How to Become a Chemist in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for chemists. Get the facts about education, salary and potential job growth to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Science, Technology, and International Security degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Chemist Do?

A chemist is a scientist who studies chemicals. As a chemist, you may contribute to the development of drugs, cosmetics, electronics or oil refinement. Chemists use their knowledge to develop new and improved products, to test the quality of manufactured goods, and conduct research into new pharmaceutical remedies and treatments. Typical duties can include planning and implementing complex research projects, providing instruction to technicians and other chemists, preparing necessary solutions and reagents for laboratory processes, and conducting tests and reporting findings.

The following chart provides an overview about becoming a chemist.

Degree Required Bachelor's, masters or doctor of philosophy
Field of Study Chemistry, materials science
Key Responsibilities Prepare, analyze and test solutions, compounds and reagents; plan and execute research projects; present findings orally or in written reports
Job Growth (2014-2024) 3%*
Median Salary (2015) $71,260*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What is a Chemist?

As a chemist, you can work in basic research, or you can work in applied research and seek new ways to apply the knowledge of chemicals in creating and improving products and processes. You may also work for a chemical manufacturing plant in the area of production or quality control. There are several branches of chemistry in which you can choose to specialize, including analytical, organic, inorganic, medicinal, physical, theoretical and materials chemistry.

Step 1: Research Career Options and Education Requirements

The minimum educational requirement to obtain entry-level work as a chemist is usually a bachelor's degree. However, if you would like to become a researcher, you will most likely need a Ph.D., though a master's degree may be sufficient for some research positions.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

To become a chemist, you can major in chemistry or a related discipline, such as physical science, life science or engineering. Required courses typically include inorganic and organic chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics and computer science. If you are interested in an environmental career, you may want to consider also taking courses in environmental studies, soil chemistry and related subjects.

Step 3: Gain Experience

Gaining practical experience in chemistry can be advantageous when seeking employment or applying to graduate school. While earning your bachelor's degree, you may want to consider participating in an internship or work-study program. Doing so can help you develop the skills necessary to succeed as a chemist, such as perseverance, the ability to work independently and attention to detail. If you plan to apply to graduate school, it will also give you the opportunity to form professional relationships and obtain letters of reference.

Step 4: Earn a Graduate Degree

While a bachelor's degree is sufficient to work in quality control or as a research assistant, in most cases you must earn a master's degree or Ph.D. to conduct basic or applied research. Most graduate programs give you the opportunity to choose a chemistry specialty, such as analytical, medicinal, environmental or theoretical chemistry. Master's degree programs allow you to choose a thesis or non-thesis option depending on whether you are interested in research. If you enroll in a Ph.D. program, you must conduct research and prepare a thesis or dissertation. You may be required to gain teaching experience in addition to conducting research and taking chemistry courses.

Step 5: Find a Job

After earning your master's degree or Ph.D., you can seek employment in basic or applied research. Though you may spend much of your time conducting research in a laboratory, you will also spend a lot of time working in an office to prepare research reports and conducting theoretical research. You may also spend some of your time outdoors collecting samples. You will likely work in an interdisciplinary team and consult with chemists in other fields regularly.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

For those who enjoy science and chemistry but are unsure chemistry itself is the path to follow, chemical engineering, environmental science and materials engineering could provide other alternatives. Chemical engineers follow many of the same principles of chemists, but they usually design processes and equipment for large-scale manufacturing and are more involved in test production. Environmental scientists also have bachelor's degrees and use their knowledge of natural sciences to protect the environment and human health. They often work in laboratories and offices but may also spend time in the field gathering data or monitoring specific environmental conditions. Materials engineers develop, process and test materials used to make other products. They study the various production materials currently available and manipulate them using chemical practices.

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