Chemical Engineer vs. Mechanical Engineer (Key Differences)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published April 29, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Engineers perform important work designing, testing and building machines, systems, structures and devices. The type of engineer you are can decide your areas of focus and the work you do. Mechanical and chemical engineering are two branches of the field with diverse applications.

In this article, we explain what chemical and mechanical engineers are and list some of the key differences between the professions.

What is a chemical engineer?

A chemical engineer is someone who works with chemicals, food, fuel and other products. In their roles, they might develop processes, materials or equipment or use math and science skills to address complications in manufacturing processes. Many chemical engineers work in office or laboratory settings, where they can develop and test their designs.

Chemical engineers might fulfill responsibilities like:

  • Design processes for producing chemicals, food, medicine or biologicals

  • Create experiments to test chemicals and substances

  • Oversee operations and production to optimize processes and improve results

  • Educate others on safety procedures for working with dangerous chemicals

  • Conduct tests and monitor results

Related: How To Become a Chemical Engineer

What is a mechanical engineer?

A mechanical engineer is a professional that designs, evaluates and works on mechanical devices. They might assess how they can use those devices to create workable solutions for various issues. Mechanical engineers often oversee the production of the devices, ensuring that, from concept to delivery, they meet requirements and function as desired.

Mechanical engineers might fulfill responsibilities like:

  • Work on machines, tools, engines and other thermal and mechanical devices

  • Design new products and solutions

  • Test materials, equipment and devices to ensure proper operation and function

  • Oversee manufacturing processes

  • Develop mechanical designs for novel products

  • Track design and development processes and progress

Related: How To Become a Mechanical Engineer

Differences between chemical and mechanical engineers

Here are some key differences between the two types of engineers:

Degree requirements

One key area where these two engineering roles differ is in their degree requirements. While pursuing a degree in engineering, there are many core requirements both specialties pursue. Typically, mechanical engineers focus more on mathematics and physics courses, whereas chemical engineers might spend more time completing science and chemistry classes. Here's a closer look at some classes a mechanical engineering major might take:

  • Calculus

  • Materials science

  • Statistics

  • Physics

  • Thermodynamics

  • Design and automation

  • Engineering analysis

  • Dynamics

Here's a look at the courses a chemical engineer may complete:

  • Bioengineering

  • Biomechanics

  • Electrochemistry

  • Experimental biology

  • Chemistry

  • Computer science

  • Environmental engineering

Related: Is Chemical Engineering a Good Major? (With Jobs)

Work environment

Another key area of difference between the two roles is work environment. In professional settings, chemical engineers often split their time between laboratories and offices, where they can complete a combination of administrative and testing work. When developing solutions or testing materials, a laboratory can help chemical engineers interact with compounds, like medicines or chemicals, safely. Usually, while working in a lab, chemical engineers wear safety equipment and follow set guidelines to ensure their safety and others'.

Mechanical engineers might work in office settings, too. They might leave to visit work sites or manufacturing sites. Working in an office allows them to access computers, where they might use modeling software and programs to develop products and devices.

Related: 14 Types of Engineering Careers to Explore

Pay

Chemical engineering and mechanical engineering positions can also differ in their compensation, though salary expectations are relatively comparable. Chemical engineers might have a higher earning potential because of the education and skills required for most chemical engineering positions. Salary expectations can vary greatly depending on factors like experience, employer and geographic location. In the United States, chemical engineers make an average salary of $85,205 per year.

Depending on where they work and what their qualifications are, mechanical engineers may make slightly less than chemical engineers. In the U.S., those in these roles make an average salary of $83,751 per year.

For the most up-to-date salary information, please click on the blue salary links provided.

Industry

Because mechanical and chemical engineers typically specialize in two distinct disciplines of engineering, the industries they work in can differ. Both engineers can fulfill roles in the manufacturing industry, but mechanical engineers may be more likely than chemical engineers to work in industries like:

  • Aerospace

  • Defense

  • Construction

  • Utilities

  • Automotive

  • Consumer goods

  • Marine

Chemical engineers, in contrast, often work in industries like:

  • Pharmaceuticals

  • Health care

  • Oil and gas

  • Food processing

  • Biotechnology

  • Safety

  • Environmental health

Related: 15 Pharmaceutical Industry Jobs (With Salary and Duties)

Skills

Another area of difference between the two professions are in the skills engineers use to complete their job functions. While they likely employ many of the same skills in their roles, each area's focus might make some skills more useful than others. Here's a closer look at the skills that can help mechanical engineers in their roles:

  • Problem-solving: Creativity and problem-solving skills can help mechanical engineers develop innovative solutions to specific problems. They can use these skills to improve products and processes.

  • Math skills: In their work, mechanical engineers often use math skills to test and develop new products, materials and devices. Strong foundational knowledge of math and physics are often important for those in mechanical engineering positions.

  • Computer skills: Many mechanical engineers complete some of their work on computers. They might use machines to help them model and prototype new ideas and devices.

  • Communication skills: Mechanical engineers often work alongside other professionals to develop, test and build devices. knowing how to communicate requirements, updates and expectations can help them in their roles.

Chemical engineers might benefit most from skills like:

  • Analytical skills: In their research and testing, chemical engineers can often benefit from analytical skills that help them make detailed observations and conclusions.

  • Teamwork skills: Chemical engineers often work with other engineers and professionals to perform their duties. Teamwork and interpersonal skills can help them function well with team members and complete their tasks successfully.

  • Laboratory safety skills: For chemical engineers who perform work in laboratories, a strong safety sense can be very important. Knowledge of applicable rules and procedures can often help keep engineers and others safe.

  • Science skills: Many chemical engineers work in science related industries. A strong science background can often make it easier for them to navigate their fields and perform their work.

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