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Summary: Requirements, benefits, and job outlook for chemists

A quick look at the role of a chemist.

Nature of the Work

Chemists search for and put to practical use, new knowledge about chemicals. Although chemicals are often thought of, as artificial or toxic substances, all physical things, whether naturally occurring or of human design, are composed of chemicals. Chemists have developed a tremendous variety of new and improved synthetic fibers, paints, adhesives, drugs, cosmetics, electronic components, lubricants, and thousands of other products. They also develop processes which save energy and reduce pollution, such as improved oil refining and petrochemical processing methods. Research on the chemistry of living things spurs advances in medicine, agriculture, food processing, and other areas.
Many chemists work in research and development. In basic research, chemists investigate the properties, composition, and structure of matter and the laws that govern the combination of elements and reactions of substances. In applied research and development, they 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 (polymerization).
Chemists also work in production and quality control in chemical manufacturing plants. They prepare instructions for plant workers which specify ingredients, mixing times, and temperatures for each stage in the process. They also monitor automated processes to ensure proper product yield, and they test samples to ensure they meet industry and government standards. Chemists also record and report on test results. Others are marketing or sales representatives who sell and provide technical information on chemical products.
Chemists often specialize in a subfield. Analytical chemists determine the structure, composition, and nature of substances and develop analytical techniques. They also identify the presence and concentration of chemical pollutants in air, water, and soil. Organic chemists study the chemistry of the vast number of carbon compounds. Many commercial products, such as drugs, plastics, and fertilizers, have been developed by organic chemists. Inorganic chemists study compounds consisting mainly of elements other than carbon, such as those in electronic components. Physical chemists study the physical characteristics of atoms and molecules and investigate how chemical reactions work. Their research may result in new and better energy sources.
Working Conditions
Chemists usually work regular hours in offices and laboratories. Research chemists spend much time in laboratories, but also work in offices when they do theoretical research or plan, record, and report on their lab research. Chemists may also do some of their research in a chemical plant or outdoors while gathering samples of pollutants, for example. Some chemists are exposed to health or safety hazards when handling certain chemicals, but there is little risk if proper procedures are followed.
Chemists held about 88,300 jobs in 2016. The majority of chemists (33%) are employed in the chemical manufacturing industry. 17% are in the research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences; 10% work in testing laboratories; 7% work for the federal government and 6% work for administrative and support and waste management and remediation services.
Chemists are employed in all parts of the country, but they are mainly concentrated in large industrial areas.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
A bachelor's degree in chemistry or a related discipline is usually the minimum education necessary to work as a chemist. However, many, if not most research jobs, require a master’s degree or a Ph.D, if not both.
Many colleges and universities offer a bachelor's degree program in chemistry that is approved by the American Chemical Society. Several hundred colleges and universities also offer advanced degree programs in chemistry.
Students planning careers as chemists should enjoy studying science and mathematics, and should like working with their hands building scientific apparatus and performing experiments. Perseverance, curiosity, and the ability to concentrate on detail and to work independently are essential. In addition to required courses in analytical, inorganic, organic, and physical chemistry, undergraduate chemistry majors usually study biological sciences, mathematics, and physics. Computer courses are essential since chemists need to be able to apply computer skills to modeling and simulation tasks. Laboratory instruments are also computerized, and the ability to operate and understand equipment is essential.
Experience in academic laboratories or through internships or co-op programs in industry, are also useful. Some employers of research chemists, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, prefer to hire individuals with several years of postdoctoral experience.
In government or industry, beginning chemists with a bachelor's degree work in technical sales or services, quality control, or assist senior chemists in research and development laboratories. Some may work in research positions, analyzing and testing products, but these may be technicians' positions, with limited upward mobility. Many employers prefer chemists with a Ph.D. to work in basic and applied research. A Ph.D. is also generally preferred for advancement to many administrative positions. Chemists who work in sales, marketing, or professional research positions often move into management eventually.
Job Outlook
Employment of chemists is expected to grow 7% from 2016 to 2026, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. The chemical industry, the major employer of chemists, should face continued demand for goods such as new and better pharmaceuticals and personal care products, as well as more specialty chemicals designed to address specific problems or applications. To meet these demands, research and development expenditures in the chemical industry will continue to increase, contributing to employment opportunities for chemists.
Within the chemical industry, job opportunities are expected to be most plentiful in pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms. Stronger competition among drug companies and an aging population are among the several factors contributing to the need for innovative and improved drugs discovered through scientific research. Job growth will also be spurred by the need for chemists to monitor and measure air and water pollutants to ensure compliance with local, state, and federal environmental regulations.
The median annual wage for chemists was $74,740 in 2017. The lowest 10% earned less than $42,960 and the highest 10% earned more than $130,560. Those in the federal government sector earned most, with research/development in physical, engineering, and life sciences, chemical manufacturing, and administrative and support and waste management and remediation services trailing behind them.
Related Occupations
Chemical engineers, agricultural scientists, biological scientists, chemical technicians, physicists, medical scientists
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