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Chemists and Materials Scientists

Significant Points
  • A bachelorís degree in chemistry or a related discipline is the minimum educational requirement; however, many research jobs require a masterís degree, or more often a Ph.D.
  • Slower-than-average growth in employment is projected.
  • Job growth will be concentrated in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing companies and in professional, scientific, and technical services firms.
  • Graduates with a bachelorís degree will have opportunities at smaller research organizations; those with a masterís degree, and particularly those with a Ph.D., will enjoy better opportunities at larger pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms.

Nature of the Work

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 such as improved oil refining and petrochemical processing that save energy and reduce pollution. Research on the chemistry of living things spurs advances in medicine, agriculture, food processing, and other fields.

Materials scientists 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 allowed chemists and materials scientists to practice combinatorial chemistry. This technique makes and tests large quantities of chemical compounds simultaneously to find those with certain desired properties. Combinatorial chemistry has allowed chemists to produce thousands of compounds more quickly and inexpensively than was formerly possible and assisted in the completion of the sequencing of human genes. Today, specialty chemists, such as medicinal and organic chemists, are working with life scientists to translate this knowledge into 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 ensure that they meet industry and government standards, including regulations governing pollution. Chemists report and document test results and analyze those results in hopes of 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 their various elements or compounds. 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, analytical chemists 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 chemists study 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, computer specialists, and chemists. (Biochemists, whose work encompasses both biology and chemistry, are discussed here in a statement on biological scientists.)

Working Conditions

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 outdoorsówhile 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.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

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 electrical engineering also is accepted. Many R&D jobs require a Ph.D. in materials science or a related science.

Many colleges and universities offer degree programs in chemistry. In 2005, the American Chemical Society (ACS) approved 631 bachelorís, 308 masterís, and 192 doctoral degree programs. In addition to these schools, several hundred colleges and universities also offer advanced degree programs in chemistry. The number of colleges that offer a degree program in materials science is small but gradually increasing.

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 specialty 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; physics; and increasingly, computer science. 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 and high-throughput screening (HTS)óthe ability to enhance processing capacityótechniques are more widely applied. Those interested in the environmental field also should take courses in environmental studies and become familiar with current legislation and regulations. Specific courses should include atmospheric chemistry, water chemistry, soil chemistry, and energy. 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 medicinal or 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 have 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. 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, some may employ materials scientists with bachelorís and masterís degrees.


Chemists and materials scientists held about 90,000 jobs in 2004. About 43 percent of all chemists and material scientists are employed in manufacturing firmsómostly 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; 12 percent work in architectural, engineering, and related services. In addition, thousands of people with a background in chemistry and materials science hold teaching positions in high schools and in colleges and universities. (See the statements on teachersópostsecondary, and teachersópreschool, 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.

Job Outlook

Employment of chemists is expected to grow more slowly than the average rate for all occupations through 2014. Job growth will be concentrated in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing and in professional, scientific, and technical services firms. Employment in the nonpharmaceutical segments of the chemical industry, a major employer of chemists, is expected to decline over the projection period. Consequently, new chemists at all levels may experience competition for jobs in these segments, including basic chemical manufacturing and synthetic materials. Graduates with a bachelorís degree may find science-related jobs in sales, marketing, and middle management. Some become chemical technicians or technologists or high school chemistry teachers. In addition, bachelorís degree holders are increasingly finding assistant research positions at smaller research organizations. Graduates with a masterís degree, and particularly those with a Ph.D., will enjoy better opportunities at larger pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms. Furthermore, those with an advanced degree will continue to fill most senior research and upper management positions, although applicants are likely to experience competition for these jobs.

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 new drugs.

Employment in the remaining segments of the chemical industry is expected to decline as companies downsize. To control costs, most chemical companies, including many large pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, will increasingly turn to scientific R&D services firms to perform specialized research and other work formerly done by in-house chemists. As a result, these firms will experience healthy growth. Despite downsizing, some job openings will result from the need to replace chemists who retire or otherwise leave the labor force, although not all positions will be filled. 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 alternative sources of energy.

During periods of economic recession, layoffs of chemists may occuróespecially in the industrial chemicals industry. Layoffs are less likely in the pharmaceutical industry, where long development cycles generally overshadow short-term economic effects. The traditional chemical industry, however, provides many raw materials to the auto manufacturing and construction industries, both of which are vulnerable to temporary slowdowns during recessions.

Earnings [About this section] Back to Top Back to Top

Median annual earnings of chemists in May 2004 were $56,060. The middle 50 percent earned between $41,900 and $76,080. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $33,170, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $98,010. Median annual earnings of materials scientists in May 2004 were $72,390. The middle 50 percent earned between $53,350 and $92,340. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $40,030, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $113,460. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of chemists in May 2004 are shown below:

Federal government $80,550
Scientific research and development services 62,460
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing 57,050
Architectural, engineering, and related services 42,370

The ACS reports that in 2004 the median salary of all of its members with a bachelorís degree was $62,000; for those with a masterís degree, it was $72,300; and for those with a Ph.D., it was $91,600. The median salary was highest for those working in private industry and lowest for those in academia. According to an ACS survey of recent graduates, inexperienced chemistry graduates with a bachelorís degree earned a median starting salary of $32,500 in October 2004; those with a masterís degree earned a median salary of $43,600; and those with a Ph.D. had median earnings of $65,000. Among bachelorís degree graduates, those who had completed internships or had other work experience while in school commanded the highest starting salaries.

In 2005, chemists in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions in the Federal Government averaged $83,777 a year.

Related Occupations

The research and analysis conducted by chemists and materials scientists is closely related to work done by agricultural and food scientists, biological scientists, medical scientists, chemical engineers, materials engineers, physicists, and science technicians. See the career database for information on these careers.

Sources of Additional Information  

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/

Information on obtaining a position as a chemist with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Governmentís official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at http://www.usajobs.opm.gov/ or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724-1850 or TDD (978) 461-8404. These numbers are not tollfree, and charges may result.

    • Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition,

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