A Day in the Life of a Chemist

Chemists "are paid to be creative, careful, and productive" said one of our survey respondents, and the rest agreed. "It's a career for people who think about the future," mentioned another. Chemists analyze the basic properties of matter. In the commercial sector, they find new uses and applications for it. In the academic sector, they study the implications of newly discovered chemical properties. Chemists spend over 60 percent of their time in the lab or in front of their computers analyzing data. Most work is done in teams, and more than one respondent pointed out that teamwork skills are "essential" to success in this field. Specific duties may include modeling, analysis, synthesis, research, limited fieldwork, or even sales and information management. There are as many specialties, such as quality control chemists or organic chemists, as there are areas of application of chemical principles. A chemist's specialty would depend on his style of working, but the desire to search for the ability to manipulate matter and make more useful materials is common to all chemists. Chemists work closely with other experts, including chemical engineers, who plan the production and development of discoveries made by chemists; sales forces, who explain their products; and academic chemists, who share information at cutting-edge levels. This requires good interpersonal skills and an ability to always keep end goals in mind. "You don't spend a lot of time hanging out with other chemists, but you do spend a lot of time reading about them." Professional reading can be significant in this profession, as discoveries can change the understanding of the physical systems that are critical to this profession. Chemists are challenged, excited and satisfied with the profession in which the majority spend their entire careers.

Paying Your Dues

About 600 colleges offer undergraduate degrees in chemistry, and 300 offer graduate degrees. Quality control, assistant, and production chemists generally need only an undergraduate degree in chemistry, but many employers look for cross-disciplinary studies including biology, physics, materials science, English, and communications courses. The commercial sector hires chemists most often in the petroleum, chemicals, medical, food, and production industries, while the academic sector hiring of chemists is dominated by universities and research institutions. As most chemists work in teams, a growing number of employers look for strong interpersonal skills: “The ability to play well in the sandbox,” as one of our survey respondents put it. This means that intelligence, for a long time the single factor in determining job opportunities in the field of chemistry, is no longer the only consideration. Later in their careers, many find it helpful to join a professional organization such as the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Present and Future

Chemistry has been around as a learned discipline since people started to rely on the medicinal value of herbs and plants. While an understanding of the reasons behind the curative effects of these plants was lacking, the original cause-and-effect study of them laid the foundation for modern chemistry. Notable luminaries in the development of chemistry include Mendeleyev and Meyer, who developed the periodic table of elements in the nineteenth century, and Niels Bohr, who correctly postulated the structure of the atom early in the twentieth century. Chemistry as a profession is downsizing. The mid-1990s saw chemical, petroleum, and food companies all tighten their operations in the name of efficiency and profits. As these are the three major employers of chemists, hiring came almost to a standstill. While many believe that the market for chemists will rebound and that this cutting back was only one step in a strengthening process, the job market has yet to reflect a bounce back. Those with the brightest futures are those who combine their chemistry degrees with a mastery of other subjects such as biochemistry or mathematics (for theoretical chemists).

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Chemists work as general assistants, performing experiments and recording data under the direction of more experienced, more senior chemists. Many are shunted to areas that they did not anticipate, such as quality control or information management. These early years are marked by average hours and reasonable levels of satisfaction. Few chemists have any illusions about the mundane duties that will be their responsibilities.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Five-year veterans have chosen an area of specialization that matches their style, and many have been put in charge of research, production, or development teams. Tasks include the assembling and analysis of data based on computer models. Many have managerial duties as well as hands-on tasks to complete. Those who wish to rise above this project-managing level should note that personnel management skills are important beyond this point.

TEN YEARS OUT

Ten-year chemists have found their responsibilities extend more in terms of direction, budgeting and planning than actual research and development. Many use management skills more than research abilities. Significant connections help those who start their own research companies. Hours rise; salaries increase; satisfaction remains level.