Chemistry centers on the study of matter, as well as how various types of matter interact to create substances as mundane as laundry detergent and as crucial as cancer medication.
This guide explores the different careers for a chemistry major based on degree level and specialization. You can also learn how to advance your career in chemistry by taking massive open online courses (MOOCs), applying for fellowships, and joining professional organizations.
Why Pursue a Degree in Chemistry?
Considered by many academics and researchers as the central science, chemistry influences biology, geology, engineering, and physics. Students who earn a chemistry degree can access employment opportunities in many industries. A transferable knowledge base and skill set also allows chemistry professionals to switch careers with relative ease.
To succeed in chemistry, students should be eager to discover new ideas and engage in research and problem-solving. Chemistry learners should also feel comfortable working independently and in teams on projects that require keen attention to detail and strict adherence to the scientific method.
To find out if a chemistry major is a good fit for you, check out these student interviews.
Chemistry Career Outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 5% job growth for life, physical, and social science occupations between 2019 and 2029. The median annual wage for professionals in this field is $68,160.
The BLS projects that entry-level chemical technician jobs will increase by 3% between 2019 and 2029, while chemist and materials scientist positions are projected to grow by 5% during the same period. Chemists and materials scientists earn an annual median pay of $78,790, with even greater salary potential for professionals who work for the federal government and research and development companies. The table below describes the salaries of a few other chemistry professions based on an individual's experience level.
|Job Title||Entry-Level (0-12 months)||Early Career (1-4 Years)||Midcareer (5-9 Years)||Experienced (10-19 Years)|
Skills Gained With a Chemistry Degree
Early in their training, chemists gain most of their knowledge and skills through academic preparation rather than application. Associate programs delve into academic inquiry, teaching learners to apply reason, logic, and data to make critical decisions. Undergraduate training also covers calculus-based concepts in physics, including energy and thermodynamics.
At the master's and doctoral levels, students focus more on research and problem-solving. Graduate training also prepares learners to sit for industry-specific certification and licensure exams.
The following section explains five skills that learners gain while studying chemistry.
Chemistry Career Paths
Many chemistry programs offer concentrations, allowing students to focus their learning. The list below describes five concentrations that lead to specific careers in chemistry.
A pre-health concentration prepares you for advanced training in fields like nursing, dentistry, medicine, and occupational therapy. Students cultivate advanced skills in mathematics and the physical sciences. This concentration's versatility allows you to pursue specialized topics. For example, learners interested in public health can take seminars in parasitology and developmental biology.
This concentration focuses on the chemical processes related to living organisms. Students explore the relationships between molecular structure and function, taking classes in general microbiology, human physiology, genetics, and cell biology. Graduates can pursue careers in veterinary medicine, food science, pharmaceuticals, and clinical chemistry.
- Forensic Chemistry
In this concentration, students learn to apply chemistry theories and methods to criminal investigations. They also develop the communication skills needed to convey laboratory results through reports and in the courtroom. Coursework includes toxicology, forensic osteology, and strategic crime analysis.
- Chemical Engineering
Students pursuing this concentration develop the skills needed to design the chemical manufacturing processes used in the production of many compounds, including fuels and foods. Due to developments in nanotechnology, chemical engineers may also work in multidisciplinary teams to create biomedical devices, drug delivery systems, and artificial organs. Covered topics include materials science and fluid mechanics.
In this concentration, learners gain a general understanding of the K-12 education system, which provides the foundation for research-based teaching strategies in critical content areas. Coursework also covers curriculum design, child growth and development, and educational evaluation.
How to Start Your Career in Chemistry
Most careers in chemistry require knowledge of specific scientific processes and laboratory training. Therefore, you must earn a college degree to apply for entry-level employment.
This section explains the four chemistry degree levels (associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees), including common coursework, practical training experiences, and potential careers.
Associate Degree in Chemistry
To earn an associate degree in chemistry, students must complete approximately 60 credits. This process takes most full-time students two years, although learners can expedite graduation by enrolling in an accelerated online program. These intensive tracks let students take classes throughout the year to graduate in significantly less time.
Course topics include general and organic chemistry, physics, and applied calculus. Students also learn methods of instrumental and chemical analysis.
Many students earn their associate degree at a local community college, taking advantage of lower tuition costs. These learners can also save money on housing by living at home. Two-year schools typically maintain articulation agreements with state universities, allowing graduates to seamlessly transfer into a relevant bachelor's program.
What Can You Do With an Associate in Chemistry?
- Chemical Technician
These professionals primarily work in laboratories, helping chemists and chemical engineers research and develop new products and processes. Chemical technicians prepare solutions, monitor the processes of an experiment, and maintain the overall function of laboratory equipment. They also compile and analyze information, presenting their final findings to supervisors.
- Medical Assistant
Medical assistants perform clinical and administrative duties within healthcare facilities like hospitals and physicians' offices. They answer phone calls, schedule appointments, and maintain records of a patient's personal information and medical history. During an appointment, medical assistants measure a patient's vital signs, perform procedures like injections, and help doctors with examinations.
- Food Science Technician
These professionals typically work in teams, helping a lead scientist assess the quality of agricultural products and foodstuffs. About 33% of food science technicians work in the food manufacturing industry, testing additives and containers to ensure compliance with safety standards. These workers may also analyze the chemical properties of completed food items to discern their formulas and ingredients.
Bachelor's Degree in Chemistry
Requiring a minimum of 120 credits, bachelor's programs usually take full-time students four years to complete. However, many online bachelor's programs offer shorter, asynchronous classes throughout the year, allowing learners to graduate in less time.
Chemistry curricula include foundational classes in areas like quantitative analysis, physical chemistry, and organic/inorganic chemistry. Students must also complete supplemental coursework in biology, physics, and math. Science classes often contain lecture and laboratory sections that help learners apply concepts, preparing them for their own research projects and internships.
Unlike an associate program, bachelor's tracks often let students pursue concentrations that align with their academic interests and professional goals. Popular options include computational, forensic, medicinal, and materials chemistry, as well as pre-pharmacy and pre-medicine tracks.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Chemistry?
Chemists examine substances at the molecular/atomic level and study how these substances interact with one another. They typically work in testing laboratories and for manufacturing companies. In manufacturing settings, chemists may research and develop new products, including biodegradable plastics, environmentally friendly fertilizers, and improved drugs.
- Forensic Science Technician
These professionals help police officers and other criminal investigators collect, interpret, and present evidence. Forensic science technicians who specialize in crime scene investigation take photographs of surroundings and record their findings and observations. Technicians who work in laboratories perform microscopic and chemical analyses of evidence to determine connections between suspects and the crime in question.
- High School Science Teacher
These educators teach lessons in chemistry, biology, and physics. They create lesson plans with regards to their students' academic strengths and weaknesses, as well as the standards established by their school district and government. High school teachers also help students get into college by preparing them for standardized testing.
- Clinical Laboratory Technologist
Sometimes called medical laboratory scientists, these professionals collect and analyze samples of tissues, fluids, and other bodily substances. Nearly half of technologists work for hospitals, with the remainder finding employment with laboratories, physicians' offices, and universities. Clinical laboratory technologists may specialize in areas like immunohematology, immunology, and clinical chemistry.
- Environmental Scientist or Specialist
Environmental specialists and scientists use their scientific knowledge to preserve the environment and protect human health. They collect and evaluate soil, water, and food to determine the causes of problems like water and land pollution. These professionals develop programs to fix and prevent environmental degradation, often collaborating with business and government officials to implement solutions.
Master's Degree in Chemistry
Graduate programs in chemistry cover analytical chemistry, biochemistry, and advanced organic synthesis. Learners also take specialized classes, choosing from concentration options like chemical engineering, biomanufacturing sciences, and informatics.
Depending on the school, chemistry students may be able to pick a thesis or non-thesis plan. A thesis is a research project completed under the guidance of a faculty advisor, while a non-thesis track contains more electives and culminates in a comprehensive exam.
Students who enroll in master of chemistry programs usually complete 30-40 credits over two years. Some schools also offer flexible online programs for working professionals.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Chemistry?
- Chemical Engineer
These specialists use their knowledge of math and the natural sciences to solve production and usage problems related to drugs, chemicals, and foods. Chemical engineers usually work in the manufacturing sector, designing the equipment and processes for production. They also oversee facilities, making sure employees observe safety procedures. Many chemical engineers hold a master's degree.
- Natural Sciences Manager
These business leaders supervise research and development activities, as well as production and quality control processes. They also collaborate with top executives to create strategies and goals that impact the work of the company's researchers and developers. Natural sciences managers generally find employment with manufacturing companies, federal government agencies, and research firms. Candidates may qualify for these positions with a bachelor's degree and several years of experience or a master's.
- Research Scientist
Research scientists conduct experiments at universities and independent research facilities. These professionals must often apply for grants from professional organizations and the government. Research scientists publish their findings in academic journals and present their work at conventions.
Most toxicologists work in the pharmaceutical field, conducting tests to determine how chemicals affect living creatures. In addition to participating in product development, these forensic scientists keep track of consumer reactions to ensure that the long-term effects of drugs do not endanger human lives. Depending on their position, toxicologists may also create the standard testing techniques followed by other personnel.
- Industrial Production Manager
Industrial production managers who work for chemical manufacturing companies develop, coordinate, and manage the daily activities of research scientists and other employees. They ensure equipment and human resources are optimized to meet project goals. These professionals analyze production data to write reports for company executives and stakeholders. A master's degree can help aspiring production managers stand out from their peers.
Sources: BLS and PayScale
Doctoral Degree in Chemistry
Doctoral degrees in chemistry prepare students for tenured teaching positions at colleges and universities. Graduates can also work as research and development directors and executives for pharmaceutical and chemical engineering companies.
Curricula differ by school, but learners should expect to complete 60-90 credits over five years. In addition to required coursework in laboratory safety and ethical research conduct, students take advanced classes chosen with the guidance of their advisor. Covered topics often include specialties like nanoscience/nanomedicine, supramolecular chemistry, and mass spectrometry.
Beyond attending classes and pursuing their own research, doctoral candidates spend extensive amounts of time completing fellowship duties, applying for grants, and submitting articles for publication in academic journals. Doctoral programs typically feature a cumulative exam and a dissertation defense.
What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Chemistry?
- Postsecondary Instructor, Chemistry
These educators teach classes and seminars in their area of expertise. They also support students outside the classroom, acting as research mentors and helping them apply for internship opportunities and graduate school. Postsecondary instructors also work on their own research and projects.
Biochemists work for pharmaceutical companies, technical/scientific consulting firms, and higher education institutions. These scientists develop and conduct research that investigates the properties of biological processes and living things. Biochemists may also isolate and synthesize molecules like DNA, fats, and proteins.
- Principal Scientist
Principal scientists lead teams of researchers in conducting experiments, analyzing results, and presenting findings. They may work in academic or research settings. These scientists can also work for manufacturing enterprises, applying their skills to create and improve products and technologies.
Sources: BLS and PayScale
How to Advance Your Career in Chemistry
Chemistry career advancement relies on your performance in the field. Through practical experience under the guidance of a supervisor or laboratory director, you can learn to apply methods of inquiry and understand how each part of a process affects the next step of an experiment.
The following section explains additional ways you can advance your career in chemistry.
Certifications and/or Licensure
Chemistry professionals may need to apply for government licensure, depending on their location and specific career; this is especially true if they want to work in the judicial or healthcare system. For example, Texas requires forensic technicians and scientists to earn a state license by meeting minimum education/proficiency requirements and passing an official exam. Nurses, psychiatrists, and many other medical practitioners also need to maintain state licensure.
Optional certification is another way for chemistry professionals to prove their skill and experience to potential employers. Not to be confused with academic certificate programs, certification comes from associations like the National Certification Commission in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (NCCCCE), which offers a certified professional chemist credential to experienced candidates. Additionally, the National Registry of Certified Chemists delivers an environmental analytical chemist certification.
Advancing your chemistry career relies on developing a strong skill set. Professionals often turn to graduate education to cultivate specialized knowledge and competencies. However, before you invest substantial resources in earning a master's or doctoral degree, consider taking free MOOCs or earning low-cost certificates through platforms like Coursera and edX.
Similarly, some schools offer certificates that help students develop new skills while earning credits that they can later transfer into a graduate program. In addition to standard analytical and physical chemistry options, learners can pursue certificates in fields like environmental biotechnology, pharmaceutical chemistry, and laboratory management.
Chemistry students can also pursue continuing education by applying for fellowships, which offer funding and the chance to work with faculty. The American Chemical Society (ACS) offers graduate fellowships through its division of analytical chemistry. The National Science Foundation also provides research-based fellowships for students earning a master's or doctoral degree.
Chemistry professionals who earn state licensure or professional certification usually need to complete a designated number of continuing education units (CEUs) to maintain their credentials. For example, NCCCCE requires certified professional chemists to accrue 300 CEUs every three years to qualify for recertification. These CEUs must come from certifiable activities, which include completing college coursework, giving presentations at conferences, and participating in a professional society.
You should also expand your professional circle to advance your career in chemistry. For example, you can collaborate with colleagues and mentors and meet potential employers by going to local gatherings. You can also network by attending national and international gatherings, like the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry's World Chemistry Congress. Additionally, ACS hosts regional meetings, annual events, and online seminars.
How to Switch Your Career to Chemistry
Because you can find chemistry careers across multiple sectors, career changes typically occur between adjoining industries. For example, technical writers can use their scientific knowledge and skills for communication and branding in sales and marketing positions. Chemistry assistants may use their extensive laboratory experience to work in areas like cheminformatics, crystallography, and hazardous waste management.
Some career changers may need to pursue a graduate degree or professional certification to learn how to apply their existing competencies in new ways. For example, professionals with an undergraduate engineering degree can enroll in a master of chemical engineering program to prepare for careers in formulation and process manufacturing.
Some universities offer dual-degree tracks that let students pursue graduate-level chemistry and business degrees simultaneously, preparing them for careers with technical companies as human resources directors and information management specialists.
Where Can You Work With A Chemistry Degree?
- Pharmaceutical and Medicine Manufacturing
This industry includes companies engaged in the research and development of diagnostic, preventive, and therapeutic medications. Chemists typically work in interdisciplinary teams to develop drugs for targeted use, such as slowing the growth of breast cancer.
Average Salary: $79,590
- Scientific Research and Development Services
This industry focuses on the creation and distribution of new technologies in areas like electronics and aerospace. Chemists may work as general academic researchers. They can also work in applied research roles as part of development teams.
Average Salary: $95,790
- Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services
Firms within this industry provide design, drafting, and building inspection services. Industrial chemists and chemical engineers are in high demand. Professionals in this industry can also work as environmental scientists, ensuring that construction projects adhere to government regulations.
Average Salary: $67,440
- Chemical Manufacturing
Companies in this industry manufacture various types of products, including basic chemicals, agricultural chemicals, and synthetic materials. Chemists can also fill positions within the production cycle, working as researchers and project managers.
Average Salary: $89,270
- Federal Executive Branch
Offering the highest average salary for chemists, the federal executive branch hires development researchers and policy specialists. Chemistry professionals can also pursue elected office and military careers.
Average Salary: $114,510
Due to its enormous population and economic focus on agriculture, healthcare, and biotechnology, California houses 10,130 chemistry professionals — the most in the nation. Additionally, chemistry professionals make the highest salaries in the District of Columbia, earning a mean annual wage of $122,360.
Interview With a Professional in Chemistry
Dr. Emanuela Gionfriddo
Dr. Emanuela Gionfriddo is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Toledo. She heads the Green Microextraction Analytical Solutions lab. Dr. Gionfriddo received her bachelor's degree in chemistry in 2008, her master's degree in chemistry in 2010, and her Ph.D. in analytical chemistry in 2013 from the University of Calabria in Italy.
- Why did you decide to pursue a career in chemistry? Is it something that you were always interested in?
As a kid, I was always curious to know what things are made of. Why don't water and oil mix? Why do salt and sugar "disappear" when added to water? I think this curiosity pushed me to choose a chemistry degree and specifically to become an analytical chemist.
- How is a chemistry program different from other college majors?
A unique aspect of learning for undergraduate chemistry students is the exposure to a variety of subdivisions within chemistry, including physical chemistry, analytical chemistry, organic and inorganic chemistry, and biochemistry. These courses provide insight and awareness into what makes up matter, how different matter interacts, and how these interactions can be applied to create new substances and solve practical problems.
- What was the job search like after completing your degree?
After completing my Ph.D. at the University of Calabria, I had the great opportunity to continue my training as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo in Canada under the supervision of Professor Janusz Pawliszyn. It was during this time that I effectively collaborated with various industrial partners, which provided me with training well-suited for both academia and industry careers.
After my postdoc, I interviewed for both industry and academic positions. I was offered different jobs, but my choice was to pursue an academic career at the University of Toledo.
- Is chemistry a versatile degree? Or one that has a clear career path?
A degree in chemistry gives a lot of flexibility in the job market. Chemists are needed beyond the laboratory. The expertise that a chemistry degree provides is essential in many different areas, such as industry, government, academia, nonprofits, entrepreneurship, and counseling.
- Is your career path typical of someone who graduates with a chemistry degree?
I would say yes. However, many individuals with degrees in chemistry opt for industry or consulting jobs. Fewer people stay in academia.
- What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job? The most challenging?
I would say that the most enjoyable part of my job is training the next generation of analytical chemists — in the laboratory through research and in the classroom. It is very exciting, especially when after months or years of work in the laboratory we can publish peer-reviewed articles to share with the scientific community.
- What advice would you give to students considering pursuing a degree and career in chemistry?
Do not be intimidated! Chemistry is perceived as a difficult discipline in science. However, if you know how to relate the learning process to practical problem-solving activities and approach the seeming "complexity" with some excitement, chemistry will provide a great deal of mental elasticity and a versatile skill set, enabling individuals to disentangle complex and interdisciplinary problems.
- Any final thoughts for us?
"Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less." - Marie Curie
Resources for Chemistry Majors
The following sections describe resources you can use to advance your chemistry career, including professional organizations, MOOCs, and publications.
- Professional Organizations
American Association for Clinical Chemistry: AACC is a global professional organization dedicated to advancing clinical laboratory science in the healthcare sector. The association establishes practice guidelines and funds research initiatives in areas like lab management and informatics. Members can access certificate programs, continuing education resources, and online learning tools. They also enjoy career guidance and funding support, including global health outreach travel grants.
American Chemical Society: Established in 1876, ACS operates over 2,000 branches worldwide. Members collaborate through regional meetings, local sections, and student chapters. They can also engage in professional development through webinars and leadership programs. ACS operates a vast career center that includes networking opportunities and job listings. The association also offers student scholarships, research grants, and policy fellowships.
American Institute of Chemical Engineers: The world's biggest chemical engineering organization, AIChE serves more than 60,000 members in 100 countries. The institute facilitates policy and research advancement in areas like energy, process safety, and chemical engineering practice. Members can access professional development resources, including guides to starting a career and negotiating a higher salary. The AIChE Academy offers webinars and conference presentations.
American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology: Founded in 1906, ASBMB serves over 12,000 members through campaigns for education funding and workplace safety. The society provides networking events like annual meetings, research symposia, and local skill development workshops. Chemistry students benefit from academic guidance at all levels, including postdoctoral resources, as well as scholarships, grants, and summer research opportunities.
Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry: With over 90 global chapters, SETAC supports the study and analysis of environmental problems. Member benefits include research journal subscriptions, discounts on international conferences, and membership to affiliate organizations. Students benefit from award and fellowship opportunities, as well as one-on-one mentorship guidance, online training courses, and certification programs.
- Open Courseware
Drug Discovery - University of California, San Diego: In this course, students examine the changing landscape of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology market. They also learn the major steps in the drug discovery process, including target selection, compound screening, and designing lead candidates. UC San Diego's Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences offers this class as part of a three-level sequence covering drug discovery, development, and commercialization.
Global Warming Science - Massachusetts Institute of Technology: In this intermediate course, students learn about the planet's climate history and how natural and human-made actions impact the global environment. They also cover projected changes to the Earth's climate. Designed for sophomores and juniors, this class requires some knowledge of college physics and calculus.
University Chemistry - Harvard University: Professionals looking to switch into a chemistry career can take this introductory course to learn about the elemental forces that shape our modern world. Covered topics include energy and energy transformations like thermodynamics, acid/base reactivity, and electrochemistry. Students also delve into chemistry's evolving role in tackling global challenges and how to break down these problems into solvable component parts.
Writing in the Sciences - Stanford University: Students who take this course learn how to effectively communicate scientific theories and research findings to diverse audiences. Through practical exercises and examples, learners develop the ability to write quickly and with clarity. The class also covers peer review, the format of a scientific manuscript, relevant ethical issues, and grant-writing fundamentals.
Advanced Synthesis & Catalysis: This primary research journal focuses on applied, organic, and organometallic chemistry. Readers can discover innovative findings from industrial and academic labs leading to developments in biotechnologies and environmental sustainability efforts, including green solvents, recycling, and separation science. An open-access journal, Advanced Synthesis & Catalystaccepts submissions for reviews, communications, updates, and full papers.
Journal of Medicinal Chemistry: Produced by ACS Publications, this journal covers news and discoveries about the relationships between molecular structure and biological activity and application. Covered topics include new active compounds, computational chemistry methods, pharmacokinetics, and novel methodologies with broad medicinal applications. Chemistry professionals can submit drug annotations, perspectives, and full articles for publication.
Journal of the American Chemical Society: Founded in 1879 as ACS's flagship publication, this journal is the preeminent source on chemistry and related fields of study and applications. Readers can access over 19,000 pages of content published each year. Covered topics include materials science, physical chemistry, organic and inorganic chemistry, and cross-disciplinary concepts.
Nature Chemistry: A team of full-time editors curate this monthly journal to ensure articles cover the most cutting-edge and impactful research in all chemistry areas. Readers can also engage with commentary and news. Authors who submit articles to Nature Chemistry undergo a double-blind peer review process.
Organic Process Research & Development: This journal connects academic and research scientists with industrial chemists. Content focuses on process chemistry and its applications in industrial production. Recent articles cover topics like renewable solvents, 3D printed pharmaceutical ingredients, and effective control of crystal size through integration.
Science Magazine: Founded in 1880 with seed money from Thomas Edison, Science Magazine was the first publication to show the world the entire human genome. Today, the magazine features articles from all scientific fields.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is chemistry a good degree?
Yes. Due to chemistry's cross-disciplinary applications, degree-holders can pursue career options in expanding fields like health services, pharmaceuticals, forensic investigation, oceanography, and education. Chemistry professionals can also switch careers with relative ease.
- Are chemistry majors in demand?
Employment opportunities vary by professional industry. The BLS projects that chemist and materials scientist positions will grow 5% between 2019 and 2029. During the same period, the BLS projects 6% growth for medical scientists and 14% growth for forensic science technicians. All of these projected growth rates are faster than average.
- What kind of jobs can you get with a chemistry degree?
With an undergraduate degree, you can work as a chemical technician, forensic science technician, or biomedical engineer. To apply for a position as a research scientist, pharmacist, or tenured postsecondary instructor, you must earn a doctorate.
- What chemistry jobs pay the most?
Petroleum engineers, who rank among the highest-paying professionals in the U.S., make a median annual salary of $137,720.