Beyond Bunsen Burners Chemistry Careers

By Kate Brooks

"Because of my chemistry major, I feel that I am a resourceful person, able to learn about new things by reading and researching. I can present well to an audience, and I can teach complex information to both patients and parents at a level they will understand, as well as to medical residents and colleagues."
-Pediatric infectious disease specialist, Dickinson College alumnus

"My chemistry major helped me to develop analytical reasoning skills, and I learned to consider alternative viewpoints."
-Organic chemist working in industry, Dickinson College alumnus

Do you know someone whose life was saved by:

  • the injection of epinephrine after a bee sting?
  • an airbag?
  • tempered glass, which doesn't shatter on impact?

Then you need to thank a chemist.

Chemists are the unsung heroes in the sciences. Their work is often behind the scenes and not always understood by the general public. And the media doesn't help with its portrayals of "mad" scientists destroying the earth, not to mention "Beaker," the Muppet who regularly blows up his lab.

Chemistry seldom makes the top 10 list of glamorous careers. But for people with inquisitive minds who are creative, persistent, interested in solving problems, think independently, work well with details, have keen powers of observation, and follow logical paths of reasoning, chemistry offers challenging and quite fulfilling career opportunities.

Chemistry can be both an independent and a collaborative science, so self-discipline and teamwork ability are important.

Chemistry is the basic building block for other sciences, and blends well with other specialties. A chemistry major can be combined with courses in biology, geology, or other sciences, business management, or communications to develop careers in such areas as biomedical research, pharmaceutical sales, or science communications.

Students who wish to succeed in chemistry should get as comprehensive an education as possible. Develop a strong base of knowledge of mathematics and the sciences (not just chemistry). Take courses in communications, the arts, literature, and other humanities. And perhaps most importantly, seek out experiences in the laboratory. Work closely with your professors and assist with their research projects when possible. Seek summer employment and internship opportunities which will expose you to chemists working in a variety of settings so you can decide where your interests lie.

What do chemists do?

Chemists:

  • identify and solve problems. Chemists apply logic, scientific thinking and knowledge of natural laws to solve problems.
  • create new products to solve problems. They have to consider whether something can be produced profitably and can be patented, not to mention analyze its safety and environmental impact.
  • observe and analyze. Chemists must understand the composition, structure, properties, and transformations of natural and man-made substances.
  • have strongly developed technical knowledge. Chemists must have a thorough understanding of how laboratory and computer controlled equipment is developed, along with expertise in setting up, standardizing and using scientific instruments.

Where do chemists work?

About half of all chemists work in research, with about two-thirds of the bachelor's-level chemistry graduates working in the for-profit sector.

Chemistry majors also work in educational settings and in government. A small percentage are employed with nonprofit charities or research foundations. The unemployment rate among chemists is generally lower than the national average.

A recent survey of Dickinson College alumni revealed that an overwhelmingly large proportion of graduates with chemistry degrees work as analytic chemists in a variety of settings including:

  • Chemical manufacturing companies
  • Cosmetic companies
  • Environmental assessment firms
  • Manufacturing and processing firms
  • Medical laboratories
  • Petroleum companies
  • Pharmaceutical companies
  • Utility companies

But other popular occupations for chemistry majors include:

  • Health administrator
  • Physician (all specialties)
  • Technical writer/editor
  • Educator at the elementary, secondary, and college/university levels
  • Attorney
  • Sales representative
  • Research supervisor
  • Research engineer
  • Environmental consultant
  • Art Conservation Specialists

What degrees do you need?

With a high school diploma and a year or so of college, you can often be hired as a lab assistant or technician.

Those holding a bachelor's degree may manage research projects or laboratories. Teaching chemistry is also an option at a private school, or in a public school with certification. Sometimes, individuals with bachelor's degrees in chemistry seek a master's degree in another field, such as an M.B.A. to augment their career opportunities.

Master's degree chemists are eligible for higher-level positions in management or pure applied chemistry. Master's-level chemists are sometimes employed in entry-level teaching positions in colleges or universities.

Doctoral-level chemists can serve as primary researchers on grants, tenured professors at colleges, heads of divisions in corporations, and similar top-level positions.

Before you go on to graduate school, it is important to make sure you know what you want to do with your chemistry background. To decide how far you want/need to go:

  • Talk to your professors and ask them what courses they recommend you take or what graduate schools you should apply to.
  • Look at the web sites and catalogues of the graduate schools that interest you. Which programs feature the specialties you're most interested in? What research projects are the faculty engaged in? In what fields or journals have they published?
  • Ask your career center or alumni office for the names of alumni who majored in chemistry. Talk to the alumni and ask them about their careers.
  • Try working in different settings so you have a clear idea of the career you're most interested in.
  • Decide if your interest is in a field that requires an advanced degree.

Show me the money!

Like virtually every other career field, a chemist's salary will depend on the type of position, the level of education, the type of industry, and the geographical location. Starting salaries for a technician can be as low as $18,000 per year while the top salary for a Ph.D.-level experienced manager can be well over $100,000. Public school teachers with experience can earn up to $60,000. University professors not only earn salaries as high as $100,000 or more, but can augment their income by consulting in private industry or writing research grants. Salaries for professors at smaller colleges will be lower. The salaries of chemists in a nontraditional field will reflect the typical salaries in that field.

Use those research skills to find a great job

One good way to investigate career opportunities is to look at the job descriptions for chemists in all industries and at all levels. Check out these recommended web sites, many of which post job openings. Read through them, and as you find career opportunities that interest you, note the educational and experience requirements for the position and make your plans accordingly. The following web sites may be helpful as you investigate your career in chemistry:

Chemistry Career Links

American Chemical Society Job Information

Chemistry: The Profession

Profiles of Chemists

Careers in Environmental Chemistry (Green Chemistry)