Chemist Job Description
Chemists study matter and its properties. They examine a substance’s atoms and molecules to gain a better understanding of how it is put together. They also investigate how different materials interact with one another. Some chemists perform basic research. Their goal is to obtain new knowledge that contributes to overall scientific understanding. Other chemists are applied researchers who want to develop new products or solve specific problems. An example would be chemists hired by a skincare firm to develop a line that combats acne.
Chemists generally work full-time hours in laboratories and manufacturing facilities. Employers include companies, the government, and educational institutions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts employment of chemists will grow 6 percent between 2016 and 2026. Some areas in which their services are expected to be in the most demand include scientific research and development, development of nanotechnology for medicinal uses, pollution reduction, and environmental safety.
Chemist Duties and Responsibilities
Chemists are inquisitive problem solvers. They want to know more about the make-up of various substances in order to expand scientific knowledge, develop new products, and make the world a better place. To this end, chemists perform core duties such as:
Chemists come up with detailed, spelled out ways to approach problems. They look at the question they want to answer, such as how a drug might be altered to become more effective. Then, they develop plans for how they will manipulate variables in an orderly way.
From chemical evaluations of water quality to testing how a new type of paint holds up when exposed to sunlight, chemists perform hands-on experiments. They meticulously record the results to build a data set that can be used to look for patterns and draw conclusions.
Chemists doing basic research may summarize their findings in scientific and academic journals so that others in the field can benefit from their findings. Chemists working on applied research write up their discoveries for their employers so that further decisions can be made, such as whether or not a new product is feasible.
Chemists gather routinely with employers, clients, and fellow workers to discuss projects and results.
Seasoned chemists may be responsible for getting new hires up to speed. They also can spend time giving instructions to lab assistants or students who are assisting with particular experiments.
Lab instruments need to be calibrated, cleaned, and sometimes repaired in order to keep working and yield accurate results. Chemists take proper steps to maintain a fruitful, safe workplace.
When people think of chemists, they often envision scientists alone in a lab conducting experiments. However, working well with others can greatly help a chemist’s career since research is often performed in teams. Other skills that are helpful for chemists to possess include:
- Attending to detail so that data is reliable and observations thorough
- Thinking critically to deduce the best way to conduct an experiment or deal with unexpected results
- Writing clearly to report findings to the scientific community as well as to employers and others who may not be as well-versed in chemistry
- Exhibiting curiosity to tackle problems in novel ways
Chemist Tools of the trade
Performing experiments involves a variety of different items. While many things depend on the exact nature of the research being performed, here are some of the tools common to all chemists:
- Goggles – safety eyewear worn during experiments
- Gloves – worn on the hands to keep them safe while performing experiments
- Lab coat – long jacket that goes over street clothes to protect attire if chemicals spill or splash
- Chemicals – elements or compounds
- Beakers – lipped, cylindrical glass containers used in labs to measure and hold substances
- Test tubes – glass containers about the size of a long finger used in labs to heat, hold, and mix substances
- Bunsen burner – a single, open gas flame often used in labs for heating and sterilization
- Data – numbers, measurements, and observations obtained during experiments
- Computers – used for inputting data, running complex formulas, making models, writing reports, and other procedures
Chemist Education and Training
Chemists need to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or a related field. About 20 percent of chemists hold master’s degrees, which helps when trying to land a job in research. The roughly 20 percent of chemists who earn a Ph.D. set themselves up as attractive candidates for positions at universities and as leaders of applied-research teams. Post-secondary training usually involves coursework in analytical, organic, inorganic, and physical chemistry, as well as classes in math, physics, and computer science.
The median annual salary for chemists is $73,740. Chemists in the 10th percentile earn about $42,180 a year, and the highest paid make in excess of $129,600 a year. Chemists in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia make the highest median salaries in the U.S. – $119,800, $108,070 and $95,080, respectively.
Want to learn more about a career as a chemist? These organizations and books offer practical, first-hand insight to assist in your career decisions:
American Chemical Society – ASC’s mission is “to advance the broader chemistry enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Earth and its people.” Its website is filled with a plethora of information, from chemical safety to the molecule of the week. Check out “Explore Chemistry Careers,” which features an extensive video section in which chemists answer the question, “What do chemists do?”
ACS Career Navigator – While following the American Chemical Society on LinkedIn is a great way to stay on top of the discipline, this fast-growing branch group is a go-to place for those looking for information on chemistry careers.
Great Jobs for Chemistry Majors – For those who love chemistry but are unsure how to translate that passion into a career, this book explores a variety of workplace possibilities.
STEM Careers: Chemist – For young readers wondering what chemists do, this full-color book provides plenty of answers through informational interviews with people who actually hold the job.
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