Becoming an Organic Chemist: Job Description & Salary Information

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An organic chemist's median annual salary is around $73,000. Is it worth the education and training requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career outlook to find out if becoming an organic chemist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career in Organic Chemistry

Organic chemists create and develop products in molecular science using advanced technology. Here are a few of the pros and cons of a career as an organic chemist:

Pros of an Organic Chemistry Career
Ability to help society by making useful products*
Pay is relatively high*
Opportunities to collaborate with other scientists, often from different disciplines*
Possible to work in a variety of industries**

Cons of an Organic Chemistry Career
Challenging educational requirements*
Expected job growth slower than average (6% growth for all chemists and material scientists from 2012-2022)*
Advanced degrees needed for better job prospects*
Possible exposure to chemicals or hazardous substances*

Sources: *Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), ** American Chemical Society

Essential Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Organic chemistry is the subdivision of chemistry concerned with carbon-containing molecules. This includes the molecules in living organisms as well as in a broad variety of industrial products such as medicines, cosmetics and plastics. Organic chemists work in all of these industries creating and developing products. According to the ACS, an organic chemist might work on developing a new molecule that is based on a molecule in nature in order to create a new medication or industrial chemical. They learn what processes work to make a needed compound and what doesn't work. Organic chemists use advanced technologies such as gas or liquid chromatography and nuclear magnetic resonance. Organic chemists also spend time studying scientific literature and writing reports. Some chemists may work in marketing and sales of products and others may teach science to college and graduate students.

Job Prospects and Salary

According to the BLS, while there will be a continued need for organic (and other) chemists, job growth in this field is expected at six percent between 2012 and 2022, which is slower than average. Some of this is due to chemical manufacturers partnering with smaller firms, and some is due to companies overseas. Persons who have higher degrees, such as Ph.D.s, are expected to have better job prospects. Median salary for chemists was about $73,000 as of May 2014.

Education Requirements

What Employers Are Looking for

Most chemist jobs require at least a bachelor's degree in chemistry. The kinds of courses you would need to take might include physical science, inorganic and organic chemistry, biology, math and physics. Due to the heavy use of computers in the chemical industry, courses in computer sciences are also important. Since scientists must present their findings by lecturing and in reports, good oral and written communication skills are imperative.

While many bachelor's-level chemists work independently and are promoted and paid according to their experience, you generally need to earn a graduate-level degree, particularly if you want to gain more responsibility. This is especially true if you want to work in research and development of pharmaceutical products.

Job Postings from Real Employers

The ACS recommends that if you are looking for a career in organic chemistry, make sure you excel in your undergraduate work and develop particular personal skills. In addition to a strong ability to communicate, employers are looking for people with problem-solving skills, the ability to be a leader as well as a team player, technical mastery and creativity. Here are a few of the job postings for organic chemists listed in April 2012:

  • A major pharmaceutical company looked to hire an organic chemist to work in Indiana as a synthetic chemist. Some duties include purification of chemicals and synthesizing compounds. According to the posting, a candidate needed to have earned a recent Bachelor of Science in Organic Chemistry or a Master of Science in Organic/Medicinal Chemistry. Candidates needed to have 1-2 years' work experience, be able to work independently and in teams and have good communication skills.
  • A chemical company in Oklahoma is looking for a research chemist to work on synthesizing polymer compounds. Candidates needed to have a Ph.D. in organic chemistry or polymer synthesis. You'll need good written and oral communication skills and to know or be able to learn the current technologies as well as the business aspects of this area of chemistry.
  • The bioscience division of a national laboratory posted an opening for an organic chemist to work in lipid synthesis and studying biomembranes. For this position you would need to have earned your Ph.D. or master's degree (in organic chemistry or a related field) within the last five years. You would also need at least two years of laboratory experience in synthetic organic chemistry. Possession of good oral and written communication skills and the ability to work in a team with a wide range of scientists were also needed.

How to Stand Out in the Field

Get Experience

Education, experience and achievement are the ways to stand out in organic chemistry. If you are in college, working in undergraduate research projects, as an intern or in a work-study program at a research and development company is recommended. These positions can help you hone your laboratory skills as well as learn if this field of science is right for you. An internship may also help you get a permanent job with a company for which you may want to work.

Continue Your Education

Both the ACS and the BLS state that persons with higher degrees are likely to have more job opportunities and greater chances of being in charge of research projects. The ACS also offers fellowships for Ph.D. students and a number of monetary awards for people who make outstanding contributions to the field of organic chemistry.

Alternative Career Paths

Agricultural or Food Scientist

If you like the idea of working in applied science, but don't want to commit to chemistry, or want something with a bit better job outlook, you might consider becoming an agricultural scientist or a feed scientist. You'll also need at least a bachelor's degree (in biology, chemistry or agricultural science), and perhaps a Ph.D., particularly if you are interested in animal science. Opportunities to certify are available, and can help you stand out in the field. Types of jobs may include working for colleges and universities, food manufacturing, private industry and government. Work may be in laboratories and offices, but may also include visiting farms or meat processing plants, which some people may find difficult. Median salary for food and agricultural scientists was about $58,000 per year as of May 2010, and job growth of 10% is expected between 2010 and 2020.

Chemical Engineer

If you are interested in using science to solve problems, but have more of a math or engineering bent, then you might be interested in becoming a chemical engineer. In this field, you might help solve problems in manufacturing processes and work on safety manuals for people who work with chemicals, conduct research or design equipment. To become a chemical engineer you'll need a bachelor's degree in chemical, or chemical and biomolecular, engineering. Taking a combination bachelor's and master's program is possible in some schools, but all programs in this field should be accredited by the ABET.

Both work experience in college and earning a Professional Engineer license enhance your prospects of landing the most desirable jobs. Some chemical engineers work in manufacturing medications, chemicals and industrial products, while others may work in research or architecture. Work sites may include manufacturing plants and refineries as well as laboratories and offices. Median pay for chemical engineers was $93,000 in 2011, and employment is expected to grow six percent from 2010 to 2020.

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