Research Chemist Jobs: Salary and Career Facts

Explore the career requirements for research chemists. Get the facts about education requirements, job duties, salary and employment outlook 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 Is a Research Chemist?

A research chemist is a scientist who specializes in the study of chemistry. Their work often focuses on a specific subfield of interest, such as organic chemistry, physical chemistry or medicinal chemistry, among others. Depending on that subfield, they may utilize a wide range of tools, including lasers and computer modeling software. Some focus on basic science research that is intended to advance the field of chemistry as a whole, while others work specifically toward the development of new materials or pharmaceutical drugs. Jobs are available in both academia and industry.

Take a look at the following chart for an overview of what you need to know about entering this field.

Degree Required Master's or PhD degree
Education Field of Study Chemistry
Key Responsibilities Experiment with inorganic and/or organic substances to learn how they interact; develop new and improved products, such as drugs and cosmetics
Job Growth (2014-2024 ) 3%*
Average Salary (2015) $90,130*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Education Do I Need for a Career as a Research Chemist?

Most research chemists hold master's or doctoral degrees in chemistry. However, some employers will hire you for an entry-level position if you hold a bachelor's degree in chemistry.

Once you've enrolled in a bachelor's degree program in chemistry, you could expect to take physics, calculus and general chemistry. You would also complete courses in various subfields of chemistry, including organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry and physical chemistry. A growing number of programs also require you to take biochemistry.

After you obtain your bachelor's degree, you could pursue a Master of Science or a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Chemistry. Once you've enrolled in a graduate program, you'd select a research area on which to focus your master's thesis or dissertation research.

The most basic research areas are organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry and physical chemistry. Other common research areas that you might choose include analytical chemistry, chemical biology, theoretical chemistry and polymer chemistry, to name a few.

What Fields of Research Are Available?

The fields of research that are available to research chemists are very similar to the research areas that are available to graduate students. If you focused on a certain research area in graduate school, you'll likely obtain a research position in the same, or a similar, subfield of chemistry after you graduate.

For example, if you focused on organic chemistry while in graduate school, you'll likely obtain a research position as an organic chemist or a medicinal chemist.

Organic chemists develop new methods of synthesizing and purifying organic, or carbon-based, compounds. These chemists work in a number of industries, including biotech, chemical, cosmetics and other consumer products industries.

Medicinal chemists, on the other hand, synthesize new pharmaceutical drugs. They are typically trained in organic chemistry and work in the pharmaceutical industry.

If you conducted research in physical chemistry as a graduate student, you'll likely work as a physical chemist after you graduate. Physical chemists study the molecular properties of various compounds and substances. As a theoretical physical chemist, you'd use computer simulations and molecular modeling to understand such concepts as the properties of chemical bonds or the interactions between different molecules.

If you choose to be an experimental physical chemist, you'd likely use spectroscopic or microscopic techniques, such as laser spectroscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy or scanning electron microscopy (SEM), to study the properties of various compounds and materials.

What Salary Could I Earn?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), chemists in general earned an average annual salary of $77,860 in 2015 (www.bls.gov). Chemists working in scientific research and development earned an average of $90,130 in 2015, whereas those working in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing earned an average of $76,610 that year.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

If you want to become a research scientist, you could choose to focus your research on a different subject within the field, like materials science or biophysics. Like chemists, these professionals usually need a master's or doctoral degree in order to get a top job in the field. Alternatively, if you are more interested in the real-world applications of chemistry research, you could consider becoming a chemical engineer, where you would use chemical information to solve problems at industrial plants and other chemical-related facilities. Although a bachelor's degree is the minimum educational requirement for an engineering job, your job prospects may improve if you have a master's degree as well.

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