Chemist Careers: Salary Information & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of chemist careers? Get real job descriptions, career prospects, salary information and more to see if becoming a chemist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Being a Chemist

Chemists use their extensive knowledge of molecular science to solve problems such as creating new pharmaceutical compounds or making new materials and products. Check out these pros and cons to decide if becoming a chemist is right for you.

PROS of Being a Chemist
Good salary prospects (about $73,480 median wage in 2014, with the top earners bringing home more than $126,220 yearly)*
Several options of specialization (ex: analytical, organic and inorganic) and places of employment (ex: manufacturing firms, research and development facilities, and pharmaceutical labs)*
Sense of accomplishment from discoveries and inventions*
Can work for biotechnological industries developing drugs to help those with illnesses or diseases*

CONS of Being a Chemist
Slower-than-average job growth for chemists (expected 6% increase from 2012-2022)*
Competition for jobs, especially for entry-level positions*
May need to receive a master's or a doctoral degree for higher pay, advancement, and research jobs*
Prone to layoffs during economic recessions in the field of industrial chemistry*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career Information

Job Duties

Because chemistry is involved in practically all aspects of life, chemists can work in many different fields with vastly different job duties. However, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) noted that most chemists work in research and development (R&D). As a chemist, you may study properties of water and air contaminants, cosmetics, plastics, electronics, paints or drugs. Conducting experiments and testing various compounds, elements and products for quality control or the pursuit of knowledge are also part of the job. You must be able to incorporate new technology and/or processes to be efficient.

Career Prospects and Salary

Unfortunately, jobs for general chemists were not expected to grow much for the years 2012-2022. The BLS expected only a 6% job growth; this may be due to the fact that many chemical manufacturing companies outsource their chemical development to R&D firms. The biotechnology industry, which researches human genes and reactions to drugs, may be the biggest employer for aspiring chemists.

In May 2014, the BLS stated that the middle half of chemists made annual wages that ranged from approximately $53,420 to $99,360, and the highest earners made over $126,220. The median annual wage was over $73,480. In that same time, the BLS reported that the middle half of materials scientists had wages ranging from about $67,280 to $117,130, while the highest-paid workers brought home more than $143,960.

Career Specializations

Chemists can remain interdisciplinary, but you can also specialize in a field. Organic chemists work with carbon compounds and may develop new medicines or plastics. Those who are interested in working with elements other than carbon, such as electronic parts, can become inorganic chemists. Analytical chemists identify the nature and structure of various substances. Pharmaceutical companies may employ them in order to discover or modify drugs.

You also have the option of pursuing an emphasis in medicinal, physical, theoretical, macromolecular and materials chemistry. If you choose the similar career option of materials scientist, you would primarily study chemical compositions of products. Usually, you specialize during graduate degree programs.

What Are the Requirements?

After receiving a bachelor's degree in chemistry, you can seek entry-level jobs, like research assistant, chemist technician or high school chemistry teacher. Undergraduate chemistry programs are heavy in the sciences, statistics and advanced mathematical courses. You'll likely take classes in organic, inorganic and analytical chemistry. You may want to prepare for these programs by taking high school courses in chemistry, math and science. Because computers are vital for data collection and modeling, you need to learn basic applications and programs.

The BLS stated that employers typically prefer chemists with graduate degrees for research jobs. Their preferences also tend to lean towards doctoral degree holders, though a master's degree may be acceptable for some employers. Here is a sampling of topics you might study in a graduate program: organometallic chemistry, pericyclic reactions, synthetic chemistry, quantum mechanics and bioinorganic chemistry. You can learn to carry out advanced chemistry procedures, such as scanning probe microscopy, ultraviolet spectroscopy, x-ray photoelectron spectrometry and chromatographic separation. A review of the scholarly literature in the field and development of one's own research projects are typical requirements.

Useful Skills

Along with scientific expertise, chemists need some computer savvy and personal determination to succeed. Based on information provided by the BLS, the following skills and traits are important if you aspire to be a chemist:

  • Proficient in computer programs
  • Familiar with scientific tools and apparatus
  • Inquisitive
  • Independent
  • Focused
  • Attentive to the smallest detail
  • Able to be a team player
  • Can perform meticulous lab experiments
  • Can write up reports that analyze and explain chemical processes

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employers typically asked for experienced chemists who were familiar with basic experimental techniques, like gas chromatography (GC). Here are some job postings from Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com from March 2012:

  • A paint and coatings manufacturer in North Carolina asked for a senior chemist that could incorporate a strong chemistry background into the commercial development of products. The employer preferred applicants with a master's degree and several years of experience in industrial chemistry.
  • A San Diego firm sought an analytical chemist who could perform lab experiments with GC. The chemist was to develop and test instruments related to gas purification products. The candidate was required to know basic data processing programs, like Excel. The employer sought an applicant with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and some years of experience in the field.
  • A laboratory in Michigan was also looking for an analytical chemist who would experiment and analyze drug products and substances. Familiarity with high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and GC experiments was required.

How Can I Stand Out?

As mentioned before, you can be a more attractive applicant by choosing to pursue graduate education. Specialization can also be beneficial, since employers often look for candidates who can fulfill particular job duties.

Many of the job postings on Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com specifically asked for applicants with prior experience in the chemistry field. You should consider completing internships or other work programs to receive vital training and experience. You can also benefit from taking courses in business, which can be useful to employers in manufacturing. Having good leadership and communication skills are also a plus, so taking elective courses in oral and written communication may be advantageous.

Alternative Careers to Consider

Science Technician

If you are not interested in the graduate education and training typically needed in order to become a chemist, then you may want to consider a science technician career. You would be responsible for helping ensure that experiments run smoothly and recording the information found. High-level knowledge of lab equipment is necessary. The specialties for this profession can range from forensic science to chemistry, and usually technicians only need on-the-job training, an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree.

The BLS expected that employment for all science technicians would grow 14% for the years 2010-2020, but you should be aware that these statistics could be very different for each specialty. For example, jobs for chemical technicians were expected to grow by 7%, and positions for environmental technicians were predicted to grow 24% in that same period.

Medical Scientist

If you are looking for a challenging career that is more focused on promoting human health and drug research, you might want to consider becoming a medical scientist. Keep in mind that the minimum education requirement is a Ph.D. degree. If medical scientists choose to work with patients, they must also have a medical degree and be licensed.

However, this profession boasts far better employment prospects than that for chemists. The BLS projected that employment of medical scientists would increase 36% in the 2010-2020 decade. This growth was due to the importance of developing new drugs that can combat diseases, like cancer or AIDS. These professionals had a median annual wage of about $76,000 in May 2011.

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