A chemist looking into a microscope

A chemist could...

Develop a synthetic fiber that can stop a speeding bullet. A bulletproof vest Help discover new medicines that alleviate pain or cure diseases. A pile of different multi-colored pills
Figure out how to make hair-styling gel work better. Close-up photo of a person with an open mouth and spiked hair Discover new processes that could solve the world's energy crisis. Watch this Chemical Explorers video. Thumbnail for a video about alternative energy shows a car next to a drawing of a fuel cell
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Key Facts & Information

Overview Everything in the environment, whether naturally occurring or of human design, is composed of chemicals. Chemists search for and use new knowledge about chemicals to develop new processes or products.
Key Requirements Perseverance, curiosity, and the ability to concentrate on detail and to work independently
Minimum Degree Bachelor's degree
Subjects to Study in High School Chemistry, physics, computer science, algebra, geometry, calculus, English
Median Salary
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) Little or No Change (-2% to 2%)
  • Meet Melissa Gerhart, a Development Chemist testing and developing products at PPG Industries, the world's leading coatings company.
  • Meet Lorena Barron, a Principal Scientist working in the department of Drug Product Engineering at Amgen.
  • You can explore chemistry careers, courtesy of the American Chemical Society.
Related Occupations
Source: O*Net

Training, Other Qualifications

A bachelor's degree in chemistry or a related discipline is the minimum educational requirement; however, many research jobs require a master's degree or, more often, a PhD.

Education and Training

A bachelor's degree in chemistry or a related discipline usually is the minimum educational requirement for entry-level chemist jobs. Most research jobs in chemistry require a master's degree or, more frequently, a PhD.

Students planning careers as chemists should take courses in science and mathematics, should like working with their hands building scientific apparatus and performing laboratory experiments, and should like computer modeling.

In addition to taking required courses in analytical, inorganic, organic, and physical chemistry, undergraduate chemistry majors usually study biological sciences; mathematics; physics; and increasingly, computer science. Computer courses are essential because employers prefer job applicants who are able to apply computer skills to modeling and simulation tasks and operate computerized laboratory equipment. Courses in statistics are useful because both chemists and materials scientists need the ability to apply basic statistical techniques.

Other Qualifications

Experience, either in academic laboratories or through internships, fellowships, or work-study programs in industry, is also useful.

Perseverance, curiosity, and the ability to concentrate on detail and to work independently are essential.

Nature of the Work

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Everything in the environment, whether naturally occurring or of human design, is composed of chemicals. Chemists search for and use new knowledge about chemicals. Chemical research has led to the discovery and development of new and improved synthetic fibers, paints, adhesives, drugs, cosmetics, electronic components, lubricants, and thousands of other products. Chemists and materials scientists also develop processes, such as improved oil refining and petrochemical processing, that save energy and reduce pollution. Research on the chemistry of living things spurs advances in medicine, agriculture, food processing, and other fields.

Many chemists work in research and development (R&D). In basic research, they investigate the properties, composition, and structure of matter and the laws that govern the combination of elements and reactions of substances to each other. In applied R&D, these scientists create new products and processes or improve existing ones, often using knowledge gained from basic research. For example, synthetic rubber and plastics resulted from research on small molecules uniting to form large ones, a process called polymerization. R&D chemists use computers and a wide variety of sophisticated laboratory instrumentation for modeling, simulation, and experimental analysis.

The use of computers to analyze complex data has allowed chemists to practice combinatorial chemistry. This technique makes and tests large quantities of chemical compounds simultaneously to find those with certain desired properties. Combinatorial chemistry has allowed chemists to produce thousands of compounds more quickly and inexpensively than was formerly possible and assisted in the sequencing of human genes. Specialty chemists, such as medicinal and organic chemists, work with life scientists to translate this knowledge into new drugs.

Chemists also work in production and quality control in chemical manufacturing plants. They prepare instructions for plant workers that specify ingredients, mixing times, and temperatures for each stage in the process. They also monitor automated processes to ensure proper product yield and test samples of raw materials or finished products to ensure that they meet industry and government standards, including regulations governing pollution. Chemists report and document test results and analyze those results in hopes of improving existing theories or developing new test methods.

Work Environment

Chemists usually work in offices and laboratories. R&D chemists spend a lot of time in laboratories, but also work in offices when they do theoretical research or plan, record, and report on their lab research. Although some laboratories are small, others are large enough to incorporate prototype chemical manufacturing facilities, as well as advanced testing equipment.

Chemists typically work regular hours. A 40-hour work week is usual, but longer hours are not uncommon. Researchers may be required to work odd hours in laboratories or other locations, depending on the nature of their research.

On the Job

Typical tasks for a chemist might include some of the following:

  • Analyze organic and inorganic compounds to determine chemical and physical properties, composition, structure, relationships, and reactions, utilizing chromatography, spectroscopy, and spectrophotometry techniques.
  • Develop, improve, and customize products, equipment, formulas, processes, and analytical methods.
  • Compile and analyze test information to determine process or equipment operating efficiency and to diagnose malfunctions.
  • Confer with scientists and engineers to conduct analysis of research projects, interpret test results, or develop nonstandard tests.
  • Direct, coordinate, and advise personnel in test procedures for analyzing components and physical properties of materials.
  • Induce changes in composition of substances by introducing heat, light, energy, and chemical catalysts for quantitative and qualitative analysis.
  • Write technical papers and reports and prepare standards and specifications for processes, facilities, products, or tests.
  • Prepare test solutions, compounds, and reagents for laboratory personnel to conduct test.
  • Study effects of various methods of processing, preserving, and packaging on composition and properties of foods.

Source: BLS

Companies That Hire Chemists

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Additional Information


Additional Support

We'd like to acknowledge the additional support of:

  • Bio-Rad Laboratories
  • Medtronic
  • PPG Industries
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