Careers in Chemistry
Chemistry is known as the "Central Science" because of its important role in so many fields. Some of the many careers where knowledge of chemistry is used include: agriculture, art preservation and restoration, catalysis, education, information systems, sales and marketing, consulting, customer products, environmental services, food and flavor development, forensic science, waste management, materials science, pharmaceuticals, oil and petroleum, paper and pulp, polymers, science writing, and textiles.
Chemical Careers in Brief, a series produced by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation as part of the Sloan Career Cornerstone Project, presents students and teachers with a view of 30 career areas within the chemical sciences. Each two- or four-page brief contains interviews with chemists working in various positions in the respective career area and includes information on educational requirements, employment outlook, salaries, and the skills needed to pursue a career goal in the career area.
See information below to find out about these areas. Click on the career name to follow the link for more information.
Agricultural chemistry focuses on chemical compositions and changes involved in the production, protection, and use of crops and livestock. It seeks to control and understand the processes by which humans obtain food and fiber for them-selves and feed for their animals. Agricultural chemists work with food producers to increase yields, improve quality, and reduce costs.
Analytical chemistry is the science of obtaining, processing, and communicating information about the composition and structure of matter. In other words, it is the art and science of determining what matter is and how much of it exists.
Biochemistry is the study of the structure, composition, and chemical reactions of substances in living systems. Biochemistry emerged as a separate discipline when scientists combined biology with organic, inorganic, or physical chemistry and began to study such topics as how living things obtain energy from food, the chemical basis of heredity, and what fundamental changes occur in disease. Biochemistry includes the sciences of molecular biology; immunochemistry; neurochemistry; and bioinorganic, bioorganic, and biophysical chemistry.
Biotechnology is the application of biological organisms, systems, or processes by various industries to learning about the science of life and the improvement of the value of materials and organisms such as pharmaceuticals, crops, and livestock. It is a relatively new and fast-developing field that integrates knowledge from several traditional sciences: biochemistry, chemistry, microbiology, and chemical engineering.
A catalyst makes a reaction happen. In a process known as catalysis, a relatively small amount of foreign material, called a catalyst, augments the rate of a chemical reaction without being consumed in the reaction. A catalyst can make a reaction go faster and in a more selective manner. Because of its ability to speed up some reactions and not others, a catalyst enables a chemical process to work more efficiently and often with less waste. Hence, catalysts are important in industrial chemistry.
Chemical educators at every level from middle schools to colleges and universities emphasize that, contrary to the widespread misconception, teaching is not a cushy job. It often requires hard work for modest pay?but it can also be extremely rewarding. Educators find it tremendously inspiring to help students grow, develop, and seek their potential.
Chemical engineers apply the principles of chemistry, math, and physics to the design and operation of large-scale chemical manufacturing processes. They translate processes developed in the lab into practical applications for the production of products such as plastics, medicines, detergents, and fuels; design plants to maximize productivity and minimize costs; and evaluate plant operations for performance and product quality.
Chemical Information Specialists
Chemical information specialists manage technical information as an occupation. With the exponential increase in the number of scientific journals, papers, and patents published today, the management of technical information is becoming an increasingly complicated task. Research scientists are often unable to keep up with the periodicals and patent literature in their own fields. The primary role of all chemical information specialists is to organize this information and make it available and easily accessible to researchers, students, industry professionals, and others.
Two-thirds of marketers in the chemical industry have a technical degree. Ten years ago this was not the case, but business has become increasingly technical, and scientific inquiry is more geared toward product development. Today, the synergy of scientific and business knowledge is more important than ever.
Chemical technicians play a vital role in a variety of industries, working with chemists and chemical engineers to develop, test, and manufacture chemical products. Their career opportunities are diverse, depending on where they work and their education, skills, and experience. Chemical technicians operate standard laboratory equipment, set up apparatus for chemical reactions, and perform chemical tests and experiments. They also test for quality, performance, or composition of chemical compounds or materials; conduct a variety of laboratory procedures, from routine process control to complex research projects; and help devise syntheses and analytical procedures. Other technicians act as troubleshooters; manage databases; monitor pollution levels by testing water, soil, and air; work in shipping to ensure that packaging of hazardous materials complies with regulations; and work in pilot plants, assisting engineers with running experiments in a miniature version of a manufacturing process. Chemical technicians work in laboratories to ensure that processes are carried out safely, cost-effectively, and according to the highest professional.
Colloid and Surface Chemistry
Not a day goes by without some aspect of colloid and surface science affecting us: The biomolecular and physiological interactions that sustain life; the blue skies we see on a beautiful day; the processed foods we eat; the medicines and cosmetics we use; the floppy disks, data, VCR tapes we store computer data and video programs on; the soaps and detergents we use for cleaning; and other numerous everyday products and processes we take for granted.
A consultant's work depends largely on one thing: what his or her client wants. "If a company is thinking about marketing a product, they often come to us for a sense of how they will stack up against the competition," says Ray Kurkjy, senior consultant at ChemSystems in Tarrytown, NY. To help his client, Kurkjy uses his chemical training, industry knowledge, and market contacts to study the viability of a client's plans. "People come to us because they can't ask the questions themselves. As consultants, we know the business, but we are not in the business ourselves. Through consultants, the necessary information for assessing the marketplace can be gathered without revealing the client's plans."
Consumer Product Chemistry
Look around your home and you'll see many examples of consumer product chemistry. These include products for washing clothes, dishes, windows, floors, tile, and bathroom fixtures. There are waxes and polishes for floors, furniture, shoes, and cars. Personal care products comprise hand and body soaps, hair shampoos and conditioners, toothpastes, cosmetics, and deodorants. Chemists and chemical engineers have a hand in developing all of these products. They also design manufacturing processes for both the ingredient chemicals and the final products you see on store shelves.
What happens to the chemicals in an industrial cleaner after you pour it into the sink? When you see black smoke pouring out of the chimney at an industrial complex, what impact is it having on the atmosphere? These are the types of questions environmental chemists seek to answer.
Food and Flavor Chemistry
Food chemistry focuses on the chemistry of foods, their deterioration, and the principles underlying the improvement of foods for consumers. It applies chemistry to developing, processing, packaging, preserving, storing, and distributing foods and beverages to obtain safe, economical, and aesthetically pleasing food supplies.
A forensic chemist is a professional chemist who analyzes evidence that is brought in from crime scenes and reaches a conclusion based on tests run on that piece of evidence. A forensic chemist's job is to identify and characterize the evidence as part of the larger process of solving a crime. Forensic chemists rarely conduct any investigative work; they handle the evidence collected from the crime scene. Evidence may include hair samples, paint chips, glass fragments, or blood stains. Understanding the evidence requires tools from many disciplines, including chemistry, biology, materials science, and genetics. The prevalence of DNA analysis is making knowledge of genetics increasingly important in this field.
A wealth of information is buried in the liquids, gases, and mineral deposits of rock. Geochemists must understand this information and use it to make decisions about a range of industrial and scientific research applications. Understanding the chemical composition of rocks tells oil companies where to drill for oil, enables scientists to put together broad-based theories about the way the earth is changing, helps environmental management companies decide how to dispose of toxic or hazardous substances, and steers mining companies toward using natural resources with a minimum environmental impact.
Hazardous Waste Management
Hazardous waste is any solid, liquid, or gaseous waste material that may pose substantial hazards to human health and the environment if improperly treated, stored, transported, disposed of, or otherwise managed. Every industrial country has had problems with managing hazardous wastes. Improper waste management has necessitated expensive cleanup operations in many instances. Efforts are under way internationally to remedy past problems caused by hazardous waste and to prevent future problems through source reduction (eliminating hazardous wastes at the source), recycling, treatment, and proper disposal of hazardous wastes.
Inorganic chemistry is the study of the synthesis and behavior of inorganic and organometallic compounds. It has applications in every aspect of the chemical industry?including catalysis, materials science, pigments, surfactants, coatings, medicine, fuel, and agriculture. Inorganic chemists are employed in fields as diverse as the mining and microchip industries, environmental science, and education.
Materials science is an applied science concerned with the relationship between the structure and properties of materials. Chemists who work in the field study how different combinations of molecules and materials result in different properties. They use this knowledge to synthesize new materials with special properties.
Medicinal chemistry is the application of chemical research techniques to the synthesis of pharmaceuticals. During the early stages of medicinal chemistry development, scientists were primarily concerned with the isolation of medicinal agents found in plants. Today, scientists in this field are also equally concerned with the creation of new synthetic drug compounds. Medicinal chemistry is almost always geared toward drug discovery and development.
Organic chemistry is that branch of chemistry that deals with the structure, properties, and reactions of compounds that contain carbon. It is a highly creative science. Chemists in general, and organic chemists in particular, can create new molecules never before proposed, which, if carefully designed, may have important properties for the betterment of the human experience. Organic chemistry is the largest chemistry discipline in both total numbers and annual Ph.D. graduates.
Oil and Petroleum
The oil and petroleum business is a high-pressure, high-stakes field that offers a broad range of career opportunities for chemists. Because even small decisions can mean financial gains or losses for one's employer, the business offers a dynamic combination of excitement and responsibility.
Physical chemists aim to develop a fundamental understanding at the molecular and atomic level of how materials behave and how chemical reactions occur, knowledge that is relevant in nearly every area of chemistry. These scientists study diverse topics, from biochemistry to materials properties to the development of quantum computers.
A polymer is a chain of small molecules joined together in a repeating fashion to form a single layer molecule. Chemists develop polymers so they can be used to make ingredients for products with unique physical and chemical properties. They manipulate large, complex molecules and capitalize on the connections between their molecular structure and the properties that make them useful.
Pulp and Paper Chemistry
Pulp chemistry and paper chemistry are integrated processes, but each is carried out somewhat separately. Chemists in the paper-making business tend to gain experience with both pulp and paper science, because knowledge of both is integral to the smooth running of a paper mill.
Whether scientists work alone or in teams, a project manager's job is to bring people together to achieve a common goal. This role is becoming increasingly important because now more people are involved in research projects than in the past. A single project can employ hundreds of people directly and even more indirectly in jobs ranging from developing and testing samples to manufacturing and commercializing the product. A project manager's role is also to ensure consistency in the quality of work at every step.
Science writers describe discoveries and commercial developments in all branches of science, engineering, medicine, and environmental science. They explain the impact these discoveries have on the lives of average individuals.
Textile chemistry is primarily an applied form of chemistry. It is a highly specialized field that applies the principles of the basic fields of chemistry to the understanding of textile materials and to their functional and esthetic modification into useful and desirable items. Textile materials are used in clothing, carpet, tire yarn, sewing thread, upholstery, and air bags, to name a few examples.
Water covers about 75% of the Earth's surface. It plays a significant role in all of our day-to-day lives. We drink it, enjoy it for recreation, and use it as part of a manufacturing process. Water is an integral part of every ecosystem and many industrial processes. Water chemists study the impact of water on other elements in the systems and how other elements in these systems affect the quality of water.
Courtesy of the American Chemical Society.