision doesn't mean anything? I am not in my mid 20's, but I would say that if you have more 'life experience', you no longer have the freedom to make a balanced reasonable decision based on the evidence without risking betraying your life's decisions. No one decides one day that all their experiences have been 'bad'.

    If you want to go into water treatment, do a specialization in water treatment. We were talking about the general ChemE degree and the general job opportunities of such a degree.

    Most people have no quarrel with polluting a bit or a lot, as long as they can rationalize it away internally. That, I agree with.

    And even if I were right, you wouldn't be able to agree with me anyway because of your degree and life choices. A person doesn't just come out and say their life is based on a mistake.

    A new blend of fossil fuel that is less polluting is indeed very very bad for the environment. This is so easy to see, I won't even argue it. That you bring this up in an argument does more to prove my case than anything I could ever say. This is in fact the perfect example.
  9. Apr 24, 2016 #8
    I admit, I'll never be as sharp as you think you are. Be careful with that wit. You might hurt yourself.
  10. Apr 26, 2016 #9
    the same could be said for you.

    Who do you think does water treatment? None of the colleges I looked at offer a degree in water treatment engineering.

    Chemical engineers are involved in building more efficient solar panels, batteries, filtration systems as well as the development of alternative fuels. there are a lot of things a chemical engineer can do that do not involve destroying the earth.

    P.S. If you are going to hate on big corporations, i hope you're doing it from a computer you built from wood by hand and are powering it with a hand crank generator, or else hypocrite might be a word that describes you.
  11. Apr 26, 2016 #10


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    I'm sorry but no, this is not how we do things here at PF. If you do not wish to discuss one of your claims, then do not post it in the first place.
  12. Apr 26, 2016 #11
    Why? I am not invested in or against said industry.

    There is one at my uni and we only have 10 000 students. Enviromental Technology, Water Management, Hydrology, if you want to be environmental with water, it is better to get those degrees.

    I agree with your last part. But my point is about the generic job opening for the generic ChemE degree. And this is an important consideration. One of my best female friends, she got a BSc in food engineering. She worked for Cargill and some other companies but she couldn't reconcile their corporate strategy with her conscience.
    She felt she had to go back to school, take out a loan, and get a new degree in Children Education.
    A friend of one of my friends worked as an engineer at a consultancy firm. He was unwilling to work on projects of the big oil industry. I don't understand why his employer allowed him to refuse to do those projects. I think he had to leave the firm at some point. It is just too big of a hassle.

    Don't think too lightly about this. If you are very concerned about the enviroment, don't go into a field were most jobs are too dirty for your conscience. Specialize early. Go to a program where you can specialize in green chemistry or enviromental tech or whatever.

    Really? If this is not false, no one but Ted Kaczynski is allowed to criticize (big) corporations. You really believe that? Either we are all hypocrites, or we give corporations carte blanche? If everyone is a hypocrite, no one is.

    He is the one refusing to make sound arguments. I am just pointing out to all the readers that he just gave the perfect example that undermines his own position, namely the oil industry coming up with a blend to allow them to burn more, not less, fossil fuels. All I claimed that it was so clear, it doesn't need to clarified further.
  13. Apr 26, 2016 #12


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    I stand by my statement. If you wish to discuss the matter further then you can contact me via PM.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?
Draft saved Draft deleted