Chemists Overview

Most research jobs require a masters degree or Ph.D. in chemistry or a related discipline, however a bachelors degree is sufficient for entry-level positions. Manufacturing companies will continue the trend of outsourcing their research, development and testing operations to smaller firms that specialize in professional, scientific and technical services, causing a job growth for chemists. Employment at all levels is to be expected, but those with a masters degree or Ph.D. will have better opportunities at larger biotechnology or pharmaceutical firms.

Nature of the Work for Chemists


Chemists perform research to discover new knowledge about chemicals. Their goal is to use this research to improve life, as everything in the environment is composed of chemicals. In the past, chemists have discovered and developed new and improved paints, adhesives, fibers, drugs, electronic components, cosmetics, lubricants and a countless number of other products. They are also responsible for developing energy saving and pollution reduction processes, including oil refining and petrochemical processing. Advances in agriculture, medicine, food processing and other fields have all been related to the research on the chemistry of living things.

Research and development (R&D) is a popular field for chemists. They aim to investigate the properties, structure and composition of matter. They apply this knowledge to create new processes or products, or to improve on existing ones. To interpret data, chemists use computers and a variety of laboratory instruments for modeling, experimental analysis and simulation.

Combinatorial chemistry is a technique that makes and tests large amounts of chemical compounds to find those with specific desired properties. This has made combinatorial chemistry faster and less expensive than ever before.

Chemical manufacturing plants employ chemists to work in production and quality control. It is their responsibility to prepare instructions for plant technicians who lack the formal training of a chemist. They also ensure the proper product yield by monitoring automated processes.

There are many types of chemists, each specializing in a different field. Analytical chemists examine and identify various elements or compounds to find out the composition, structure and nature of substances. These chemists are invaluable to pharmaceutical companies, as they need to understand the identity of compounds before turning them into drugs. Analytical chemists also determine the concentration of chemical pollutants in soil, water and air. Medicinal chemists may also work for the pharmaceutical companies, studying the structural properties of compounds related to human medicine.

Physical and theoretical chemists study the theoretical properties of matter and the physical characteristics of molecules and atoms. The main goal of their research is to discover new and more efficient energy sources.

Organic chemists are concerned with carbon, the compound found in every living thing. They synthesize simple compounds or elements to create new compounds that have different applications or properties. Many commercial products, including plastics, drugs and elastomers, have been developed by organic chemists. Inorganic chemists study other compounds besides carbon.

Materials chemists examine and develop new materials in order to improve the quality of existing products, or create new ones.

Chemists work in laboratories and offices, and usually work the standard 40-hour workweek, but working longer hours is not uncommon. Chemists perform the majority of their work in a chemical plant or outdoors. When handling certain chemicals, some chemists are exposed to health or safety hazards.

Training, Other Qualifications and Advancement for Chemists

A bachelors degree in chemistry is typically required for entry-level chemist jobs, however a researching job in chemistry requires a masters degree or a Ph.D. According to the American Chemical Society (ACS), there are about 650 bachelors, 310 masters and 200 doctoral degree programs for chemists across the Nation.

Courses in mathematics and science, the ability to work with their hands and perform laboratory experiments are all desirable qualities for applicants. Required courses for chemists include inorganic, organic, analytical and physical chemistry. Additional recommended courses for chemists include computer science and physics.

Chemists who wish to pursue a career in environmental matters, should take courses in environmental sciences and gain knowledge of current regulations and legislation.

Chemistry graduate students are encouraged to specialize in a subfield based on their interests, like polymer chemistry or analytical chemistry. Those seeking a bachelors degree are not required to specialize as broadly trained chemists have greater flexibility when job searching. When hired, new graduates are usually trained on-the-job.

Chemists beginning their careers in industry or government, usually work in perform analytical testing, quality control and assist experienced chemists in R&D laboratories. Chemists who lead basic and applied research usually hold a masters or Ph.D. degree.

Knowledge of business, marketing or economics is desirable, as chemists are expected to work on interdisciplinary teams. Strong leadership and good written and oral communication skills are also deemed valuable for employers. Because chemists often rely on the findings of another chemist, a need for interaction among specialists is necessary.

Employers desire candidates who have completed internships, fellowships or work-study programs in the industry. Individuals with several years of postdoctoral experience have the best opportunities in research, especially in the pharmaceutical industry.

As chemists advance in their field, they usually gain larger budgets and greater independence in their work. Advancing to a management position is also a possibility. Chemist managers spend most of their time preparing schedules, budgets and setting research strategy. A chemist who develops a new process or product sometimes join a different firm or form their own companies to develop these ideas.

Top 10 Most Popular Chemistry Schools

1. University of California, San Diego (La Jolla, California)
2. University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley, California)
3. University of Washington, Seattle Campus (Seattle, Washington)
4. University of Virginia (Charlottesville, Virginia)
5. University of California, Irvine (Irvine, California)
6. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
7. University of Illinois, Urbana, Champaign (Champaign, Illinois)
8. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, North Carolina)
9. University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida)
10. North Carolina State University at Raleigh (Raleigh, North Carolina)

See All Chemistry Schools

Employment and Job Outlook for Chemists

Number of People in Profession


Changing Employment (2008-2018)

Employment is projected to grow more slowly than average (increase 3 - 6%).

Chemists hold about 84,300 jobs. While 42 percent of all chemists are employed in manufacturing firms, 24,800 chemists hold faculty positions. Close to 18 percent of chemists work in scientific research and development service, while 9 percent work in testing labs. Although they work all over the country, they mainly work in large industrial areas.

Employment of chemists is projected to grow by 3 percent over the next decade, which is slower than average for all occupations. A job growth will occur as manufacturing companies continue to outsource their R&D and testing operations to smaller professional, scientific and technical firms.

Biotechnology firms are expected to drive the demand for chemists because it continues to offer the promise for the development of products and new drugs to fight diseases and illnesses that have previously been unresponsive to treatments. The 2 percent growth that chemists will see due to increases in biotechnology-related fields will be quelled by the decline in other chemical manufacturing.

Fewer chemists are expected to be employed in the chemical manufacturing industry, as companies continue rid their R&D operations. They increasingly turn to scientific R&D firms to perform specialized research that was formerly done by in-house chemists. These firms will experience a fair job growth as a result. The shift from manufacturing and researching in lower-wage countries will further limit the domestic employment growth of chemists. Chemical manufacturing and other industries that use chemicals will continue to need quality control, as this is an important issue for these companies.

Chemists will also be needed to measure air and water pollutants to ensure compliance with Federal, State and local environmental regulations and produce chemicals for all purposes. Many new opportunities will come from environmental research. Chemical manufacturing industries will continue to fund research on pollution reduction and other environmental issues in order to comply with the government and public concerns.

Competition for jobs at all levels should be expected, especially in the chemical manufacturing industries. The primary source of chemistry jobs will be located in pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms. Those with a bachelors degree in chemistry can also work in sales, marketing or management of science-related industries. They may also work as an assistant researcher in smaller research organizations.

Somewhat better opportunities are expected for graduates with an advanced degree. Some will be employed in biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, while others will find work in colleges and universities.

Layoffs may occur in periods of economic recession, particularly in the industrial chemicals industry. In the pharmaceutical industry, layoffs are less likely as long development cycles are unaffected by short-term economic conditions.

Earnings and Salary for Chemists

The median annual wage of chemists is $68,220. The highest 10 percent earns more than $114,880, while the lowest 10 percent earns less than $38,890. The beginning salary offers for graduates with a bachelors degree in chemistry averages at $39,897 a year. In the Federal Government, the annual earnings of chemists in non-supervisory, supervisory and managerial positions average at $101,687.

Annual Salary for Chemists

On average, Chemists earn $68,220 per year.

10% 25% 75% 90% $38,890/yr $49,940/yr $91,720/yr $114,880/yr

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook