Training, Certifications, Skills, Advancement: Chemists and Materials Scientists

A bachelorís degree in chemistry or a related discipline usually is the minimum educational requirement for entry-level chemist jobs. However, many research jobs require a masterís degree, or more often a Ph.D. While some materials scientists hold a degree in materials science, a bachelorís degree in chemistry, physics, or electric engineering also is accepted. Similar to chemists, many R&D jobs require a Ph.D. in materials science or a related science.

Many colleges and universities offer a bachelorís degree program in chemistry; about 620 are approved by the American Chemical Society (ACS). The number of colleges that offer a degree program in materials science is small, but gradually increasing. Several hundred colleges and universities also offer advanced degree programs in chemistry; around 320 masterís programs and about 190 doctoral programs are ACS-approved.

Students planning careers as chemists and materials scientists should take courses in science and mathematics, should like working with their hands building scientific apparatus and performing laboratory experiments, and should like computer modeling. Perseverance, curiosity, and the ability to concentrate on detail and to work independently are essential. Interaction among specialists in this field is increasing, especially for chemists in drug development. One type of chemist often relies on the findings of another type of chemist. For example, an organic chemist must understand findings on the identity of compounds prepared by an analytical chemist.

In addition to required courses in analytical, inorganic, organic, and physical chemistry, undergraduate chemistry majors usually study biological sciences, mathematics, and physics. Those interested in the environmental field also should take courses in environmental studies and become familiar with current legislation and regulations. Computer courses are essential, because employers prefer job applicants who are able to apply computer skills to modeling and simulation tasks and operate computerized laboratory equipment. This is increasingly important as combinatorial chemistry techniques are more widely applied. Additionally, courses in statistics are useful because both chemists and materials scientists need the ability to apply basic statistical techniques.

Because R&D chemists and materials scientists are increasingly expected to work on interdisciplinary teams, some understanding of other disciplines, including business and marketing or economics, is desirable, along with leadership ability and good oral and written communication skills. Experience, either in academic laboratories or through internships, fellowships, or work-study programs in industry, also is useful. Some employers of research chemists, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, prefer to hire individuals with several years of postdoctoral experience.

Graduate students typically specialize in a subfield of chemistry, such as analytical chemistry or polymer chemistry, depending on their interests and the kind of work they wish to do. For example, those interested in doing drug research in the pharmaceutical industry usually develop a strong background in synthetic organic chemistry. However, students normally need not specialize at the undergraduate level. In fact, undergraduates who are broadly trained have more flexibility when job hunting or changing jobs than if they had narrowly defined their interests. Most employers provide new graduates additional training or education.

In government or industry, beginning chemists with a bachelorís degree work in quality control, perform analytical testing, or assist senior chemists in R&D laboratories. Many employers prefer chemists and materials scientists with a Ph.D., or at least a masterís degree, to lead basic and applied research. Nonetheless, relevant work experience is an asset. Chemists who hold a Ph.D. and have previous industrial experience may be particularly attractive to employers because such people are more likely to understand the complex regulations that apply to the pharmaceutical industry. Within materials science, a broad background in various sciences is preferred. This broad base may be obtained through degrees in physics, engineering, or chemistry. While many companies prefer hiring Ph.D.s, many materials scientists have bachelorís and masterís degrees.