What Does a Lab Chemist Do?

Research what it takes to become a lab chemist. Learn about the educational requirements, job outlook and salary information to find out 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 a Lab Chemist?

Lab chemists experiment with different substances in order to produce viable products. They examine substances down at the molecular level to look at the composition and concentration of elements that make up a compound. They are trained in various laboratory tests and techniques, and often train other technicians and lab workers to do the same. Lab chemists perform complex experiments and take detailed notes on the process, analysis and results. They then report these findings in scientific papers and presentations to clients, engineers, other scientists or even the public. These professionals must be able to work well in teams, as many chemists today work in conjunction with biologists, engineers and other professionals on different projects. The following table provides information for this career:

Degree Required Bachelor's degree (minimum); master's or doctoral degree required for advanced research positions
Education Field of Study Chemistry
Key Responsibilities Work in a laboratory setting, test various chemicals, help develop new products
Job Growth (2014-24) 3% for all chemists*
Median Salary (2015) $71,260 for all chemists*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Does a Lab Chemist Do?

As a chemist, you would study different chemicals and chemical reactions that might help to create new products and processes for human use. These may include medical drugs, synthetic fibers or oil-refining processes. You would spend the majority of your time working in a laboratory setting, testing the structures and properties of various chemicals. You also might choose a branch of chemistry in which to specialize, such as an organic, materials or physical chemistry.

You most likely would find a job working in the research and development department of a private organization, federal agency, scientific research service or manufacturing company. You might work alongside physicists, engineers and computer specialists to help develop new products. The size of the lab you would work in likely would vary based on the size of your employer. Any time you didn't spend in the lab typically would be spent writing up reports and planning new experiments.

What Education Might I Need?

For an entry-level lab chemist position, you'll need at least a bachelor's degree in chemistry or a related field. A Bachelor of Science in Chemistry program can provide you with a thorough background in quantitative physical sciences. Courses and labs will cover such topics as physics, biology, computer science, biochemistry, inorganic chemistry, algebra and quantum mechanics. Some bachelor's degree programs may allow you to choose a concentration, like biochemistry.

How Could I Move Ahead in the Field?

Since many research positions require a graduate degree, you may want to consider getting a Master of Science or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Chemistry. Most graduate programs offered focus on a particular specialty, such as polymer chemistry, synthetic organic chemistry or analytical chemistry. You might determine what specific career path you want to take before enrolling in a graduate-level program. For example, if you're interested in performing analytical testing for a government agency, you might consider earning a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry.

What Salary Could I Expect to Make?

As of May 2015, 84,720 chemists worked in laboratories around the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov). They earned a median annual salary of $71,260. Many chemists worked for pharmaceutical or chemical manufacturers, while others worked for scientific research and development companies and federal agencies.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Natural sciences managers and chemical engineers are a couple of related careers that require a bachelor's degree. Natural sciences managers coordinate and oversee research projects and experiments that involve the work of multiple scientists, such as chemists, biologists and physicists. Chemical engineers combine their knowledge of chemistry with math, biology and other disciplines to solve real-world problems concerning the production of chemical products. Biochemists and biophysicists are also similar, but require a doctoral or professional degree. These professionals examine the physical and chemical makeup of living organisms.

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