How Do I Become a Chemist?

If you have an analytical nature and excellent problem-solving and mathematics skills, you might be wondering how to become a chemist. Chemists research substances and compounds in order to learn about their properties and develop new ways to use those substances. Chemists commonly work in applied research. They may specialize in analytical chemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, medicinal chemistry, physical chemistry or interdisciplinary fields, like biochemistry. Chemists typically work in a laboratory, often in a research and development department, a pharmaceutical manufacturing company or an academic research institution.

A major part of a chemist’s job is research. To learn about the composition of an existing chemical or compound and to invent new materials, a chemist must conduct scientific experiments. First, chemists plan the research process, including which testing procedures will be most effective in this specific project and how to acquire or create any materials or compounds that will be used during the research. They and their collaborators, such as laboratory technicians, collect and interpret data. They must record their research and finally publish the data so that others in the scientific community can use and build on the information.

Chemists employed in basic research positions study properties of a material or compound. Applied research uses this data to innovate new chemical processes and devise new products that answer a previously unanswered demand or streamline old procedures. Applied chemical research is often behind the creation of medications, cleaning products, health and beauty products, and new materials.

Chemists use tools much more complex than beakers and test tubes. Modern chemists use computers to create models of a research subject, assess and interpret data, and even perform simulated experiments. As the field of chemistry overlaps more and more with other scientific fields, chemists may work with engineers, biologists and physicists to study and solve multidisciplinary questions.

A formal education is necessary to become a chemist. Aspiring chemists can often secure an entry-level job after earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Their studies may include physics, biology, computer science and mathematics as well as major branches of chemistry, such as organic and physical chemistry. To take part in more sophisticated research or find employment within certain industries, like pharmaceutical manufacturing, an advanced degree may be required. Many chemists earn a Ph.D. in a specialized field of chemistry and take advantage of postdoctoral research experience in order to become qualified for more advanced work.

The median annual salary of a chemist in 2010 was $68,320, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, chemists in different work environments earned varying salaries, with chemists employed by the federal government making a median salary of more than $100,000 per year.

Chemists have a unique opportunity to pioneer new chemical processes and create products that have the potential to impact all of society. If you are skilled in mathematics and enjoy testing and analyzing data, knowing how to become a chemist can be the start to an exciting new career.

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