Should You Major in Chemistry?

Should You Major in Chemistry?
portrait of Staff Writers
By Staff Writers

Published on April 23, 2019

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The Typical Chemistry Major

The typical chemistry student has a keen curiosity, one that drives their interest to understand how science works at its basest level. They want to apply this knowledge in a laboratory setting to explore unknown territory, synthesizing new chemical compounds for medical and industrial use. They are process-oriented, as their work requires them to follow prescribed steps in perfect order.

Chemistry students must be mathematically minded, as even minute inconsistencies or inaccuracies in their work can significantly alter the outcome of an experiment. Chemistry majors should feel comfortable working independently, as their daily tasks -- tweaking formulas, running experiments, double-checking results -- are often solitary.


Interviews with Chemistry Students

David Hales true

Double major in chemistry and physics at the University of Washington

How would you describe your personality?

I would call myself a curious person. I also have a tendency to really think things through, making sure there are no mental loose strings. I'm also excitable and a little bookish.

What about the chemistry major appeals to you?

Among the sciences, I find chemistry to be a satisfying middle ground. It's more scientifically rigorous than psychology and sociology, more definitive than biology, and more broadly applicable than physics. As for the theory vs application debate (i.e., science vs. engineering), in general, science will be more exploratory and engineering will be more along the lines of how to cleverly apply the science we already know.

How do you think your personality traits prepare you to succeed in the chemistry classroom and beyond?

Being interested in something makes it a hundred times easier to learn. Contrary to popular belief, I believe only a small part of interest is inherent and that it is mostly cultivated. Anyone can cultivate their interest in a topic by paying attention, keeping an open mind, and surrounding oneself with people interested in the same topic. This strategy has helped me be successful in the classroom and has made my time at the UW much more successful and enjoyable.

Joshua Paolillo

Chemistry major at the University of Connecticut

How would you describe your personality?

I would describe myself as passionate, funny, hardworking, curious, meticulous, and kind.

What about the chemistry major appeals to you?

I have always been a curious person who loves to know how things work. Chemistry gives me the opportunity to understand the world around me at the molecular scale. Majoring in chemistry allows me to explore the insights of the universe and fulfill my passion for knowledge.

How do you think your personality traits prepare you to succeed in the chemistry classroom and beyond?

Because chemistry is such a versatile science, there are many areas to learn about, which can be challenging, but my passion keeps me motivated to continue learning. When I work on something in the lab, I pay attention to every detail, trying to be as exact as possible; this helps me to collect clear data and form a solid understanding of concepts. My curiosity keeps me continually questioning everything I am told: Before I accept something as a fact, I need to understand it.

In an internship I did for a pharmaceutical company, I produced good data and made a large impact on their projects. These traits have even allowed me to get into a graduate school to study chemistry further. I would say chemistry is the perfect major for those who want to continue learning beyond the classroom and are passionate for discovering the meaning behind everyday events.


Which Other Majors Can Students Pursue?

Professional chemistry positions are extremely competitive. In a 2011 report, the American Chemical Society (ACS) noted that "14% of recent [chemistry] bachelor’s degree recipients reported that they didn’t have a job but were seeking one." Additionally, a survey from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's career services center found that 17% of these students were still seeking jobs and remained unemployed a year after graduation. Landing a job in the field often requires further education, and that same ACS report noted that 50% of chemistry bachelor's graduates attended grad school.

Post-graduation employment data from the University of Georgia's career center indicate that only 4% of all undergraduate and graduate students are still seeking employment or grad school enrollment within six months of graduation. By contrast, in the last four years, chemistry bachelor's graduates reported that their rate of unemployment in the same time frame ranged from 9-17%. Students seeking a career in STEM with guaranteed employment should note that chemistry may not offer the same employment opportunities for bachelor's graduates as other fields.

Because the market for recent graduates is so competitive, the ACS recommends that students build their resumes by seeking internships and leadership positions with student groups on campus. These connections are especially important because the curriculum of a typical chemistry program is not necessarily geared toward helping students develop skills for a specific profession.

Students should research their prospective careers and shape their curriculum and extracurriculars to prepare them for success in securing employment. However, there are a couple of majors closely related to chemistry that are more career-oriented and better prepare students for specific jobs upon graduation.

true Chemical Engineering

Chemical engineering programs teach students to investigate and manipulate the processes of chemical reactions, often on a large scale. Chemical engineers typically conduct research for private companies. The coursework in chemical engineering programs is more diverse, requiring students to understand principles of physics and engineering in addition to chemistry. The curriculum of the chemical engineering major will appeal to the same curiosity, process-driven, and mathematical aspects of a chemistry major's personality.

Medical Laboratory Science

Medical laboratory scientists (also called clinical laboratory scientists) work for organizations like hospitals and health agencies. They test body specimens like tissue, blood, and urine for diseases. The curriculum in this major mixes chemistry and biology, and graduates are prepared specifically to work in medical labs. The medical laboratory science major appeals to students who are independent and procedure-oriented.

Pharmaceutical Sciences

Pharmaceutical sciences students generally pursue careers as drug researchers, synthesizing new compounds to combat illnesses and treat chronic medical conditions. The curriculum in this major mixes chemistry classes with coursework in several fields, including biology and physics. Like chemistry, many pharmaceutical sciences students pursue graduate study; the foundational knowledge in the pharmaceutical sciences major is useful for students who intend to attend pharmacy school.

What Careers Can Chemistry Majors Pursue?

Most students who pursue chemistry degrees find jobs as chemists and material scientists. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this field is projected to grow 7% by 2026, and the average salary is $76,280. The BLS data also shows that a third of chemists are employed in chemical manufacturing while a quarter are employed in testing labs and research and development. The BLS also notes the prevalence of advanced education in the field, helpful for more senior, higher-paying career opportunities.

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