Careers in Chemistry

Closeup of hands working in the Prasad lab.

Traditional careers in chemistry include teaching at the university or secondary-school level, conducting research in academic, industry or government labs, and working with local, state and federal agencies. 

Where Do Chemists Work?

Chemists are employed in many industries, including pharmaceuticals, manufacturing (chemicals, plastics, food, paper, polymers, paints and coatings, adhesives, detergents, etc.), petroleum and energy, semiconductors, construction and metallurgical materials, and the automotive industry. Many chemists work in government research, forensics, or analytical laboratories and at agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Armed Forces and the State Department.

An ever-growing number of chemists are employed in non-traditional careers. Chemists have skills in problem-solving, analysis of data and technical communication, as well as knowledge of core concepts in science. These skills are valuable in careers ranging from computing and information science to patent law, marketing and public policy.

Types of Chemists

  • Research Chemists work in an industrial, commercial, or government lab performing hands-on tasks that span the synthesis, isolation, purification, and analysis of molecules and materials for a range of applications. Research chemists may specialize in a number of different areas including medicinal chemistry, cosmetics, petrochemicals, electronics, and much more.
  • Process Chemists specialize in scaling up the synthesis of desirable chemical products, such as drugs or commodity chemicals, to meet global demand. They design equipment and develop process details for large-scale economic production and packaging. Processes are tested on a small scale in a pilot plant before full-scale production begins.
  • Environmental Chemists study the chemistry of air, soil and water, as well as the intersection of these matrices. Environmental chemists are particularly concerned with understanding changes to these systems and often specialize in developing new analytical techniques to provide a complete picture of what is present in the world around us.
  • Organic Chemists specialize in compounds based on carbon backbones, from simple hydrocarbons that contain only carbon and hydrogen, to more complex molecules with oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, and more. Organic compounds are the basis for many biomolecules and are important for life processes. As a result, many organic chemists solve problems related to health and medicine. The formation of new bonds to carbon is central to making new molecules and materials and thus exploring new methods for such reactivity is a primary goal of organic chemists, impacting the synthesis of both small molecules and polymer materials.
  • Biochemists explore molecules and processes at the intersection of biology and chemistry. Understanding cellular processes at the molecular level enables the design of new drugs, provides information about the mechanism of diseases, and generally reveals how small and large molecules and materials interact to make life possible.
  • Forensic Chemists work with law enforcement to solve crimes using analytical techniques. A forensic chemist may be called upon to analyze gun-shot residue or unknown substances found at a crime scene. They typically master the use of many different instruments including gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, high pressure liquid chromatography, and electronic absorption spectroscopy, to identify and quantify samples collected and brought to the lab.

Careers for Chemists

  • Education
  • Electronics
  • Environmental science
  • Food and drug administration worker
  • Forensic science
  • Government lab research
  • Industrial research
  • Medicine and health related fields
  • NASA
  • Oceanography
  • Patent or environmental law
  • Petroleum products
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Pollution analysis
  • Specialty chemicals
  • Veterinary medicine
  • Waste disposal research