Hack College Presents: How To Become A Chemist


Chemists play key roles in the study and development of agriculture, environment, pharmaceuticals, to name just a few applicable industries. Generally, chemists should be inquisitive, creative, and excellent communicators. Some chemists get by with a bachelor’s degree, but those with advanced degrees and additional experience get more job responsibility.

Part I. The Chemistry Industry

An Overview of Chemistry Careers

  • Agricultural Chemistry: Agricultural chemists find ways to preserve or increase soil fertility, maintain or improve crop production, and improve the quality of crops. Agricultural biotechnology, a fast-growing field under the agricultural chemistry umbrella, focuses on the genetic engineering of crops and produce. Agricultural chemists should care about environmental issues, enjoy working with a team, and have business skills. A degree in chemistry is necessary to work in the field, but a Ph.D. will yield more lucrative jobs. It’s recommended that students interested in agricultural chemistry take biology, human toxicology, geology, and research ethics to become more well-rounded.
  • Environmental Chemistry: If you have a passion for environmental activism or love spending time outdoors, this is a great career path. Environmental chemists study how the environment and chemicals interact. Because environmental chemists often work with non-scientific people, such as sales and marketing staff or regulatory committees, this role requires excellent communication skills. A degree in chemistry or environmental chemistry from a well-established program is necessary. Employers look for candidates with additional studies in biology, toxicology, geology, and hydrology.
  • Forensic Chemistry: You can unleash your inner detective in this role. Forensic chemists analyze evidence, like hair samples and blood stains, taken from crime scenes. Because forensic chemists must give impartial testimonies on their findings in court, public speaking skills are important. This role requires a degree in chemistry with additional studies in genetics, materials science, and biology. Students interested in forensic chemistry should keep up with the advances in DNA technology in order to distinguish themselves.
  • Food and Flavor Chemistry: Do you still love playing with your food? Here’s your opportunity to get paid for it. Food and flavor chemists develop and improve food and beverage flavors, study and improve preservation, and study the effects of processing on food quality. They also test samples to ensure foods and beverages meet food laws and labeling requirements. A bachelor’s degree in chemistry or chemical engineering with advanced degrees in food science are necessary for this role. Curiosity and creativity are common qualities of food scientists. Of course, having a good sense of smell and healthy taste buds are very important. Students more interested in flavor chemistry should check out The Society of Flavor Chemists for information on their training program.
  • Organic Chemistry: If you have a flair for the creative and love solving puzzles, this role is right up your alley. Organic chemists design, characterize, and develop applications for molecules containing carbon, essentially enhancing the human experience. That may sound like a broad description, but that’s because the work done by organic chemists can be applied to virtually any field, from cosmetics to agrichemicals. Creative, analytical, innovative, and driven are all vital characteristics of successful organic chemists. A bachelor’s degree in organic chemistry is required, but advanced degrees lead to more responsibility.
  • Medicinal Chemistry: Finding ways to help people through medicine is what medicinal chemistry is all about. Medicinal chemists discover and develop pharmaceuticals. Many work for the Food and Drug Administration developing guidelines for creating drugs and reviewing applications for new drugs from pharmaceutical companies. This role requires a Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry or organic chemistry with additional studies in molecular biology and biochemistry. Those with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry can serve as research technicians in this field.

To learn more about chemistry career paths, check out the American Chemical Society’s detailed list.

Salary and Career Outlook

Whether you’re just starting out as a chemical technician, mid-career as a chemist, or leading the pack as a director, this field is highly profitable. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2010 chemical technicians made a median salary of $42,040 and chemical engineers made $90,300.

Unfortunately, what the chemistry field has in pay, it lacks in job growth. Many of the chemistry career areas, like agriculture development and drug manufacturing, are changing as research and development shifts. The BLS reports that chemists can expect to see a mere four percent job growth between 2010 and 2020 with the highest employment rate in California.

Part II. Top U.S. Chemistry Programs

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  • Accreditation: Accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Specialized Degrees: Students can earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in chemistry. The department also offers a Doctor of Philosophy degree. Students are encouraged to participate in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, allowing them to collaborate with MIT faculty on research projects, build relationships with faculty and students, and learn team-building skills.
  • Industry Perception: MIT was ranked the world’s best university for chemistry and landed in the top five universities for biological and environmental sciences by the QS World University Ranking.
  • Cost: Tuition and fees for nine months was $42,050 for the 2012-2013 academic year.
  • Financial Aid: Approximately 64 percent of all undergraduates received some type of need-based financial aid during the 2011-2012 academic year.

University of California at Berkeley

  • Accreditation: Accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Specialized Degrees: Undergrads can earn a degree in chemistry, chemical engineering, chemical biology, or choose a joint major program combining chemical engineering with materials science and engineering or nuclear engineering. The department offers two graduate programs: chemistry or chemical and biomolecular engineering.
  • Industry Perception: Since 1934, the department’s faculty and alumni have received 13 Nobel Prizes in Chemistry. In 2010, the National Research Council gave the Department of Chemistry’s graduate program top billing, and the chemical and biomolecular engineering graduate program was ranked second in the nation by US News & World Report in 2011.
  • Cost: During the 2012-2013 academic year, tuition and fees for nine months was $22,478.25 for incoming undergraduate residents and $56,795.25 for incoming undergraduate nonresidents.
  • Financial Aid: Berkeley offers grants, scholarships, loans, federal Work-Study.

Harvard University

  • Accreditation: Accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Specialized Degrees: Students can choose concentrations in chemistry, chemistry and physics, or chemistry and physical biology.
  • Industry Perception: Three of the department’s current faculty were awarded Nobel Prizes, and the university as a whole was ranked one of the best science schools in the country by U.S. News and World Report.
  • Cost: During the 2012-2013 academic year, tuition and fees for nine months was $116,018 for undergraduate students.
  • Financial Aid: According to the school’s website, “More than 60 percent of Harvard College students receive scholarship aid, and the average grant this year is $40,000.” All of the awarded financial aid is based on need; not for merit, academics, or athletics.

Stanford University

  • Accreditation: Accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Specialized Degrees: After receiving a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, students can go on to study other areas of contemporary chemistry, like organic, inorganic, physical, and biophysical chemistry, in the school’s graduate program. .
  • Industry Perception: With an award-winning faculty and some of the brightest alumni in the country, it’s no wonder Stanford’s chemistry department was ranked third by the National Research Council.
  • Cost: During the 2013-2014 academic year, tuition and fees for nine months is $43,683 for undergraduate students.
  • Financial Aid: Eligible students may received grants, scholarships, loans, and participate in the Federal Work-Study program.

California Institute of Technology

  • Accreditation: Accredited the Western Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Specialized Degrees: Students can choose from chemistry, chemical engineering, or biochemistry and molecular biophysics for their undergraduate and graduate program concentrations.
  • Industry Perception: With 98 percent of current students graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school class, and 57 National Medal of Science recipients among Caltech alumni, prospective students can rest assured they will be studying with the cream of the crop.
  • Cost: During the 2013-2014 academic year, tuition and fees for nine months is $42,038 for incoming undergraduate students.
  • Financial Aid: About 54 percent of Caltech students receive some sort of financial aid, with the average need-based financial aid package totaling around $36,483.

University of California at Los Angeles

  • Accreditation: Accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Specialized Degrees: Undergraduate programs include biochemistry and chemistry materials-science. Grad students can choose between chemistry or biochemistry and molecular biology programs with focuses in areas like “bioenergy and the environment” and “materials and nanoscience.”
  • Industry Perception: Graduate students seeking additional support and learning opportunities can apply for the Chemistry-Biology Interface Training Program or the Materials Creation Training Program.
  • Cost: During the 2013-2014 academic year, tuition and fees for nine months is $38,058 for undergraduate resident students and $106,692 for undergraduate nonresident students.
  • Financial Aid: Grants, scholarships, loans, and the Federal Work-Study program are available to those who qualify. According to the school’s website, during the 2010-11 academic year, 69 percent of undergraduate students received grants or scholarships, averaging $14,763 a student.

Part III. Launching a Career in Chemistry

Creating a successful career in chemistry requires determination, creativity, and a healthy network. Job growth might be smoldering, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a hot career.

Organizing the Job Search

  • Internships and Mentorships: Getting to know your professors and upperclassmen in school provides a great network of support and helps widen your knowledge base. Like other professions, internships are a great way to try out different roles while getting practical experience. All of the connections you make along the way will ultimately help you find your first job.
  • Résumés: Stepping into the world of full-time jobs after spending most of your life in school is daunting. After forming your support network, your résumé is your next best tool for landing a job. This is where your education, internships, and organization memberships should shine. For tips on crafting a professional resume without a lot of professional experience, check out Monster.com.
  • Job Search: Your network should be the first place you go for job leads. Sometimes getting a job is not about what you know, it’s about who you know. Otherwise, job boards like ChemJobsAmerican Chemical Society, and NewScientist are good places to search.

5 Tips From Important Chemists

  1. You have to be strong-minded. Every day you’ll fail at something. Never quit, never give up. Keep your eye on the long-term goal. - Dr. Philip LoGrasso, biochemist at Scripps Research Institute/Scripps Florida
  2. I think I’m happier as an inorganic chemist than I would have been as a doctor. I’m a tinkerer at heart. I like taking things apart and putting them back together to make them work better. You have to bring everything you have been taught to bear when solving a problem – from lab skills to library skills. You never know where the solution will come from. - Steve Caldwell, Chlor Alkali Coordinator at Dow Chemical
  3. Medicinal chemistry involves working in teams with scientists from a variety of other disciplines. There is a lot of collaboration between chemists and biologists while searching for a lead on a new drug or doing research on a preclinical drug candidate. Then, when you look into the drug safety profile, you work with toxicologists and pharmacologists. - James Kaminski, senior principal scientist at Schering Plough
  4. Consulting is good for people who like to combine their analytical business capabilities with knowledge of science and technology. Consultants like to go out to talk to other people and pull information together from a variety of different sources. Not all scientific people have the training to sell professional services. This is just as much a part of the business as are the research and analysis. - Roger Shamel, president of Consulting Resource Corporation
  5. In this business, you also have to be driven. As a research scientist, you have to be a good chemist with good laboratory skills. And, you have to like what you are doing. I think this trait is what really determines an individual’s success. - Mark Reynolds, chemist and scientist at Genentech

Science Meets Creativity

If you love playing with food, have a soft spot for the environment, always wanted to be a detective, or just want to help make the world a better place, chemistry is a fun and rewarding field. This career path involves lots of failure before you find success, but those with perseverance, a love of science, and an inquisitive nature are sure to have fun along the way.