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To A Degree

A Brief comparison of chemical engineering and chemistry grads

by David J. Hanson
March 14, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 11

One consistent finding in ACS surveys is that chemical engineering graduates receive higher salaries and are more likely to hold permanent, full-time jobs than are graduates with degrees in chemistry. The trend continued in 2009.

The reason for this trend is that the bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering is more broadly accepted as a terminal professional degree than is the bachelor’s degree in chemistry. This is indicated by the survey finding that only 26% of chemical engineers with bachelor’s degrees go to graduate school, a number that is actually rising slowly during this recessive economy, whereas about 48% of those receiving a bachelor’s in chemistry do graduate study.

As for pay, chemical engineers with a bachelor’s degree received a median starting salary of $66,200 in 2009, whereas respondents with a bachelor’s in chemistry got $35,000.

A higher percentage of chemical engineers held full-time jobs, too. In 2009, 53% of chemical engineers with bachelor’s degrees said they had full-time jobs, compared with 29% of chemists with bachelor’s degrees.

Some trends are shifting, however. The 2009 survey found that more women are turning to chemical engineering. According to the survey, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering that went to women jumped from 36% in 2008 to 45% in 2009.

Employers are also changing. As recently as 2007, only 4% of chemical engineers with bachelor’s degrees reported working for universities. That number rose to 26% in 2009. The economic climate may be the reason for this shift; the percentage of chemical engineering graduates working for industry has fallen significantly. In 2007, 88% of bachelor’s degree chemical engineers worked for industry, but that fell to 72% in 2008 and further to 68% in 2009.


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