Careers and Jobs in Chemistry: Chemists

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  • School Subjects: Chemistry, Mathematics
  • Personal Skills: Communication/ideas Technical/scientific
  • Work Environment: Primarily indoors Primarily one location
  • Minimum Education Level: Bachelor’s degree
  • Salary Range $35,480 to $59,870 to $106,31
  • Certification or Licensing: None available
  • Outlook: More slowly than the average
  • DOT: 022
  • GOE: 02.02.01
  • NOC: 2112
  • O*NET-SOC: 19-2031.00


Chemists are scientists who study the composition, changes, reactions, and transformations of matter. They may specialize in analytical, biological, inorganic, organic, or physical chemistry. They may work in laboratories, hospitals, private companies, government agencies, or colleges and universities. Approximately 90,000 chemists are employed in the United States.

The ancient Egyptians began gathering knowledge about matter and organizing it into systems, developing what is now known as alchemy, which mixed science with metaphysics. This was the beginning of chemistry. Alchemists concentrated their efforts on trying to convert lead and other common metals into gold. Alchemy dominated the European chemical scene until modern chemistry started to replace it in the 18th century.


In the late 1700s, Antoine Lavoisier discovered that the weight of the products of a chemical reaction always equaled the combined weight of the original reactants. This discovery became known as the law of the conservation of matter. In the l800s, the work of scientists such as John Dalton, Humphrey Davy, Michael Faraday, Amedeo Avogadro, Dmitri Mendeleyev, and Julius Meyer laid the foundations for modern chemistry: The latter two men independently established the periodic law and periodic table of elements, making chemistry a rational, predictable science. The technological advances of the industrial revolution provided both the necessity and the incentive to get rid of alchemy and make chemistry the science it is today.


Many chemists work in research and development laboratories. However, some chemists spend most of their time in offices or libraries, where they do academic research on new developments or write reports on research results. Often these chemists determine the need for certain products and tell the researchers what experiments or studies to pursue in the laboratory.

Chemists who work in research are usually focused on either basic or applied research. Basic research entails searching for new knowledge about chemicals and chemical properties. This helps scientists broaden their understanding of the chemical world, and often these new discoveries appear later as applied research. Chemists who do applied research use the knowledge obtained from basic research to create new and/or better products that may be used by consumers or in manufacturing processes, such as the development of new pharmaceuticals for the treatment of a specific disease or superior plastics for space travel. In addition, they may hold marketing or sales positions, advising customers about how to use certain products. These jobs are especially important in the field of agriculture, where customers need to know the safe and effective doses of pesticides to use to protect workers, consumers, and the environment. Chemists who work in marketing and sales must understand the scientific terminology involved so they can translate it into nontechnical terms for the customer.

Some chemists work in quality control and production in manufacturing plants. They work with plant engineers to establish manufacturing processes for specific products and to ensure that the chemicals are safely and effectively handled within the plant.

Chemists also work as instructors in high schools, colleges, and universities. Many at the university level are also involved in basic or applied research. In fact, most of America’s basic research is con ducted in a university setting.

There are many branches of chemistry, each with a different set of requirements. A chemist may go into basic or applied research, marketing, teaching, or a variety of other related positions. Analytical chemists study the composition and nature of rocks, soils, and other substances and develop procedures for analyzing them. They also identify the presence of pollutants in soil, water, and air. Biological chemists, also known as biochemists, study the composition and actions of complex chemicals in living organisms. They identify and analyze the chemical processes related to biological functions, such as metabolism or reproduction, and they are often involved directly in genetics studies. They are also employed in the pharmaceutical and food industries.

The distinction between organic and inorganic chemistry is based on carbon-hydrogen compounds. Ninety-nine percent of all chemicals that occur naturally contain carbon. Organic chemists study the chemical compounds that contain carbon and hydrogen, while inorganic chemists study all other substances. Physical chemists study the physical characteristics of atoms and molecules. A physical chemist working in a nuclear power plant, for example, may study the properties of the radioactive materials involved in the production of electricity derived from nuclear fission reactions.

Because chemistry is such a diverse field, central to every reaction and the transformation of all matter, it is necessary for chemists to specialize in specific areas. Still, each field covers a wide range of work and presents almost limitless possibilities for experimentation and study. Often, chemists will team up with colleagues in other specialties to seek solutions to their common problems.

Survey of Income from American Chemical Society:

In 2008, the American Chemical Society surveyed its members regarding employment and workplace issues. Noteworthy results include:

• Male members earned median salaries of $88,000, while female members earned median salaries of $68,000 annually.

• Nearly 52 percent of member-chemists worked in manufacturing, 27.4 percent worked in academia, 7.7 percent worked in government, and 1.6 percent were self-employed.

• Slightly more than 63 percent of members held a Ph.D.; 17 per- cent held a master’s degree, and 19.9 percent held a bachelor’s degree.


High School

If you are interested in a chemistry career, begin preparing your self in high school by taking advanced-level courses in the physical sciences, mathematics, and English. A year each of physics, chemistry, and biology is essential, as are the abilities to read graphs and charts, perform difficult mathematical calculations, and write scientific reports. Computer science courses are also important to take, since much of your documentation and other work will involve using computers.

Postsecondary Training

The minimum educational requirement for a chemist is a bachelor’s degree in science. However, in the upper levels of basic and applied research, and especially in a university setting, most positions are filled by people with doctoral degrees.

More than 630 bachelor’s, 300 master’s, and 190 doctoral degree programs are accredited by the American Chemical Society (ACS). Many colleges and universities also offer advanced degree programs in chemistry. Upon entering college, students majoring in chemistry should expect to take classes in several branches of the field, such as organic, inorganic, analytical, physical chemistry, and biochemistry. Chemistry majors must advance their skills in mathematics, physics, and biology and be proficient with computers.

Other Requirements

Chemists must be detail-oriented, precise workers. They often work with minute quantities, taking minute measurements. They must record all details and reaction changes that may seem insignificant and unimportant to the untrained observer. They must keep careful records of their work and have the patience to repeat experiments over and over again, perhaps varying the conditions in only a small way each time. They should be inquisitive and have an interest in what makes things work and how things fit together. Chemists may work alone or in groups. A successful chemist is not only self-motivated but should be a team player and have good written and oral communication skills.


The best means of exploring a career in chemistry while still in high school is to pay attention and work hard in chemistry class. This will give you the opportunity to learn the scientific method, perform chemical experiments, and become familiar with chemical terminology. Advanced placement (AP) courses will also help. Contact the department of chemistry at a local college or university to discuss the field and arrange tours of their laboratories or classrooms. Because of the extensive training involved, it is very unlikely that a high school student will be able to get a summer job or internship working in a laboratory. However, you may want to contact local manufacturers or research institutions to explore the possibility.


About 43 percent of the approximately 90,000 chemists employed in the United States work for manufacturing companies. Most of these companies are involved in chemical manufacturing, producing such products as plastics, soaps, paints, drugs, and synthetic materials. Chemists are also needed in industrial manufacturing and pilot plant locations. Examples of large companies that employ many chemists are Dow Chemical, DuPont, Monsanto, and Campbell Soup Company.

Chemists also work for government agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Chemists may find positions in laboratories at institutions of higher learning that are devoted to research. In addition, some chemists work in full-time teaching positions in high schools and universities.


Once you have a degree in chemistry, job opportunities will begin to become available. Summer jobs may become available after your sophomore or junior year of college. You can attend chemical trade fairs and science and engineering fairs to meet and perhaps interview prospective employers. Professors or faculty advisors may know of job openings, and you can begin breaking into the field by using these connections.

If you are a senior and are interested in pursuing an academic career at a college or university, you should apply to graduate schools. You will want to begin focusing even more on the specific type of chemistry you wish to practice and teach (for example, inorganic chemistry or analytical chemistry). Look for universities that have strong programs and eminent professors in your intended field of specialty. By getting involved with the basic research of a specific branch of chemistry while in graduate school, you can become a highly employable expert in your field.


In nonacademic careers, advancement usually takes the form of increased job responsibilities accompanied by salary increases. For example, a chemist may rise from doing basic research in a laboratory to being a group leader, overseeing and directing the work of others. Some chemists eventually leave the laboratory and set up their own consulting businesses, serving the needs of private manufacturing companies or government agencies. Others may accept university faculty positions.

Chemists who work in a university setting follow the advancement procedures for that institution. Typically, a chemist in academia with a doctoral degree will go from instructor to assistant professor to associate professor and finally to full professor. To advance through these ranks, faculty members at most colleges and universities are expected to perform original research and publish their papers in scientific journals of chemistry and/or other sciences. As the rank of faculty members increases, so do their duties, salaries, responsibilities, and reputations.


Salary levels for chemists vary based on education, experience, and the area in which they work. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, median annual earnings for all chemists in 2006 were $59,870. The lowest paid 10 percent earned less than $35,480, and the highest paid 10 percent made more than $106,310 annually. Chemists working for the federal government had mean incomes of $91,550 in 2006.

According to the ACS’s salary survey of 2005, the median salary of its members with Ph.D.’s was $93,800; those with master’s degrees, $75,000, and those with bachelor’s degrees, $64,000. Salaries tend to be highest on the East Coast and West Coast. In addition, those working in industry usually have the highest earnings, while those in academia have the lowest.

As highly trained, full-time professionals, most chemists receive health insurance, paid vacations, and sick leave. The specifics of these benefits vary from employer to employer. Chemists who teach at the college or university level usually work on an academic calendar, which means they get extensive breaks from teaching classes during summer and winter recesses.


Most chemists work in clean, well-lighted laboratories that are well organized and neatly kept. They may have their own offices and share laboratory space with other chemists. Some chemists work at such locations as oil wells or refineries, where their working conditions may be uncomfortable. Occasionally, chemical reactions or substances being tested may have strong odors. Other chemicals may be extremely dangerous to the touch, and chemists will have to wear protective devices such as goggles, gloves, and protective clothing and work in special, well-ventilated hoods.


The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that employment for chemists will grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2014. Employment opportunities will be best for researchers who are interested in working in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing and in professional, scientific, and technical services firms. Aspiring chemists will do well to get graduate degrees to maximize their opportunities for employment and advancement. The ACS reports that 53 percent of 2003—04 chemistry master’s graduates found full-time permanent jobs (as compared to only 35 percent of bachelor’s graduates).

Those wishing to teach full time at the university or college level should find opportunities but also stiff competition. Many of these institutions are choosing to hire people for adjunct faculty positions (part-time positions without benefits) instead of for full-time, tenure-track positions. Nevertheless, a well-trained chemist should have little trouble finding some type of employment.


For a copy of Partnerships in Health Care, a brochure discussing clinical laboratory careers, and other information, contact:

American Association for Clinical Chemistry

1850 K Street, NW, Suite 625

Washington, DC 20 006-2213

Tel: 800-892-1400

For career and industry information, contact:

American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists

PO Box 12215

Research Triangle Park, NC 27709

Tel: 919-549-8141

For general information about chemistry careers and approved education programs, contact:

American Chemical Society

1155 16th Street, NW

Washington, DC 20036-4801 Tel: 800-227-5558

The American Chemistry Council provides useful information about the chemical industry, and maintains an informative Web site.

American Chemistry Council

1300 Wilson Boulevard

Arlington, VA 22209-2323

Tel: 703-741-5000

For information on careers in the cosmetics industry, contact:

Society of Cosmetic Chemists

120 Wall Street, Suite 2400

New York, NY 10005-4088

Tel: 212-668-1500

To read about the important role women have played in chemistry, visit Her Lab In Your Life: Women in Chemistry

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