Chemists explore the changes and interactions between chemical materials. Students in this major will study the reactions of organic and inorganic elements at the most basic levels. Chemistry is both highly academic and highly experiential. Students interested in hands-on study will enjoy the heavy lab component both in college and in their careers. Research is traditionally conducted within a lab equipped with the proper safety tools, such as goggles and eye wash stations, to prevent and reduce injury.
Aspiring chemists should consider their ideal careers early, since they are often required to choose a specialization during their undergraduate years. Chemistry graduates will find their skills are valued by a wide range of employers. Manufacturers in the food, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical industries rely on chemists to develop stable products and to perform quality control tests, to make sure these substances are healthy and safe for public use. Forensic teams leverage chemists to find trace components at crime scenes, which can be used as evidence during a trial.
Undergraduates often start their chemistry studies by learning the fundamentals, covering lab safety protocols, the periodic table of elements, stoichiometry, thermodynamics concepts, and atomic interactions. Much of the information within these courses will be illustrated practically during lab experiments, where students will get to manipulate gases, liquids, and solids within a controlled environment. Most schools require students to take math courses concurrently, up to the calculus level, so they can keep up with the calculations used in upper-division chemistry courses. As students progress beyond key concepts, they can begin exploring courses in organic chemistry, biochemistry, or physical chemistry.
Unlike most undergraduate programs, students have a wide array of specializations they can declare right as they apply. Most schools don't just offer a general chemistry degree program – they allow undergraduates to specialize in fields like chemical education, biochemistry, environmental chemistry, materials chemistry, or biophysical chemistry. Graduate students will often carry the torch and continue to work on these specializations well into their master's and Ph.D. programs. The unique, early specialization encouraged by chemistry departments allows students to spend more time mastering a particular field.
Chemistry majors can enroll in degree programs at the bachelor's through doctoral levels. Since there are so many math and introductory lab requirements, chemistry programs are not traditionally offered at the two-year associate level.
As mentioned earlier, most colleges allow students to declare a chemistry department specialization when they apply to a four-year program. Students that graduate with a bachelor's degree can qualify for entry-level roles known as bench chemist jobs. A bench job includes tasks that can be completed at a workbench, such as the mixing of liquid compounds.
Students who pursue this graduate degree will most likely continue research within their undergrad chemistry specialization. Students who graduate with a master's degree often find research jobs with school or government laboratories, pharmaceutical companies, or chemical manufacturers. Chemists are also needed in many quality control jobs across various industries, such as cosmetics, food, and nuclear energy.
Before entering a doctoral program, chemistry students might be expected to pass a qualification exam. This is a common practice within science departments at the Ph.D. level. Doctoral candidates are often expected to conduct guided research on chemical interactions within their chosen specialization, and then deliver their findings to a committee with their dissertation. Ph.D. grads can then pursue a faculty role, to teach college students and upcoming chemists, or they can seek employment as chemists with labs in various industries.
Students who wish to network with other academics and professionals should consider joining a national honors society, such as Gamma Sigma Epsilon or Phi Lambda Upsilon. These groups provide students with unique opportunities to present at national conventions and earn merit-based scholarships. Students nearing graduation should also explore professional organizations, such as the American Chemist Society
, which provides members with exclusive news, publications, networking groups, and funding opportunities.
Ideal Candidates for Chemistry
Chemistry requires individuals to pay attention to detail, since the smallest measurement errors can ruin an experiment or lead to unstable mixes. Chemists often deal with exactitudes, measuring, mixing, and heating elements with precision. It is best for students to cultivate careful laboratory habits early on in their academic careers.
Patience is another excellent trait for chemists. As in other natural science fields, like physics or biology, scientists can find themselves waiting for long periods of time to complete an experiment, collect enough data, or retest elements after an error or instrument failure. Patience will also come in handy during redundant tasks, such as cataloging a component's reaction when mixed with different elements.
Impartiality is key when it comes to chemical research and experimentation. Chemists cannot let their expectations, emotions, or preconceptions cloud their analysis – they must remain as objective as possible, even if they do not reach their desired results. Ultimately, chemists seek to test theories with empirical research, instead of drawing hasty conclusions or manipulating data to get the results they expect or want.
Professionals who hold an undergraduate chemistry degree can find work as chemists in many different environments – from forensic investigation labs to quality control departments at manufacturing companies. These scientists research chemical interactions, log data, and deliver reports analyzing the results of their experiments. The median pay for chemists is $73,060 a year, or $35.13 an hour. Nearly a fifth of chemist positions are in research and development industries, and another 17% of jobs are in pharmaceutical and medical manufacturing industries.
Aspiring chemists can learn more about their college degree options by contacting admissions advisors, reaching out to chemistry department faculty members, and by talking with current chemistry students. While in college, students can prepare to enter the workforce by visiting their campus career center and joining a professional chemistry association. Students shouldn't shy away from reaching out to the numerous resources they have access to as chemistry scholars and graduates.