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Is Chemical Engineering Worth It? (Coursework and Career)

As with any engineering major, chemical engineering is difficult. It requires you to study advanced math and science, with chemistry being the main focus. But with all the effort it requires, is chemical engineering worth it?

Chemical engineering is worth it because of the salary and rewarding career that it offers. You will need to be good at math and science and apply these subjects in different practical situations. After you graduate with a bachelor’s degree, you will have a wide range of career options.

This article will explain what chemical engineering is and how difficult chemical engineering classes are. I will also explain how chemical engineering compares to other types of engineering, why chemical engineering is a good career, and the resources you can use to learn more about chemical engineering.

chemical engineering - is this degree worth it?

What Is Chemical Engineering?

Chemical engineering is the field of engineering that focuses on chemical processes. When you study chemical engineering, you learn how to create and design chemical productions. Chemical engineering involves the production and manufacturing of products through chemical processes. 

This includes designing equipment, systems, and processes to refine raw materials and mix, compound, and process chemicals (source).

Part of chemical engineering is being able to research and analyze chemicals and reactions. Another important part of chemical engineering is designing equipment and processes using chemicals. 

Chemical engineering requires a strong understanding of basic chemistry and knowledge of more advanced chemical subjects. As you progress through the chemical engineering major and then your career, you will frequently be using and applying chemistry of all levels.

Besides chemistry, chemical engineering uses a lot of math in conjunction with the other primary sciences: biology and physics. Math is important for all areas of engineering, specifically calculus and differential equations. 

As for physics and biology, chemical engineering does not use them as much as other engineering disciplines, but you will still need to have a good base understanding of them.

Many industries use chemical engineering, so there are a lot of options for working in chemical engineering. A majority of chemical engineers work in the chemistry, medicine, energy, and oil industries (source).

But, there are also jobs available in the pharmacy, electronics, and environmental industries. 

Here is a great video on YouTube from Zach Star that explains what Chemical Engineering is, what career options exist for chemical engineers, and what it’s like to be a chemical engineering student:

What is Chemical Engineering?

Are Chemical Engineering Classes Hard?

Chemical engineering classes are hard. A chemical engineer’s majority of classes are in chemistry, mathematics, physics, and biology. If you tend to struggle with science and math classes, you will have a hard time with chemical engineering, especially after your introductory level classes.

Even if you tend to be better at science and math, you will have to study and understand more advanced topics to complete your chemical engineering degree, which can be challenging for you.

For any engineering major, you have to complete multiple levels of calculus as well as differential equations.

As for science, you need to complete at least one or two levels of physics and biology. Then, you will have two introductory chemistry courses before you begin advanced chemistry courses. Some of these courses include organic chemistry, biochemistry, physical chemistry, and others. 

You may have a choice in some of them, and some may be mandatory depending on your school and how their chemical engineering major is structured. 

As for the chemical engineering courses themselves, the most difficult part is understanding the concepts then practicing them in a variety of practical situations. You have to do a lot of practice problems where you apply the math and science that you learned in your earlier courses to situations that you will encounter as a chemical engineer. 

Here are the general chemical engineering and chemistry courses that you have to take as a chemical engineering student:

  • Electronic Materials
  • Engineering Statistics
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Materials Science
  • Mechanics
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Physical Chemistry
  • Reactor Design
  • Reactor Kinetics

The next section will dive deeper into the chemistry classes you need to take to graduate with a chemical engineering degree.

Which Is the Toughest Subject in Chemical Engineering?

Chemistry is the toughest subject in chemical engineering. Since chemical engineering focuses on chemistry, chemical engineers study the subject at a very high level. 

Let’s look at an example of what chemistry classes a chemical engineer take (source):

  • General Chemistry I & II
  • Chemistry for engineers seminar
  • Organic chemistry
  • Physical Chemistry
  • Thermodynamics
  • Kinetics

As you can see by the courses listed above, chemical engineering has a huge focus on chemistry, much of which is advanced chemistry. If you cannot succeed at a high level in your introductory chemistry courses, you will have a very difficult time completing the rest of your major. 

There are also chemistry labs that you will have to take to accompany many of your chemistry classes. As you complete your chemistry courses, you will be applying what you have learned about chemistry in your chemical engineering courses. 

A lot of your chemical engineering classes will be a combination of concepts and practice. 

Many practice problems combine math and chemistry, so you need to have a strong base in both. You will not be able to barely pass your chemistry classes and still expect to succeed in your chemical engineering classes. 

Is Chemical Engineering Harder Than Mechanical Engineering? 

Chemical engineering can be harder than mechanical engineering depending on your strengths in science courses. Similar to chemical engineering, mechanical engineering has a huge focus on physics and math, but not as much focus specifically on chemistry as chemical engineering does. 

If you are more interested in physics, mechanical engineering is an easier major for you. 

Similar to chemical engineering, you will have courses that involve doing a lot of practice problems and working through situations that mechanical engineers face. But, instead of chemistry, mechanical engineering courses focus heavily on physics, which requires a lot of math.

Both chemical engineering and mechanical engineering require the same math courses, like calculus and differential equations. But, mechanical engineering courses require more use of the math that you learned compared to chemical engineering classes.

So, while both majors are difficult, the harder one will depend on whether you are better at chemistry or physics. If you are good at both subjects, choose the one that interests you more or has career options that you find better. 

Since both majors have the same introductory chemistry and physics classes, you can always decide after you take these courses and decide which one you enjoy more. 

Some people do not realize that there is a big difference between studying chemical engineering and chemistry since there is a big overlap between the two. Here is a video from ChemE Tutor on YouTube that explains the differences:

Introduction to Chemical Engineering | Difference between Chemistry and Chemical Engineering

Is Chemical Engineering Harder Than Electrical Engineering?

Compared to chemical engineering, which already needs a lot of math, electrical engineering needs much more math. 

Chemical engineering is harder than electrical engineering because if you struggle with chemistry, electrical engineering will be easier for you. But, electrical engineering will be harder than chemical engineering if you are not as great at physics compared to chemistry. 

Once you complete your general mathematics courses required for all engineering, like calculus and differential equations, you will be applying the concepts you learned in nearly all future electrical engineering courses.

Here are some classes that electrical engineering majors take that is different from chemical engineering:

  • Thermodynamics
  • Circuit and Control analysis
  • Signals and systems
  • Mechanics
  • Electricity and Magnetism

Source: College Corner: Chemical Engineering vs. Electrical Engineering Major

As you can see by the courses listed, electrical engineering leans more towards physics, with very little focus on chemistry. 

Both subjects require a lot of advanced math knowledge. But chemical engineering is slightly easier than electrical engineering when it comes to the intensity you have to apply math throughout your studies and your career. 

Finally, electrical engineering requires some knowledge and coursework related to computer programming. You will likely have to take a few introductory-level courses in computer science, which you will then have to apply throughout some of your electrical engineering courses. 

Chemical engineering requires little to no computer science, so you will find it easier than electrical engineering if you are not interested in or skilled at computer programming.

Chemical engineering as a career option.

Is Chemical Engineering a Good Career?

Chemical engineering is a good career choice if you can earn a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and are interested in the many available career options. Chemical engineers earn good money, and there is above-average job growth.

Here are some statistics from 2020 about chemical engineering careers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • The median pay for chemical engineers in 2020 was $108,540 annually or $52.18 per hour.
  • Over 26,000 people work as chemical engineers.
  • There is a projected job growth of 9% for chemical engineers between 2020 and 2021, which is higher than the average of 8% for all occupations

Source: BLS: Chemical Engineers

If you want an entry-level job, you will need a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. But, you can also study chemical engineering at a higher level as you go through your career. A master’s degree in chemical engineering can give you more options to advance your career or get more benefits from your current job.

Here are some of the best, most popular job options for chemical engineers (source):

  • Mining Engineer
  • Food Engineer
  • Petroleum Engineer
  • Pharmaceutical Engineer
  • Consulting Engineer
  • Process Engineer
  • Water Treatment Engineer
  • Production Engineer

Every career on the list above has an average salary of over $80,000 per year, with petroleum engineers earning the most with an average of nearly $140,000 per year.

Chemical Engineering Resources

If you want to succeed as a chemical engineer, you will need to study hard throughout your college years. Here are some great resources you can utilize to succeed as a chemical engineer, all available from Amazon.com:

  • The Beginner’s Guide to Engineering: Chemical Engineering: This book is simple for anyone to understand, even if you have no background in chemical engineering. You will find it beneficial if you are considering chemical engineering as a major or career or interested in chemical engineering for any other reason. 
  • Perry’s Chemical Engineers’ Handbook: This is a textbook-style book with everything you need to know about chemical engineering. Some of the topics in this book include the mathematics you need to know, thermodynamics, particle dynamics and kinetics, transportation of heat, fluids, and many design methods. The book is written by two chemical and petroleum engineers.
  • Balancing Act: The Young Person’s Guide to a Career in Chemical Engineering: This is another book that will give you an introduction to chemical engineering and the available career options. The book will walk you through studying chemical engineering through college, choosing a career path, and how to know that you are a good fit for chemical engineering.
  • Chemistry for Engineering Students: Finally, this book will teach you all the chemistry you need to know as an engineer. It is a great book to dip your toe into engineering and chemistry before deciding if chemical engineering is right for you. You will learn important concepts, applications of chemistry, and how chemistry relates to math and physics, which is great for chemical engineers.

Final Thoughts

Chemical engineering is hard, but it is worth the effort if you want a rewarding career. You need to be good at chemistry and math and have an understanding of basic physics and biology. You will apply your chemistry and math skills in your chemical engineering courses, which include many practice problems that will mirror real-life situations. 

There are many different career paths for chemical engineers that pay well. So, if you study hard and are successful in chemistry, chemical engineering is well worth it.