As a credential evidencing expertise in one of the predominant fields of scientific study and application, a chemistry degree provides access to a multitude of industries, including environmental protection, healthcare, and forensic investigations. Careers in chemistry also span manufacturing industries like biotechnology, chemical engineering, and pharmacology. By earning graduate credentials, you can teach as a college professor or study as a research scientist.
Colleges and universities deliver accredited campus-based programs that allow you to access school resources, including research laboratories, internship-placement opportunities, and networking events. Alternatively, you can enroll in online chemistry programs to enjoy flexible scheduling options, affordable tuition that often disregards residency status, and distinct funding support.
This guide offers extensive academic information, including degree choices, concentration options, and skill application. You also gain insight into chemistry major careers and entry requirements. The guide ends with a list of professional development resources.
Skills Gained in a Chemistry Program
Early in their learning, chemists obtain most of their knowledge and skills through academic preparation rather than application. As early as associate coursework, you’ll delve into academic inquiry, learning to apply reason, logic, and the systematic use of 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, you focus on research and its problem-solving applications. Graduate training also prepares you to sit for industry-specific certification/licensure exams. The skill set for chemistry is as wide as the field itself, but you can explore some common concentrations in the list below.
An integral skill in all industries, technical communication allows professionals to convey complex ideas and methods to nonexpert audiences, like students, clients, and multidisciplinary team members. As a chemistry student, you’ll learn to communicate cogently in oral and multimedia formats. You’ll also develop the written communication skills to develop technical manuals and scientific research papers.
Every chemistry student will find themselves delving into scientific articles as they hone their research skills. You’ll learn to analyze primary research and discern how researchers develop and pose scientific questions through proposals and dissemination of findings. The natural next step is to apply this knowledge to your own research, conducting laboratory experiments and presenting results for peer review.
This crucial skill provides a working framework for tackling scientific arguments and conflicts. You’ll learn to identify ethical concerns in real-world situations and articulate what makes a particular course of action morally and socially responsible. Additional topics include academic integrity, the treatment of human research subjects, and the application of knowledge to solve ethical dilemmas.
Organic chemistry integrates theory and fact to study life. Mastering this skill will allow you to analyze carbon compounds with respect to their properties and reaction mechanisms. In laboratory settings, you’ll use this to synthesize organic compounds and predict reaction products based on starting materials and reagents. Chemists apply organic chemistry concepts and methods in a variety of industries, including product development and manufacturing.
One of the most popular fields of study for practicing chemists, analytical chemistry is the science of determining the qualities and quantities of matter. You’ll learn to obtain and process matter, studying separation techniques like ion exchange and solvent extraction. Analytical chemists help physicians diagnose disease and provide the measurements that ensure the safety of food.
Why Pursue a Career in Chemistry?
Careers in chemistry exist in diverse industries, providing ample opportunities based on the nature and level of your degree training. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that chemist positions will grow 4% from 2018 to 2028, adding approximately 3,500 jobs to the U.S. economy. Chemists are in high demand among pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing companies that need them to develop nanotechnologies. Green chemistry is quickly emerging as another vibrant industry as employers seek to improve environmental workplace safety.
A chemistry degree also provides the foundation for health science careers. You may leverage your skills to become a registered nurse, an occupation that the BLS projects will benefit from a 12% occupational growth from 2018 to 2028. You can also pursue medical science positions, like industrial toxicologist and biomedical chemist. Furthermore, you can work as a food scientist, improving the safety and efficiency of agricultural processes and products. The BLS projects that these positions will increase by 7% from 2018 to 2028.
Scientific discovery and technological improvements lead to new developments in chemistry, which in turn result in more job opportunities. You can bolster your skill set by earning voluntary credentials, like the national certificate from the American Institute of Chemists. Specialized certifications are also available through organizations like the National Registry of Environmental Professionals.
How Much Do Chemistry Graduates Make?
BLS data shows that chemists earn from $43,920 (the bottom 10%) to $133,180 (the top 90%). Industry and location also impact career prospects and pay potential and are examined in a later section of this guide. Furthermore, an individual's level of educational attainment affects how much they earn. Regardless of industry, those with a master's degree earn over $12,000 more in average annual salary than professionals with baccalaureate credentials. They also benefit from a lower unemployment rate.
How to Become a Chemist
Earn Your Degree
Although you can apply for some support positions with an associate degree, working as a chemist requires the completion of at least a bachelor's degree. Baccalaureate training approved by the American Chemical Society covers fundamental areas like physical, organic, and inorganic chemistry, laying the foundation for careers in medicine and biology. These programs also offer laboratory preparation that trains you in spectroscopy, matter synthesis, and chemical measurements.
Unlike associate programs, bachelor's tracks in chemistry enable you to personalize the curriculum through guided and open electives. You can also align your degree plan with individual career goals by choosing a concentration. Furthermore, baccalaureate candidates complete internships, gaining hands-on experience that employers value in qualified candidates. Schools typically allow online students to fulfill practicum requirements with companies in their area, including current employers.
With a bachelor of science in chemistry, you can occupy entry-level positions that entail supervised practical services, like substance analysis and chemical processing for product development. If you want to pursue work as a dedicated researcher, laboratory manager, or scientific consultant, earning graduate credentials represents the next step in professional development. Advanced academic programs provide training in specialized areas, further developing your research, analysis, and problem-solving skills. In addition to enjoying more career prospects, those with a graduate degree qualify to sit for major certification/licensure exams.
How Many Years of College Does It Take to Become a Chemist?
Bachelor's programs in chemistry generally total at least 120 credits, which traditional students can complete in four years. You may expedite degree completion by enrolling in accelerated tracks. These intensive online programs operate four- to eight-week classes year-round and enable you to graduate in as little as two years. If you need to continue working while in school, part-time programs let you obtain bachelor's credentials in about five years.
A chemistry program's structure also influences timeline. Most higher education institutions deliver individually paced learning, allowing you to take as few or as many classes as you want at a time. However, certain schools operate a cohort format that requires you to take one or two courses per term and advance through the program at the same rate as your peers. This program structure engenders collaboration and relationship building but can slow down degree completion.
Beyond undergraduate training, the amount of time it takes to prepare for career entry depends on your professional objectives. For example, candidates who want to apply their skills in nuclear and chemical engineering (especially for pharmaceutical research and product development) usually earn graduate credentials. They may also need to obtain a state-sanctioned professional engineer license, which requires at least four years of relevant work experience.
Concentrations Available for Chemistry Majors
- A pre-health concentration prepares you for advanced training in a variety of fields within healthcare, including nursing, dentistry, medicine, physician assistance, and occupational therapy. Students cultivate advanced skills in mathematics and the physical sciences. The concentration's versatility allows you to pursue specialized topics. For example, someone interested in public health could take seminars in parasitology and developmental biology.
- This concentration focuses on the chemical processes related to living organisms. Students explore the relationship between molecular structure and function, taking classes in general microbiology, human physiology, genetics, and cell biology. A biochemistry concentration prepares you for careers in veterinary medicine, food science, pharmaceuticals, and clinical chemistry.
- Forensic Chemistry
- By pursuing this concentration, you’ll learn to apply chemistry theories and methods to criminal investigations. On top of chemical analysis, you’ll develop communication skills necessary to convey laboratory results through reports and in the courtroom. Coursework includes toxicology, forensic osteology, and strategic crime analysis, in addition to an exploration of the U.S. criminal justice system.
- Chemical Engineering
- This concentration helps learners develop the skills to design and develop chemical manufacturing processes used in the production of fuels and foods. Due to developments in nanotechnology, chemical engineers also work in multidisciplinary teams to create biomedical devices, drug delivery systems, and artificial organs. Course topics include materials science and fluid mechanics.
- Consider this concentration if your goal is to work as a teacher or education administrator. You’ll gain a general understanding of the K-12 education system that provides the foundation for research-based teaching strategies in critical content areas. Coursework also includes curriculum design, child growth and development, and educational evaluation. Students gain hands-on experience through classroom training.
What Can You Do With a Chemistry Degree?
Your options for careers in chemistry largely depend on your degree type and level. The most lucrative careers in this field require you to possess at least a bachelor's credential. Research and postsecondary teaching occupations typically necessitate graduate training. Some professions (including some in nursing, teaching, and public health) require state licensure.
The American Chemical Society breaks down chemistry careers into five major sectors: academia, entrepreneurship, government, industry, and nonprofit. Academic occupations center on teaching, program administration, and basic research. You can also pursue an informatics career, which entails storing, retrieving, and applying information about chemical compounds. The government sector includes occupations in environmental protection, scientific policy, and public information and outreach.
Chemists who work in the industry sector occupy roles in applied research and product development. You can work as a quality inspector or regulatory specialist, ensuring companies meet industry and government standards. Lastly, chemistry degree graduates are prepared for nonprofit positions in public health and community activism. You can also pursue an unconventional career path in art conservation and restoration.
Associate Degree in Chemistry
Associate programs generally require students to complete at least 60 credits, which usually takes two years. Candidates can graduate in 12-18 months by enrolling in accelerated tracks. Most technical and community colleges operate transfer pathways to public state universities, allowing you to seamlessly transition to earning baccalaureate credentials.
Two-year programs focus on core science topics that prepare you for advanced training in your chosen field of study. Coursework includes calculus, biology principles, introductory physics, and analytical chemistry. You’ll also receive laboratory training in physical sciences. Schools typically offer associate of science and/or associate of arts tracks with common core topics. The former requires students to take additional science/math classes, while the latter focuses on the humanities and may include foreign language courses.
- Laboratory Assistant
Laboratory assistants help chemists and engineers research, develop, and test products and processes. They set up and maintain equipment, troubleshooting malfunctions as necessary. Chemical technicians prepare solutions and monitor processes to ensure safety and quality standards. They also interpret results and prepare technical reports for team members and stakeholders.
Bachelor's Degree in Chemistry
Bachelor of chemistry programs typically span 2-4 years, depending on course structure. Required coursework often includes technical writing, physics, and applied calculus. You’ll engage in intensive laboratory work, learning how to use instruments, combine and separate compounds, and make precise measurements. You’ll also develop data analysis skills, applied in field-based research projects.
Due to the diversity of bachelor's programs in chemistry, you should carefully research options offered by your prospective schools. Chemistry departments often embed specializations into the degree plan. For example, after completing core requirements, you might choose from a general chemistry, computation, or teaching track. Each pathway comes with distinct advanced coursework and capstone requirements.
- Laboratory Manager
These managers oversee the daily operations of laboratories to make sure procedures align with organizational standards and government regulations. They supervise chemists and other scientists through the research and development project cycle, coordinating efforts and allocating resources. Laboratory managers also offer technical assistance, negotiate with materials suppliers, and collaborate with company leaders to establish strategic goals.
Chemists analyze compound characteristics and the ways substances react to one another. They use findings to further scientific knowledge and facilitate the development of new products and processes. Depending on the industry, chemists may support clinical investigations or environmental sustainability. Chemists can also work in education, medicine, and engineering.
Master's Degree in Chemistry
Master's programs in chemistry usually total a minimum of 30 credits, which typically takes two years. Alternatively, accelerated online tracks offer the chance to graduate in as little as one year. Some schools deliver 4+1 options that allow dedicated learners to earn both their bachelor's and master's in just five years. Dual-degree programs benefit candidates who want to work in a management position or a specialized industry, like forensic science or clinical chemistry.
Core topics in master's programs generally include physical chemistry, advanced organic synthesis, and modern inorganic chemistry. You’ll also learn to access and evaluate chemical literature to support laboratory analysis. Programs round out graduate training with thesis research and presentation. Some schools also include a comprehensive exam.
- Research Scientist
Typically working in academic settings, research scientists gather knowledge through experimentation and analysis. They also spend their time writing grants and presenting at conferences to support their work. When working in applied industries, research scientists engage with development and production cycles, using their expertise to create and improve products.
- Senior Chemist
Like entry-level scientists, senior chemists evaluate the properties of organic and inorganic substances. They apply research findings to help advance medicine, manufacturing, and other industries. Because of their experience level, senior chemists often work independently or in a leadership position. They establish safety standards and optimize procedures with regard to company standards.
Doctoral Degree in Chemistry
Earning a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) in chemistry typically demands about 70 credits of coursework over 4-7 years, depending on the nature of the dissertation. Doctoral candidates spend the first two years taking classes like advanced analytical chemistry, biochemistry, and biological structures. Advanced coursework varies based on chosen concentration. You’ll also take this time to gather resources and plan the independent research and scholarly publication needed to fulfill dissertation requirements.
Ph.D. candidates usually spend the remainder of their program immersed in laboratory experiments and field research. Students who obtain doctoral fellowships and assistantships also work as undergraduate instructors. Like master's candidates, Ph.D. candidates often sit for written and oral exams as part of their capstone requirements.
- Senior Research Scientist
Senior research scientists supervise day-to-day project activities, including coordinating technical personnel and interpreting data. They design and oversee quality control equipment. Senior scientists write proposals and progress reports, presenting this information to team members and stakeholders. In addition to doctoral credentials, these scientists need keen communication skills to build collaborative partnerships with clients and engage consumers.
- Principal Scientist
Principal scientists manage team members, including senior researchers, to ensure they achieve goals and produce deliverables on time and within resource constraints. These leaders initiate new research activities and establish laboratories. Principal scientists often work in the private sector to strengthen companies' commercial advantage. They represent their teams externally, meeting with government officials and attending consumer conferences.
Where Can I Work as a Chemistry Graduate?
Chemistry touches many aspects of daily life, so it’s no surprise that careers in chemistry span diverse industries. BLS data reveals that chemists benefit from the highest employment level when working for pharmaceutical and medical manufacturing companies, where they earn an average salary of $81,600. Employment levels are also high in industries like scientific research and development; arhitectural, engineering, and related services; and federal executive government research. However, you enjoy the highest pay potential when working in oil and gas extraction, with an average salary of $116,550.
Salary potential and employment prospects for careers in chemistry vary significantly by location. According to the BLS, California boasts the highest employment level for chemists, followed by New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, and North Carolina. Delaware employs the highest concentration of chemists, fueled by the state's economic dominance in agriculture, manufacturing, and mining. Chemists earn the highest wages when working in Washington, D.C., averaging an annual salary of $120,980. There, scientists typically work for government agencies, conducting research that affects public policies.
In addition to career opportunities and earnings, you should factor in quality of life when deciding where to live and work. While metropolitan areas may offer good employment prospects, they also come with increasingly high living costs. Nonmetropolitan areas like southwest New York and western Texas provide ample chemistry career opportunities and relatively low housing prices.
- Pharmaceutical and Medicine Manufacturing
This industry consists of companies engaged in research and development for diagnostic, preventive, and therapeutic medications. Chemists typically work in interdisciplinary teams to develop drugs for targeted use, like slowing the growth of breast cancer.
Average Salary: $81,600
- Scientific Research and Development Services
This industry focuses on the creation and distribution of new technologies in areas like electronics and aerospace. Chemists can work as general academic researchers. Alternatively, they may occupy applied research roles as part of development teams.
Average Salary: $92,830
- 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 can also work as environmental scientists, who ensure construction meets government regulations.
Average Salary: $67,550
- Chemical Manufacturing
Companies in this industry manufacture seven types of products, including basic chemicals, agricultural chemicals, and synthetic materials. Chemists can occupy positions within the production cycle, working as researchers and project managers.
Average Salary: $88,540
- Federal Executive Branch
Offering the highest average salary for chemists, the federal executive branch employs them as development researchers and policy specialists. Science professionals can also pursue elected office and military careers.
Average Salary: $114,030
How Do You Find a Job in Chemistry?
The pharmaceutical and medical manufacturing industry employs the most chemists in the United States. Major companies include Pfizer, Merck, and Eli Lilly. Data USA reports that, as of 2016, pharmaceutical and medical manufacturers housed over 287,000 employees, who earned an average annual salary of $104,111.
To apply for any career in chemistry, you should give yourself enough time to properly research open positions. As you begin crafting application materials, you can use document templates to organize information, prioritizing items that directly align with details found in the job description while also tailoring your resume to emphasize your own personal strengths. All final resumes, CVs, and cover letters must cater to the requirements of specific positions and employer missions.
You may bolster your job prospects by engaging with professional organizations. Phi Lambda Upsilon offers financial support and early career guidance to chemistry students. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the American Oil Chemists' Society deliver employment opportunities, networking events, and skill development programs.
Professional Resources for Chemistry Majors
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 access certificate programs, continuing education resources, and online learning tools. They also enjoy career guidance and funding support, which includes global health outreach travel grants.
Established in 1876, ACS features over 2,000 branches worldwide. Members collaborate through regional meetings, local sections, and student chapters. They 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.
AIChE supports more than 60,000 members in 100 countries, making it the world's biggest chemical engineering organization. The institute facilitates policy and research advancement in areas like energy, process safety, and chemical engineering practice. Members can access professional development resources, which include guides to starting a career and negotiating salary. The AIChE Academy offers webinars, conference presentations, and noncredit coursework.
Founded in 1906, ASBMB serves over 12,000 members through campaigns for education funding and workplace safety. The society provides networking events in forms of 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.
With over 90 global chapters, SETC supports the study and analysis of environmental problems. Member benefits include research journal subscriptions, discounts on conferences worldwide, and membership to affiliate organizations. Students enjoy award and fellowship opportunities as well as one-on-one mentorship guidance, online training courses, and certification programs.