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What really is Chemical engineering? and what can you DO with it?

  1. May 17, 2011 #1
    I am contemplating between being majoring as a Chemist or a chemical engineer-- and just cant decide.

    chemistry is initially what attracts me. However-- the APPLICATION of chemistry to a PROBLEM is REALLY what gets me excited, which is what essentially is the definition of an engineer.

    However-- there seems to be very dissenting views towards what ChemE really is. to those whom I have talked to that work in the field they say chemE really has very little to do with chemistry but more so to do with how to run, maintain and build power plants. Something I dont want to do.

    From the general description of ChemE-- I would think it would be something more along the lines of pyrotechnics, lasers, fireworks, ice/heating pads-- or even toy gadgets like this:
  2. jcsd
  3. May 18, 2011 #2
    Chemists figure out how reactions work, chemical engineers figure out how to apply these reactions in a meaningful way and how to implement them in a practical way. Chemists are purely scientists, while chemical engineers have a science background but also a technological background. This is the most concise definition I could come up with.

    As a chemical engineer, the world is your oyster. You have a breadth of engineering expertise that allows you to work in an industrial setting, a research lab, an office, etc. It's incredibly diverse and appeals especially to someone like me who would like to be able to do many sorts of things.
  4. May 19, 2011 #3
    The theoretical frame of a chemist is not so different from that of a chemical engineer. The primary difference is in the type of application each focuses on: chemical engineers work with practical applications, and all their work has the ultimate goal of developing a working device; on the other hand, a chemist (much like a physicist or a pure mathematician) is primarily concerned with the deeper questions of the field - questions that may have no obvious application, with the goal of building knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

    I disagree that "chemists figure it out and chemical engineers apply it". That is definitely not true. Consider for example the development of fuel cell technology. This is technology that has been locked in R&D departments for a long time because it can't yet compete commercially. In these R&D departments, chemical engineers play a dominant role in making fuel cells a reality, alongside materials engineers and mechanical engineers - as well as a few chemists (neglecting other specialties like electrical engineering, which is not the critical component of fuel cell technology, among others).

    In fuel cell R&D, chemical engineers work to develop the theoretical and experimental framework through which we understand this technology. They are not simply passively applying the knowledge of chemists to fuel cells - they have made very significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge in this area, independently of chemists.

    The decision to chose chemistry over chemical engineering comes down to the question:

    - Do you want to study the deeper aspects of the chemical world, or the practical aspects of it?

    Research and development is very active in both fields, and you will get as much of a chance to do research as a chemist as you will as a chemical engineer. Chemical engineers DO have the advantage of a much larger array of career options than chemists, however.

    Chemist jobs generally include lab technician positions (typically at the B.S. and sometimes M.S. level), and scientist positions at the PhD level.

    Chemical engineering jobs can include lab technician positiona, as well as chemical and process engineering, at the B.S. and M.S. level, and researcher at the PhD level.

    However, be forewarned: the market is saturated at the PhD level. That is, there are too many PhD applicants for each position available, and the result is that most PhD graduates (who already have 10+ years of education on average) are forced into a series of so-called "post-docs", where they continue to "develop their research skills" for a very meager salary, before they can successfully compete for a real scientist position. This is especially true in academia, where two post-docs, each lasting ~2 years, is not unusual in science and engineering.

    I got my B.S. in Physics, and I loved it - it still is my favorite subject. But like chemistry and pure mathematics, it is not very employable. This is not because we can't hack it in professions like engineering, but simply because industry wants you to come in "pre-packaged" with the specialized knowledge they need in their respective fields. It costs them money and time in lost productivity and training, when they have to hire a physics graduate to do the work of an electrical engineer, for example. Also, industry is very skeptical of someone who chose to pursue something that is well-known to be an impractical field; they know someone chooses physics over "electrical engineering" because they're attracted to the bigger impractical aspects of science - the quantum mechanics and astrophysics, for example. That makes them wonder whether you'll hang around for very long working on technologies that can't provide that level of excitement.

    So you have to think. If you feel that you are extremely motivated to pursue pure science, and have the patience to put up with an extremely extended process that can be disappointing and frustrating at times, than Chemistry is a fine choice. Just know that you will have a harder time being gainfully employed after graduation, and that you may linger around doing nothing for months and months and months before you finally break down and go back to school (like me).

    If you are deadset on being employable at the B.S. level, then your only choice is the Chemical Engineering degree. But even then, know that the cooler jobs are not at the B.S. level, but at the M.S. level. PhD level jobs are required for research & development, but will significantly diminish your ability to be employed in any other capacity. Employers tend to regard PhDs as difficult to work with, too expensive, and too difficult to keep around before they shoot off for a position in academia as a professor. Two examples: my uncle, a chief engineer, doesn't like to hire PhDs, because of his fear that they're there only until they can go and become professors (which is really the primary goal of a PhD). Another example: an executive for a high-tech company sitting across from me at a Dunkin Donuts one day, told me the first thing he does when reviewing applications is to break them down into B.S., M.S., and Ph.D piles. The second thing is to throw out the PhD applications - they're difficult to work with, demand too much money, have too little real world experience, and won't want to hang around for too long anyway. That left him with two piles, but the B.S. pile was always enormous, and the M.S. pile was a lot smaller. He said "be in the M.S. pile". But the moral of the story is that, for industry, the preference of degrees goes like this: M.S.>B.S.>Ph.D. (and that's excluding PhD). So BE SURE you want to do nothing but research before choosing a PhD.
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