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I'm exploring Ph.D. programs at Caltech in both Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. I have a few questions to better understand the implications of choosing one over the other:

  1. Besides coursework, what sets these programs apart?
  2. How does department choice affect career prospects, if my research focus is specific?
  3. Is Chemistry generally more competitive to get into than Chemical Engineering?

I'd appreciate any insights.

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  • How many professors are in both? But probably not much difference. It is a small school, so small number statistics will prevail
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Oct 6, 2023 at 4:37
  • What is your undergraduate preparation, and how much do you know about the general differences between chemistry and chemical engineering?
    – RLH
    Commented Oct 6, 2023 at 4:53

1 Answer 1

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As a professor in Chemical Engineering in North America, I might be able to provide some guidance here.

At the undergraduate level, chemical engineering and chemistry are very different (in a North American perspective). In chemical engineering, the emphasis is more put on the chemical process itself than on the chemistry occurring within this process. This is why chemical engineers often take advanced courses in fluid mechanics, heat transfer, mass transfer to be able to design unit operations. I do not have a formal education in chemistry, but I would believe that more emphasis would be put into the mechanisms that occur during chemical reactions (e.g. organic chemistry) and also more hands-on lab work.

At the graduate level, however, the difference between the two fields is more hazy. Some professors in chemical engineering will work on reaction catalysis, which is something you would also find in a chemistry department. Experimental work at the graduate level will take place in a lab, as in a chemistry department. Consequently, the difference from a research perspective is more shallow.

As for careers prospects, a PhD in either field should allow you to have access to interesting and challenging positions. I know for a fact that a PhD in chemical engineering is a degree that has significant value in the industry. However, chemical engineers will often be asked to think more about the chemical process itself, than the chemical reaction. So, maybe this could be the difference to look into.

So, to directly answer your questions.

  1. Chemists focus more on the chemical reaction, Chemical engineers focus on the process as a whole, including the design of unit operations outside of the reactors

  2. Research topic will have a greater impact on the career prospects. However, I would presume that chemical engineers would have more flexibility in finding a career in the industry afterwards, especially if you can become P. Eng.

  3. I do not know.

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