What can you do with a degree in chemistry?
Chemists often refer to chemistry as the central science, because chemistry plays a vital role in nearly every other scientific field. As a result, a degree in chemistry can prepare students for a wide variety of careers, some of which you may have never considered. Below are some of the paths you can take with your chemistry degree, as well as some helpful links to other career resources. Learn more about career options on the American Chemical Society College to Careers page.
The majority of chemists at all levels are hired to work in the chemical industry either as chemists working in the plant or on the bench or as technically knowledgeable people who work in the business side of the company. These careers offer a wide variety of paths for both entry and advancement.
Industrial R&D and Production
An important aspect of any industrial enterprise is the development of new technology that can be turned into new products.
- Research Chemist: Research chemists work to develop new or improved technologies for the companies for which they work. These chemists will typically work at a bench carrying out chemical reactions and/or determining chemical structures or properties. The driving force behind the research will typically be a PhD scientist, but numerous opportunities are available for BS and MS scientists to work as technicians who carry out the research under the direction of the PhD supervisor.
- Production Chemist: The production chemist works to translate the work done by the research chemist into something that can be performed on a large scale as part of a manufacturing process. They will work with plant engineers to maximize the design and use of plant equipment, supervise production, ensure quality control and ensure compliance with environmental protection policies.
Industrial Sales, Marketing, and Technical Service
Once an idea has become a product, chemical careers in marketing, sales, and technical service are necessary to provide the customer with the product. Each of these careers involves a product-customer relationship. A background in business is required to a varying extent for each of these careers. Success depends upon effective communication with the customer.
- Sales: People with technical backgrounds are often employed by chemical manufacturers to sell their products to potential customers. Salespeople work with customers to identify what products would most help the customer achieve their goals. Individuals working in Sales deal with the customer one-on-one as the company’s most visible employees. Interpersonal skills are highly valued in this function, and the work schedule is very self-structured.
- Marketing: Once a chemical product becomes available, marketing professionals must publicize the material and entice potential customers to purchase it. A career in Marketing deals primarily with analyzing groups of customers known as “markets.” From such analyses, the marketing individual must predict future trends and sales, determine market needs, and develop advertising strategies.
- Technical Service: A chemical career where laboratory work and customer interaction are intertwined is Technical Service. Responsibilities include developing new applications for products, writing instruction manuals, and troubleshooting for customers with problems or questions.
The second major option for people with degrees in chemistry is as teachers of chemistry at the high school, community college, college, or university level. Most of these positions will require some graduate study in chemistry.
- High School: There is a significant need for technically trained high school teachers and chemistry and physics. Students with a B.S. degree in chemistry would likely need to obtain additional training in education to be hired at a public high school. Private high schools may directly hire someone with a B.S. degree in chemistry.
- Community College: Community colleges will typically hire faculty members with MS or PhD degrees in chemistry to teach general and organic chemistry.
- Undergraduate Colleges or Universities: Faculty members at primarily undergraduate institutions will teach classes and labs in their area. They will also typically direct students in original research projects. Faculty at these institutions may write grants to fund their research and will write papers and give presentations on the results of their work. A PhD is almost always required for 4-year college positions in chemistry, often post-doctoral experience after the PhD is desired.
- Research Universities: Research universities, such as UA, offer BS, MS, and PhD degrees. Faculty are expected to teach as well as direct research groups of undergraduate and graduate students in groundbreaking research. Faculty are expected to write grants to fund their research, write papers, give presentations, and teach undergraduate and graduate courses. These positions require PhD degrees and almost always will require post-doctoral experience.
- Lab Technicians, Stockroom Managers, Safety Officers: Colleges and universities often have a number of support positions that require technical backgrounds. Safety officers would handle hazardous waste and help enforce EPA and other safety guidelines. Stockroom managers would order and maintain inventories of chemicals and supplies for the research and teaching effort. Lab technicians and staff scientists would perform support roles for teaching and research, such as operating research equipment.
Federal, state, and local governments offer a variety of opportunities for students with chemistry degrees.
- National Labs: The U.S. government operates a number of national research labs that employ B.S., M.S., and PhD scientists who carry out research on a wide variety of topics. National labs offer an environment that is a cross between industrial and academic research.
- Regulatory: Departments such as the EPA, FBI, FDA, ATF, etc employ chemists who carry our research and perform analytical services in support of the regulatory role of these agencies.
Not every student who earns a chemistry degree ends up as a chemist or chemistry teacher. An undergraduate degree in chemistry opens a whole host of opportunities in fields as varied as medicine, law, business, and science. Some of these jobs can be obtained with a BS degree, while others may require additional training in fields other than chemistry.
Related Scientific Fields
- Forensic Chemistry: Analytical chemistry and biochemistry form the basis for much of forensic science. A general training in chemistry is one of the best preparations for a career in forensic science. There is a significant need for people interested in working for local, state, and national forensic science labs. See more at the American Academy of Forensic Scientists.
- Biotechnology: A background in biochemistry provides good training for people interested in careers in biotechnology. Biotechnology seeks to take advantage of biochemistry to produce materials for our modern way of life.
- Toxicology: Toxicologists are principally involved in the discovery of new knowledge concerning how toxic substances produce their effects. Many industries employ toxicologists to assist in the evaluation of the safety of their products. For therapeutic drugs, food additives, cosmetics, agricultural chemicals and other classes of chemicals, federal laws often require that the manufacturer provide adequate testing of the product before it is released into commerce. More information from the Society of Toxicology.
- Environmental Science: Chemistry is at the heart of many environmental issues. Environmental scientists attempt to understand how the environment operates and how human interaction affects the environment. Career opportunities exist with academic, government, and industrial employers. Learn more about the environmental science minor at UA, or explore environmental career opportunities.
- Food Chemistry: Food chemists use a knowledge of chemistry to develop better tasting, longer lasting, and healthier foods. Food chemists may also analyze foods to ensure that they are safe and nutritious.
- Cosmetic Chemistry: Cosmetics rely heavily on chemistry. There is a wide range of opportunity for chemists to work in the cosmetics fields in the development of new fragrances, dyes, and skin treatments, and formulations.
- Dietary Scientist: People with chemical backgrounds can work to understand how our diet affects our health and well-being.
- Doctors, Dentists, Veterinarians, Pharmacists, etc.: Many students use chemistry degrees as a stepping stone to a variety of health professional schools. Chemistry provides a good background on the basic biochemistry of living systems and drugs, which are invariably organic compounds. Chemistry also provides critical thinking skills important for these professionals.
- Nursing: While less common, chemistry is a good path into the nursing field. Learn about the nursing program at UA.
- Lab Technician: People with chemical backgrounds can find a variety of jobs working in medical offices and hospitals as lab technicians to who analyze patient samples in order to help doctors diagnose diseases. Lab technicians may also be involved in preparing drug preparations and other materials for the treatment of patients.
Chemical Information Specialists
- Scientific Writing: Technical journals, trade magazines, and industrial concerns all need technically trained people with writing skills to write about science for both scientists and lay people. This career path is a good way to combine an interest in science with a skill in writing. A concentration in English and/or Journalism would provide a good background for this career path. For more info, see the Society of Technical Writing.
- Scientific Librarian: Science libraries require people with technical backgrounds and training in library science. Graduate study in library science would qualify you to work as a research librarian at a university research library, government library, or for a large company.
- Abstracting/Database Production: With the proliferation of scientific literature, there is a growing need for people with a combination of technical, computer, and writing skills to abstract this information and make it available to the people who can use this knowledge.
- Museums: People with technical backgrounds and training in information technology can work in museums researching and preparing materials for exhibits, doing demonstrations, and acquiring and refurbishing materials for the museum. Learn more about the museum studies program at UA.
- Patent Agent: The federal government employs technically trained people to analyze patent applications and determine if they are truly novel and worthy of being awarded a patent. Patent applicants also need patent agents to ensure that their filings will be found to be novel and approved by the government.
- Patent Lawyer: Students with backgrounds in chemistry can go to law school to become patent lawyers. Patent lawyers help scientists write legally enforceable patents, ensure that patent rights are maintained, and pursue those who infringe on an inventors patents. Often law firms or companies will pay employees to go to law school to become patent lawyers.