Everything in the environment, whether naturally occurring or of human design, is composed of chemicals. Chemists and materials scientists search for and use new knowledge about chemicals. Chemical research has led to the discovery and development of new and improved synthetic fibers, paints, adhesives, drugs, cosmetics, electronic components, lubricants, and thousands of other products. Chemists and materials scientists also develop processes that save energy and reduce pollution, such as improved oil refining and petrochemical processing methods. Research on the chemistry of living things spurs advances in medicine, agriculture, food processing, and other fields.
Materials scientists research and study the structures and chemical properties of various materials to develop new products or enhance existing ones. They also determine ways to strengthen or combine materials or develop new materials for use in a variety of products. Materials science encompasses the natural and synthetic materials used in a wide range of products and structures, from airplanes, cars, and bridges to clothing and household goods. Companies whose products are made of metals, ceramics, and rubber employ most materials scientists. Other applications of materials science include studies of superconducting materials, graphite materials, integrated-circuit chips, and fuel cells. Materials scientists, applying chemistry and physics, study all aspects of these materials. Chemistry plays an increasingly dominant role in materials science, because it provides information about the structure and composition of materials. Materials scientists often specialize in specific areas such as ceramics or metals.
Many chemists and materials scientists work in research and development (R&D). In basic research, they investigate properties, composition, and structure of matter and the laws that govern the combination of elements and reactions of substances. In applied R&D, they create new products and processes or improve existing ones, often using knowledge gained from basic research. For example, synthetic rubber and plastics resulted from research on small molecules uniting to form large ones, a process called polymerization. R&D chemists and materials scientists use computers and a wide variety of sophisticated laboratory instrumentation for modeling and simulation in their work.
The use of computers to analyze complex data has had the dramatic impact of allowing chemists and materials scientists to practice combinatorial chemistry. This technique makes and tests large quantities of chemical compounds simultaneously in order to find compounds with certain desired properties. As an integral part of drug and materials discovery, combinatorial chemistry speeds up materials design and R&D, permitting useful compounds to be developed more quickly and inexpensively than was formerly possible. Combinatorial chemistry has allowed chemists to produce thousands of compounds each year and to assist in the completion of the sequencing of human genes. Today, chemists are working with life scientists to translate this knowledge into viable new drugs.
Chemists also work in production and quality control in chemical manufacturing plants. They prepare instructions for plant workers that specify ingredients, mixing times, and temperatures for each stage in the process. They also monitor automated processes to ensure proper product yield, and test samples of raw materials or finished products to make certain that they meet industry and government standards, including the regulations governing pollution. Chemists report and document test results and analyze those results in hopes of further improving existing theories or developing new test methods.
Chemists often specialize. Analytical chemists determine the structure, composition, and nature of substances by examining and identifying the various elements or compounds that make up a substance. These chemists are absolutely crucial to the pharmaceutical industry because pharmaceutical companies need to know the identity of compounds that they hope to turn into drugs. Furthermore, they study the relations and interactions of the parts of compounds and develop analytical techniques. They also identify the presence and concentration of chemical pollutants in air, water, and soil. Organic chemists study the chemistry of the vast number of carbon compounds that make up all living things. Organic chemists who synthesize elements or simple compounds to create new compounds or substances that have different properties and applications have developed many commercial products, such as drugs, plastics, and elastomers (elastic substances similar to rubber). Inorganic chemists study compounds consisting mainly of elements other than carbon, such as those in electronic components. Physical and theoretical chemists study the physical characteristics of atoms and molecules and the theoretical properties of matter, and investigate how chemical reactions work. Their research may result in new and better energy sources. Macromolecular chemists study the behavior of atoms and molecules. Medicinal chemistsstudy the structural properties of compounds intended for applications to human medicine. Materials chemists study and develop new materials to improve existing products or make new ones. In fact, virtually all chemists are involved in this quest in one way or another. Developments in the field of chemistry that involve life sciences will expand, resulting in more interaction among biologists, engineers, and chemists. (Biochemists, whose work encompasses both biology and chemistry, are discussed in the Handbook statement on biological scientists.)
Chemists and materials scientists usually work regular hours in offices and laboratories. R&D chemists and materials scientists spend much time in laboratories, but also work in offices when they do theoretical research or plan, record, and report on their lab research. Although some laboratories are small, others are large enough to incorporate prototype chemical manufacturing facilities as well as advanced equipment for chemists. In addition to working in a laboratory, materials scientists also work with engineers and processing specialists in industrial manufacturing facilities. After a material is sold, materials scientists often help customers tailor the material to suit their needs. Chemists do some of their work in a chemical plant or outdoorswhile gathering water samples to test for pollutants, for example. Some chemists are exposed to health or safety hazards when handling certain chemicals, but there is little risk if proper procedures are followed.
Chemists and materials scientists held about 91,000 jobs in 2002. About 44 percent of all chemists and material scientists are employed in manufacturing firmsmostly in the chemical manufacturing industry, which includes firms that produce plastics and synthetic materials, drugs, soaps and cleaners, pesticides and fertilizers, paint, industrial organic chemicals, and other chemical products. About 15 percent of chemists and material scientists work in scientific research and development services; another 13 percent work in architectural, engineering, and related services. In addition, thousands of persons with a background in chemistry and materials science hold teaching positions in high schools and in colleges and universities. (See the statements on teacherspostsecondary, and teacherspreschool, kindergarten, elementary, middle, and secondary elsewhere in the Handbook.)
Chemists and materials scientists are employed in all parts of the country, but they are mainly concentrated in large industrial areas.
A bachelorís degree in chemistry or a related discipline usually is the minimum educational requirement for entry-level chemist jobs. However, many research jobs require a masterís degree, or more often a Ph.D. While some materials scientists hold a degree in materials science, a bachelorís degree in chemistry, physics, or electric engineering also is accepted. Similar to chemists, many R&D jobs require a Ph.D. in materials science or a related science.
Many colleges and universities offer a bachelorís degree program in chemistry; about 620 are approved by the American Chemical Society (ACS). The number of colleges that offer a degree program in materials science is small, but gradually increasing. Several hundred colleges and universities also offer advanced degree programs in chemistry; around 320 masterís programs and about 190 doctoral programs are ACS-approved.
Students planning careers as chemists and materials scientists should take courses in science and mathematics, should like working with their hands building scientific apparatus and performing laboratory experiments, and should like computer modeling. Perseverance, curiosity, and the ability to concentrate on detail and to work independently are essential. Interaction among specialists in this field is increasing, especially for chemists in drug development. One type of chemist often relies on the findings of another type of chemist. For example, an organic chemist must understand findings on the identity of compounds prepared by an analytical chemist.
In addition to required courses in analytical, inorganic, organic, and physical chemistry, undergraduate chemistry majors usually study biological sciences, mathematics, and physics. Those interested in the environmental field also should take courses in environmental studies and become familiar with current legislation and regulations. Computer courses are essential, because employers prefer job applicants who are able to apply computer skills to modeling and simulation tasks and operate computerized laboratory equipment. This is increasingly important as combinatorial chemistry techniques are more widely applied. Additionally, courses in statistics are useful because both chemists and materials scientists need the ability to apply basic statistical techniques.
Because R&D chemists and materials scientists are increasingly expected to work on interdisciplinary teams, some understanding of other disciplines, including business and marketing or economics, is desirable, along with leadership ability and good oral and written communication skills. Experience, either in academic laboratories or through internships, fellowships, or work-study programs in industry, also is useful. Some employers of research chemists, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, prefer to hire individuals with several years of postdoctoral experience.
Graduate students typically specialize in a subfield of chemistry, such as analytical chemistry or polymer chemistry, depending on their interests and the kind of work they wish to do. For example, those interested in doing drug research in the pharmaceutical industry usually develop a strong background in synthetic organic chemistry. However, students normally need not specialize at the undergraduate level. In fact, undergraduates who are broadly trained have more flexibility when job hunting or changing jobs than if they had narrowly defined their interests. Most employers provide new graduates additional training or education.
In government or industry, beginning chemists with a bachelorís degree work in quality control, perform analytical testing, or assist senior chemists in R&D laboratories. Many employers prefer chemists and materials scientists with a Ph.D., or at least a masterís degree, to lead basic and applied research. Nonetheless, relevant work experience is an asset. Chemists who hold a Ph.D. and have previous industrial experience may be particularly attractive to employers because such people are more likely to understand the complex regulations that apply to the pharmaceutical industry. Within materials science, a broad background in various sciences is preferred. This broad base may be obtained through degrees in physics, engineering, or chemistry. While many companies prefer hiring Ph.D.s, many materials scientists have bachelorís and masterís degrees.
Employment of chemists is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2012. Job growth will be concentrated in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing and in scientific research and development services firms. The chemical industry, the major employer of chemists, should face continued demand for goods such as new and better pharmaceuticals and personal care products, as well as for more specialty chemicals designed to address specific problems or applications. To meet these demands, some chemical firms will continue to devote money to research and developmentthrough in-house teams or outside contractorsspurring employment growth of chemists. Those with at least a masterís degree, and particularly those with a Ph.D., will enjoy better opportunities than those with just a bachelorís degree for most research and upper management positions. Opportunities for individuals with a bachelorís degree are expected to be more competitive. The number of science-related jobs in sales, marketing, and middle management, for which bachelorís and masterís degree holders may qualify, are expected to be fewer as companies continue to streamline their operations. Some bachelorís and masterís degree holders become chemical technicians or technologists or high school chemistry teachers.
Within the chemical industry, job opportunities are expected to be most plentiful in pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms. Biotechnological research, including studies of human genes, continues to offer possibilities for the development of new drugs and products to combat illnesses and diseases that have previously been unresponsive to treatments derived by traditional chemical processes. Stronger competition among drug companies and an aging population are contributing to the need for innovative and improved drugs discovered through scientific research.
Employment in the remaining segments of the chemical industry is expected to decline as companies downsize and turn to outside contractors to provide specialized services. As a result, scientific research and development services firms will experience healthy growth. To control costs, some chemical companies, including drug manufacturers, are increasingly turning to these firms to perform specialized research and other work formerly done by in-house chemists. Despite downsizing, some job openings will result from the need to replace chemists who retire or otherwise leave the labor force. Quality control will continue to be an important issue in chemical manufacturing and other industries that use chemicals in their manufacturing processes.
Chemists also will be needed to develop and improve the technologies and processes used to produce chemicals for all purposes, and to monitor and measure air and water pollutants to ensure compliance with local, State, and Federal environmental regulations. Environmental research will offer many new opportunities for chemists and materials scientists. To satisfy public concerns and to comply with government regulations, the chemical industry will continue to invest billions of dollars each year in technology that reduces pollution and cleans up existing wastesites. Chemists also are needed to find ways to use less energy and to discover new sources of energy.
During periods of economic recession, layoffs of chemists may occurespecially in the industrial chemicals industry. This industry provides many of the raw materials to the auto manufacturing and construction industries, both of which are vulnerable to temporary slowdowns during recessions.
Median annual earnings of chemists in 2002 were $52,890. The middle 50 percent earned between $39,410 and $71,710. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $30,980, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $92,170. Median annual earnings of materials scientists in 2002 were $64,590. The middle 50 percent earned between $46,280 and $86,240. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $33,480, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $107,400. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of chemists in 2002 were:
Scientific research and development services
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing
Architectural, engineering, and related services
The American Chemical Society reports that the median salary of all of its members with a bachelorís degree was $32,800 a year in 2002; for those with a masterís degree, it was $50,000; and for those with a Ph.D., it was $68,000. Median salaries were highest for those working in private industry; those in academia earned the least. According to an ACS survey of recent graduates, inexperienced chemistry graduates with a bachelorís degree earned a median starting salary of $31,000 in 2002; those with a masterís degree earned a median salary of $45,000; and those with a Ph.D. made median earnings of $67,500. Among bachelorís degree graduates, those who had completed internships or had other work experience while in school commanded the highest starting salaries.
In 2003, chemists in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions in the Federal Government averaged $76,857 a year.
General information on career opportunities and earnings for chemists is available from:
American Chemical Society, Education Division, 1155 16th St. NW., Washington, DC 20036. Internet: http://www.acs.org
For general information on materials science, contact:
Materials Research Society (MRS), 506 Keystone Dr., Warrendale, PA 15086-7573.
Information on obtaining a position as a chemist with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) through a telephone-based system. Consult your telephone directory under U.S. Government for a local number or call (703) 724-1850; Federal Relay Service: (800) 877-8339. The first number is not tollfree, and charges may result. Information also is available from the OPM Internet site: http://www.usajobs.opm.gov.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2004-05 Edition,
Chemists and Materials Scientists, on the Internet at
(visited July 09, 2004).