How Do I Become an Organic Chemist?

Research what it takes to become an organic chemist. Learn the facts about education requirements, job duties, salary and employment outlook to see if this is the career for you. Schools offering Science, Technology, and International Security degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is an Organic Chemist?

Organic chemists synthesize, purify and characterize organic compounds. These carbon-based compounds have a wide range of applications in many different fields, including medicine and biotechnology. Not only do they develop new products, but they may test the quality of current products and work to improve them. Organic chemists work in a laboratory setting and often manage the work of other lab technicians. This may involve training technicians on various laboratory equipment and techniques. These professionals must keep detailed records of their work and produce reports of their findings. Their research is often presented to other scientists and interested parties. The following chart provides an overview of what you need to know about entering this field.

Degree Required Entry-level: bachelor's degree,
Research/teaching: PhD
Education Field of Study Bachelor's: organic chemistry, chemistry,
PhD: organic chemistry
Key Responsibilities Research properties, structure and behavior of carbon-based molecules; create new organic substances; write research reports; work collaboratively
Job Growth (2014-2024 ) 3% for all chemists*
Average Salary (2015) $77,860 for all chemists*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Education Do I Need for a Career as an Organic Chemist?

The level of education you need as an organic chemist depends on the type of job you're interested in. A bachelor's degree in chemistry is typically sufficient for an entry-level organic chemistry position. However, a doctoral degree in chemistry will give you more career options and advancement opportunities. For example, you'll need a doctoral degree in order to qualify for high-level research positions that allow you to control the direction of your research and oversee a team of scientists.

At the undergraduate level, you could expect to take courses in all areas of chemistry, including physical, organic and inorganic chemistry. You'll also take laboratory courses and courses in math and physics. Common electives that you might take include biology, biochemistry and computer science.

At the graduate level, you'll be enrolled in a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) program in chemistry and specialize in organic chemistry. This means that you'll complete coursework in organic chemistry, typically during your first year. You'll also select a thesis advisor whose research interests match your own and join his or her research group. You'll conduct your dissertation research in the laboratory and under the supervision of your thesis advisor. Depending on your research interests, your dissertation project might involve the total synthesis of a complex natural compound, the design and synthesis of new catalysts or the modification of naturally-occurring proteins, among other possibilities.

What Jobs Could I Apply for?

As an organic chemist, you could apply for jobs in academia, industry or government. If you hold a PhD in Chemistry, you could apply for faculty positions at colleges and universities, where you would teach courses and conduct research. Alternatively, you could work in industrial research and development, where you might design and synthesize new compounds, such as pharmaceutical drugs, or develop more efficient methods of purifying naturally-occurring compounds.

Common industries that you might work in include the pharmaceutical, biotech and petroleum industries. You could also apply for jobs in government labs, including the many national labs managed by the Department of Energy, or government agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency.

What Salary Could I Earn?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), chemists in general, including organic chemists, earned an average annual salary of $77,860 as of May 2015. Those working in the pharmaceutical industry earned an average of $76,610 during the same month, while those employed in scientific research and development earned a substantially higher average at $90,130.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Chemical and materials engineers, as well as geoscientists, hold related positions that require a bachelor's degree to enter the field. Chemical engineers combine science and engineering to test and develop chemical products, including food, fuel and drugs. Materials engineers study the structures of all kinds of materials to test, improve and develop new products. Geoscientists try to learn more about the Earth's past and apply it to the present and future conditions by examining various physical characteristics of the Earth.

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