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The clothes we wear, the foods we eat, the houses in which we live--in fact, most things that help make our lives better, from medical care to a cleaner environment--result, in part, from the work done by chemists.

Chemists search for and put to practical use new knowledge about substances. Their research has resulted in the development of a tremendous variety of new and improved synthetic fibers, paints, adhesives, drugs, electronic components, lubricants, and other products. They also develop processes which help save energy and reduce pollution, such as improved oil refining methods. Research on the chemistry of living things provides the basis for advances in medicine, agriculture, and other areas.

Most chemists work in research and development. In basic research, chemists investigate the properties, composition, and structure of matter and the laws that govern the combination of elements and reactions of substances. In applied research and development, they create new products or improve existing ones, often using knowledge gained from basic research. For example, synthetic rubber and plastics have resulted from research on small molecules uniting to form large ones (polymerization).

The process of developing a product begins with descriptions of the characteristics it should have. If similar products exist, chemists test samples to determine their ingredients. If no such product exists, chemists experiment with various substances to develop a product with the required specifications.

Some chemists work in production and inspection. In production, chemists prepare instructions for plant workers which specify the kind and amount of ingredients to use and the exact mixing time for each stage in the process. They also monitor automated processes to ensure proper product yield and quality. At each step, samples are tested for quality to meet industry and government standards. Chemists keep records and prepare reports showing results of tests. Others work as marketing or sales representatives who sell and provide technical information on chemical products.

Chemists often specialize in a subfield of chemistry, Analytical chemists determine the structure, composition, and nature of substances, and develop new analytical techniques. Their skills are often used to identify the presence of chemicals--for example, the kinds and amounts of chemical pollutants in air or water. Organic chemists study the chemistry of carbon compounds. When combined with other elements, carbon forms a vast number of substances. Many modern commercial products, such as drugs, plastics, and fertilizers have been developed by organic chemists. Inorganic chemists study compounds mainly consisting of elements other than carbon. They may, for example, develop materials for electronic components. Physical chemists study the physical characteristics of atoms and molecules and investigate how chemical reactions work. This research may result in new and better energy sources.

Biochemists, whose work encompasses both biology and chemistry, are not included in this report.

Working Conditions

Chemists usually work regular hours in offices and laboratories. Some are exposed to health or safety hazards when handling certain chemicals, but there is little risk if proper procedures are followed.


Chemists held over 84,000 jobs in 1990. Over five eights of all chemists work for manufacturing firms--over three-fifths of these are in the chemical manufacturing industry; the rest are scattered throughout other manufacturing industries. Chemists also work for State and local governments, primarily in health and agriculture, and for Federal agencies, chiefly the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Resources, and Agriculture. Smaller numbers work for nonprofit research organizations. In addition, about 19,500 persons held chemistry faculty positions in colleges and universities.

Chemists are employed in all parts of the country, but they are concentrated in large industrial areas.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

A bachelor's degree with a major in chemistry or a related discipline is sufficient for many beginning jobs as a chemist. However, graduate training is required for most research jobs, and most college teaching jobs require a Ph.D degree. Beginning chemists should have a broad background in chemistry, with good laboratory skills.

Many colleges and universities offer a bachelor's degree program in chemistry. About 580 are approved by the American Chemical Society. In addition to required courses in analytical, inorganic, organic, and physical chemistry, undergraduates usually study mathematics, physics, and liberal arts.

Several hundred colleges and universities award advanced degrees in chemistry. Graduate students generally specialize in a subfield of chemistry. Requirements for a master's and doctor's degree usually include a thesis based on independent research.

Students planning careers as chemists should enjoy studying science and mathematics, and should like working with their hands and building scientific apparatus and performing experiments. Perseverance, curiosity, and the ability to concentrate on detail and to work independently are essential.

Graduates with a bachelor's degree generally begin their careers in government or industry by analyzing or testing products, working in technical sales or services, or assisting senior chemists in research and development laboratories. Employers may have training and orientation programs which provide special knowledge needed for the employer's type of work. Candidates for an advanced degree often teach or do research in colleges and universities while working toward their degrees.

Beginning chemists with a master's degree can usually teach in a 2-year college or go into applied research in government or private industry. A Ph.D. generally is required for basic research, for 4-year college faculty positions, and for advancement to many administrative positions.

Many people with a bachelor's degree in chemistry enter other occupations in which a chemistry background is helpful, such as technical writers and manufacturers' sales representatives and wholesale trade sales workers in chemical marketing. Some who hold bachelor's degrees in chemistry enter medical, dental, veterinary, or other health profession schools. Others enter a wide range of occupations with little or no connection to chemistry.

Job Outlook

Chemists are expected to have very good employment opportunities through the year 2000 because employment is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations and the number of degrees granted in chemistry is not expected to increase enough to meet future demand. Employment is expected to grow because of expanded research and development--for new products and more efficient production processes, and because more will be needed in environmental protection efforts. Also, the chemical industry, which faced many problems in the early 1980's, is now much healthier. Areas relating to pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and environmental protection should provide especially good opportunities. Despite the expected growth, most openings will results as chemists transfer to other occupations or leave the occupation for other reasons.


According to the College Placement Council, chemists with a bachelor's degree were offered starting salaries averaging $27,050 a year in 1990; those with a master's degree, $32,825 and those with a Ph.D., $42,950.

According to the American Chemical Society, salaries of their members with a bachelor's degree who were experienced nonacademic chemists in private industry averaged $36,825 a year in 1990; for those with a master's degree, $42,650 and for those with a Ph.D., $52,000.

In a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, chemists in private industry averaged $27,050 a year in 1990 at the most junior level. Experienced midlevel chemists with no supervisory responsibilities averaged $47,650 and senior, non-supervisory chemists averaged $57,200. Chemists who become managers often earn much more.

Related Occupations

The work of chemical engineers, occupational safety and health workers, agricultural scientists, biological scientists, and chemical technicians is closely related to the work done by chemists. The work of other physical and life science occupations may also be similar to that of chemists.

Sources of Additional Information

General information on career opportunities and earnings for chemists is available from:

American Chemical Society, Career Services, 1155 16th St. NW., Washington, D.C. 20036.

Information on Federal job opportunities is available from local offices of State employment services and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management or from Federal Job Information Centers located in various large cities throughout the country.


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