A chemist could...
|Develop a synthetic fiber that can stop a speeding bullet.||Help discover new medicines that alleviate pain or cure diseases.|
|Figure out how to make hair-styling gel work better.||Discover new processes that could solve the world's energy crisis. Watch this Chemical Explorers video.|
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|
|Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)||Little or No Change (-2% to 2%)|
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.
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
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.
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.
Companies That Hire Chemists
Explore what you might do on the job with one of these projects...
- A Soluble Separation Solution
- Abracadabra! Transforming Yogurt into 'Ravioli'
- Adsorption: Dyeing Fabrics with Kool-Aid
- Balloon Morphing: How Gases Contract and Expand
- Bath Bomb Science
- Big Pieces or Small Pieces: Which React Faster?
- Boyle's Law: Pressure vs. Volume of a Gas at Constant Temperature
- Bring on the Heat! Investigating Exothermic Reaction Rates
- Burning Calories: How Much Energy is Stored in Different Types of Food?
- Cabbage Chemistry
- Calcium Carbonate to the Rescue! How Antacids Relieve Heartburn
- Can Water Float on Water?
- Candy Chromatography: What Makes Those Colors?
- Charles's Law: Volume vs. Temperature of a Gas at Constant Pressure
- Chemistry of Baking Ingredients 1: How Much Baking Powder Do Quick Breads Need?
- Chemistry of Baking Ingredients 2: Can Baking Soda Substitute for Baking Powder in a Recipe?
- Chemistry of Ice-Cream Making: Lowering the Freezing Point of Water
- Coke® & Mentos® - Exploring Explosive Chemistry!
- Cold Pack Chemistry: Where Does the Heat Go?
- Colorful Chemistry Creations: Make Your Own Sun Print with Color and Sunlight!
Do you have a specific question about a career as a Chemist that isn't answered on this page? Post your question on the Science Buddies Ask an Expert Forum.
- American Chemical Society: https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en.html
- Sloan Career Cornerstone Center: https://www.careercornerstone.org/chemistry/chemistry.htm
- BLS. (2016). Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), 2016 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved July 1, 2017.
- O*Net Online. (2016). National Center for O*Net Development. Retrieved July 1, 2017.
- Science History Institute (n.d.). Scientific Adventurers. Retrieved August 6, 2019, from https://www.sciencehistory.org/learn/scientific-adventurers
- American Chemical Society. (n.d.). Chemistry Careers. Retrieved July 29, 2009, from https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/students/highschool/chemistryclubs/activities/chemistry-careers.html
- TPT. (2006). Real Scientists, Phillip Tong. Twin Cities Public Television. Retrieved February 27, 2019, from https://ca.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/6aba4a9a-4039-418a-98b3-0e7c6d4a67b2/scientist-profile-dairy-scientist/
We'd like to acknowledge the additional support of:
- Bio-Rad Laboratories
- PPG Industries
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