Chemists and materials scientists study substances at the atomic and molecular levels and the ways in which substances react with each other. They use their knowledge to develop new and improved products and to test the quality of manufactured goods.

Duties

Chemists and materials scientists typically do the following:

  • Plan and carry out complex research projects, such as the development of new products and testing methods
  • Direct technicians and other workers in testing and  analyzing components and the physical properties of materials
  • Instruct scientists and technicians on proper chemical processing and testing procedures, such as ingredients, mixing times, and operating temperatures
  • Prepare solutions, compounds, and reagents used in laboratory procedures
  • Analyze substances to determine their composition and concentration of elements 
  • Conduct tests on materials and other substances, to ensure that safety and quality standards are met
  • Write technical reports that detail methods and findings
  • Present research findings to scientists, engineers, and other colleagues

Many chemists and materials scientists work in basic and applied research. In basic research, chemists investigate the properties, composition, and structure of matter. They also experiment with combinations of elements and the ways in which they interact. In applied research, chemists investigate possible new products and ways to improve existing ones. Chemistry research has led to the discovery and development of new and improved drugs, plastics, cleaners, and thousands of other products.

Materials scientists study the structures and chemical properties of various materials, to develop new products or enhance existing ones. They determine ways to strengthen or combine materials or develop new materials for use in a variety of products. Applications of materials science include inventing or improving superconducting materials, ceramics, and metallic alloys.

Chemists and materials scientists use computers and a wide variety of sophisticated laboratory instrumentation for modeling, simulation, and experimental analysis. For example, some chemists use three-dimensional (3D) computer modeling software to study the structure and other properties of complex molecules. 

Most chemists and materials scientists work as part of a team. An increasing number of scientific research projects involve multiple disciplines, and it is common for chemists and materials scientists to work on teams with other scientists, such as biologists and physicists, computer specialists, and engineers. For example, in pharmaceutical research, chemists may work with biologists to develop new drugs and with engineers to design ways to mass produce the new drugs. For more information, see the profiles on biochemists and biophysicists, microbiologists, zoologists and wildlife biologists, physicists and astronomers, computer and information technology occupations, and engineers.

Chemists often specialize in a particular branch of the field. The following are examples of some types of chemists:

Analytical chemists determine the structure, composition, and nature of substances, by examining and identifying their various elements or compounds. They also study the relationships and interactions between the parts of compounds. Some analytical chemists specialize in developing new methods of analysis and new techniques for carrying out their work. Their research has a wide range of applications, including food safety, pharmaceuticals, and pollution control.

Inorganic chemists study the structure, properties, and reactions of molecules that do not contain carbon, such as metals. They work to understand the behavior and the characteristics of inorganic substances. Inorganic chemists figure out how these materials can be modified, separated, or used in products, such as ceramics and superconductors.  

Medicinal chemists research and develop chemical compounds that can be used as pharmaceutical drugs. They work on teams with other scientists and engineers to create and test new drug products. They also help develop new and improved manufacturing processes to produce new drugs on a large scale effectively.

Organic chemists study the structure, properties, and reactions of molecules that contain carbon. They also design and make new organic substances that have unique properties and applications. These compounds have, in turn, been used to develop many commercial products, such as pharmaceutical drugs and plastics.

Physical chemists study the fundamental characteristics of how matter behaves on a molecular and atomic level and how chemical reactions occur. Based on their analyses, physical chemists may develop new theories, such as how complex structures are formed. Physical chemists often work closely with materials scientists, to research and develop potential uses for new materials.

Theoretical chemists investigate theoretical methods that can predict the outcomes of chemical experiments. Theoretical chemistry encompasses a variety of specializations itself, though most specializations incorporate advanced computation and programming. Some examples of theoretical chemists are computational chemists, mathematical chemists, and chemical informaticians.

Materials scientists tend to specialize by the material they work with most often. A few examples of materials in which these scientists specialize are ceramics, glass, semiconductors, and composite materials.

A growing numbers of chemists work in interdisciplinary fields, such as biochemistry and geochemistry. For more information, see the profile on geoscientists.

Many people with a chemistry background become professors or teachers. For more information, see the profiles on high school teachers and postsecondary teachers.

Work Environment: 

Chemists and material scientists held about 96,200 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most chemists in 2012 were as follows:

Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences 20%
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing 17
Testing laboratories 11
Federal government, excluding postal service 7
State and local government, excluding education and hospitals 6

Most materials scientists work in manufacturing and scientific research and development. The industries that employed the most materials scientists in 2012 were as follows:

Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences 34%
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 11
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing 6
Computer and electronic product manufacturing 6
Basic chemical manufacturing 5

Chemists and materials scientists typically work in laboratories and offices, where they conduct experiments and analyze their results. In addition to laboratories, materials scientists work with engineers and processing specialists in industrial manufacturing facilities. Some chemists also work in these facilities and usually are responsible for monitoring the environmental conditions at the plant. Chemists and materials scientists, who work for manufacturing companies, may have to travel occasionally, especially if their company has multiple facilities.

Chemists and materials scientists typically work on research teams. They need to be able to work well with others towards a common goal. Many serve in a leadership capacity and need to be able to motivate and direct other team members.

Injuries and Illnesses

Chemists and materials scientists can be exposed to health or safety hazards when handling certain chemicals, but there is little risk if proper procedures are followed.

Work Schedules

Chemists and materials scientists typically work full time and keep regular hours.

Education and Training: 

Chemists and materials scientists need at least a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or a related field. However, a master’s degree or Ph.D. is needed for many research jobs.

Education

A bachelor's degree in chemistry or in a related field is needed for entry-level chemist jobs. Although some materials scientists hold a degree in materials science, these scientists commonly have a degree in chemistry, physics, or engineering. Many jobs require master’s degrees or Ph.D.s and may also require significant levels of work experience. Chemists and materials scientists with Ph.D.s and postdoctoral experience typically lead basic and applied research teams.

Many colleges and universities offer degree programs in chemistry. There are few programs specifically in materials science, but the number of programs is gradually increasing. Some engineering schools offer degrees in the joint field of materials science and engineering.

Undergraduate chemistry majors typically are required to take courses in analytical, organic, inorganic, and physical chemistry. In addition to chemistry coursework, they also take classes in mathematics, biological sciences, and physics. Computer science courses are essential, because chemists and materials scientists need computer skills to perform modeling and simulation tasks, manage and manipulate databases, and to operate computerized laboratory equipment.

Laboratory experience, either at a college or university, or through internships, fellowships, or work-study programs in industry, is also useful.

Graduate students studying chemistry commonly specialize in a subfield, such as analytical chemistry or inorganic chemistry. For example, those interested in doing research in the pharmaceutical industry usually develop a strong background in medicinal or organic chemistry.

Important Qualities

Analytical skills. Chemists and materials scientists carry out scientific experiments and studies. They must be precise and accurate in their analyses, because errors could invalidate their research.

Communication skills. Chemists and materials scientists need to communicate with team members and other scientists. They must be able to read and write technical reports and give presentations.

Critical-thinking skills. Chemists and materials scientists carefully evaluate their own work and the work of others. They must determine if results and conclusions are based on sound science.

Mathematical skills. Chemists and materials scientists regularly use complex mathematical equations and formulas, and they need a broad understanding of mathematics, including calculus, algebra, and statistics.

Organizational skills. Chemists and materials scientists need to carefully document processes to conform to regulations and industry procedures. Disorganization in the workplace can lead to legal problems, damage to equipment, and chemical spills.

Problem-solving skills. Chemists and materials scientists research and develop new and improved chemical products, processes, and materials. This work requires a great deal of trial and error on the part of chemists and materials scientists before a unique solution is found.

Advancement

Chemists typically receive greater responsibility and independence in their work as they gain experience. Greater responsibility also is gained through further education. Ph.D. chemists usually lead research teams and have control over the direction and content of projects, but even Ph.D. holders have room to advance as they gain experience. They may take on larger, more complicated, and more expensive projects as they become more proficient in managing research projects.

Some chemists and materials scientists become natural sciences managers.

Pay: 

The median annual wage for chemists was $71,770 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $41,080, and the top 10 percent earned more than $120,600.

In May 2012, the median annual wages for chemists in the top five industries employing these scientists were as follows:

Federal government, excluding postal service $100,920
Research and development in the physical, engineering,
and life sciences
79,140
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing 70,480
State and local government, excluding education and
hospitals
57,190
Testing laboratories 55,060

The median annual wage for materials scientists was $88,990 in May 2012. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $46,960, and the top 10 percent earned more than $134,130.

In May 2012, the median annual wages for materials scientists in the top five industries employing these scientists were as follows:

Basic chemical manufacturing $106,770
Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences 96,630
Computer and electronic product manufacturing 96,620
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 66,720
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing 66,230

Chemists and materials scientists typically work full time and keep regular hours.

Job Outlook: 

Employment of chemists and materials scientists is projected to grow 6 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations.

Employment of chemists is projected to grow 6 percent, as they will continue to be needed in scientific research and development and to monitor the quality of products and processes.

Employment of materials scientists is projected to grow 5 percent, owing to demand for cheaper, safer, and better quality materials for a variety of purposes, such as electronics, energy, and transportation.

Chemists research and solve a wide range of problems and are employed in a similarly wide range of industries. About a quarter of all chemists are employed in chemical manufacturing industries; but the remainder work at colleges and universities, in government, and for independent testing and research laboratories. Some chemical manufacturing industries, such as pharmaceutical manufacturing, increasingly may be outsourcing their research and development activities, rather than doing the research in-house. This is likely to cause faster growth in the employment of chemists in small, independent research and development firms than in the more traditional large manufacturers. However, as the economy improves and the expansion in domestic natural gas production lowers the cost of energy and raw inputs, manufacturers may have less of an incentive than they have in the past to outsource their research and development (R&D) activities.

Environmental research will offer many new opportunities for chemists and materials scientists. For example, chemical manufacturing industries will continue to develop technologies and processes that reduce pollution and improve energy efficiency at manufacturing facilities. Chemists also will continue to be needed to monitor pollution levels at manufacturing facilities and to ensure compliance with local, state, and federal environmental regulations.

Job Prospects

In addition to job openings resulting from employment growth, some job openings will result from the need to replace chemists and materials scientists who retire or otherwise leave the occupations.

Chemists and materials scientists with advanced degrees, particularly those with a Ph.D. and work experience, are expected to experience better opportunities. Large pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms provide openings for these workers at research laboratories, and many others work in colleges and universities. Furthermore, chemists with advanced degrees will continue to fill most senior research and upper-management positions.

For More Information: 

For information on career opportunities, earnings, and education for chemists and materials scientists, visit

American Chemical Society

American Chemistry Council

ASM International

Materials Research Society

To find job openings for chemists in the federal government, visit

USAJOBS

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2014–2015 Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh.

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