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Chemistry is one of those careers with endless possibilities. That may seem like a bit of an exaggeration, but the study of chemistry could lead to work in industrial, educational, legal, medical, fashion, scientific, or governmental fields. When it comes down to it though, chemistry is primarily the science of matter – its properties, structure, composition, and changes during chemical reactions. These changes can lead to the discovery and creation of new materials, and those who are interested in creating or improving everyday products, from cosmetics to cars, may be drawn to the field.
It may attract people who are interested in careers in cancer research, agriculture, and environmental conservation as well, as chemistry also involves developing new drugs to treat illnesses, methods to prevent plant and animal diseases, and processes that reduce pollution. Regardless of area or specialty, the study of chemistry foremost requires an interest in math, working with your hands, performing laboratory experiments, and limitless curiosity.
Through studying chemistry, students develop their mathematical and analytical skills, as they must problem solve and continually ask questions. They'll learn theoretical knowledge and chemistry history milestones and major developments, as well as practical skills, such as how to conduct a laboratory experiment or use computer programs to create models.
Classes and Assignments of a Chemistry Major
Required courses will vary by degree level and concentration, though chemistry majors can expect to take courses in all major chemical subdisciplines, which include organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, physical chemistry, analytical chemistry, and biochemistry. Areas of specialization students may also choose to study include environmental and analytical chemistry, chemical structure and dynamics, medicinal chemistry, and education. Related courses in math, biology, physics, and computer science may also be required.
Chemistry programs generally consist of a mix of lectures, intensive courses, laboratory work, group projects, and field trips to labs or factories. Lab work could such experiments as synthesizing molecules and artificial proteins. Computer skills may also be heavily developed for paths that involve computer modeling and simulating tasks. For those interested in distance learning, opportunities to earn accredited online chemistry degrees may be more readily available in education.
Degree Levels for a Chemistry Major
- Associate. An associate degree in science would primarily prepare a student for advanced study at the bachelor's level. Graduates with an associate may be able to find entry-level work in a lab as a chemical technician, though there are limited opportunities for work or advancement with just an associate.
- Bachelor's. A bachelor's degree is the minimum education requirement for entry-level chemist jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This degree would prepare you for entry-level work in chemical research or in related fields like forensics, technical sales, or environmental monitoring, or teaching at the secondary level. A bachelor's degree would also prepare you for graduate school work in chemistry or a related discipline.
- Master's. A master's degree is increasingly required for research positions, according to the BLS, making it one of the most useful college degrees for aspiring chemists. Those pursuing a master's degree may also use it toward advanced study at the Ph.D. level, to conduct research, or to teach. For those working while obtaining their degree, a self paced online masters degree may be a desirable, flexible option.
- Doctoral. More frequently, a Ph.D. is needed for research positions in chemistry laboratories, notes the BLS. This terminal degree also often allows for more freedom to design and lead your own research. Throughout your program, you would conduct research on your own project as well as teach. Graduates may continue on in research, teach at the college or university level, consult, or work in advanced administrative positions.
A Future as a Chemistry Major
There's a wide variety of work in chemistry, either as a chemist or materials scientist. You could go into education and teach chemistry at the secondary or collegiate level. You could go into research and development and create new materials, such as textiles for fashion, materials that warm homes, processes that improve food production or reduce pollution from oil refining, or drugs that cure illness. You could go into a related field, such as forensics, quality assurance, environmental monitoring, or technical sales. Or, you could go into a postgraduate program such as at medical or pharmacy schools. If you're still looking for some ideas, the American Chemical Society lists some career paths that directly relate to the study of chemistry.
The majority of chemists and materials scientists work in labs. Employment is expected to be slower than the average for all occupations, with an anticipated increase of only 3% over the period from 2008 to 2018, according to the BLS. The BLS expects keen competition among those looking for work in the declining manufacturing industries. Growth is expected for chemists in biotechnology firms, especially in the study of human genes for the development of new drugs and products that combat illnesses and diseases. Chemists who hold a master's degree or Ph.D. may have better opportunities.
Wages will vary by educational attainment, experience, location, and field, though the mean annual wage for chemists is $73,240, according to the most recent data from the BLS (as of May 2010). Materials scientists fare slightly better, with a mean annual wage of $86,300, according to the BLS.
- Chemical technicians
- Chemical engineers
- Soil and plant scientists
- Mining and geological engineers, including mining safety engineers
- Food scientists and technologists
- Forensic science technicians
- Materials scientists
- Petroleum engineers (Best salary!)
- Geological and petroleum technicians