Many of the objects we use in daily life can be attributed to discoveries by chemists and materials scientists who spend their days studying chemicals and seeking new knowledge about these chemicals to improve life. Their chemical research has led to both the discovery and later improvement of common everyday items such as the synthetic fibers and cosmetics we wear, paints and adhesives, the electronic components that run our technology-hungry world and drugs we take to maintain our health. And this is just the short list. These researchers have also developed ways to improve oil refinement and petrochemical processing that save our world energy while reducing our carbon footprint, and their work constantly improves the fields of medicine, agriculture and food processing.
Chemists and materials scientists work in a variety of settings, from basic research and development where they study the basic composition and structure of matter and how substances combine and react to one another to more advanced, applied research and development in which they improve or create new products to improve life. In addition to using their hands and intuitive knowledge base, they also use sophisticated laboratory equipment for simulating experimental analysis; as this technology has advanced, so too has the efficiency of these scientists, especially in the area of combinational chemistry.
Some chemists work to refine the processes in manufacturing plants, writing formulas and mixing instructions for everything from perfume creations to automotive wax used to keep your car shiny. In these situations, they must monitor the automated portions of these processes and test both samples and finished products to ensure quality control; sometimes they find their current recipe is perfect, and other times they find ways to improve it.
Other types of chemists include organic and inorganic chemists, physical and theoretical chemists, macromolecular and medicinal chemists, and materials chemists; each plays an important role – albeit behind the scenes – in the comfort level of our daily living. For example, organic chemists develop many commercial items such as plastics, while inorganic chemists study and create compounds used in electronics.
As their name suggests, physical and theoretical chemists work with the physical characteristics of atoms and molecules as well as the theoretical properties of matter and examine how chemical reactions work, ultimately hoping to find new and better energy sources. Macromolecular chemists look at the behavior of atoms and molecules, and medicinal chemists study the structural properties of those compounds that will be used in medicines.
In many ways, all chemists are materials chemists, as these researchers study and develop new materials that improve existing products and often prove to be the base for new products. While their work is similar in nature to materials scientists, it is different in that the chemists study the properties of the materials and provide the base knowledge while the scientists study the structures and chemical properties and carry out the work to develop or improve existing products.
Entry-level chemist jobs are not easy to obtain. At a minimum, a person interested in this field will need a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or related field, but it’s important to remember that many research jobs require a master’s degree and more often than not a Ph.D.
A large number of colleges and universities offer degree programs in chemistry, but a much smaller number offer a degree in materials sciences; however, many engineering schools offer joint degrees in materials science and engineering. Those students aiming for a career in chemistry or materials science should plan on taking classes in science and math as well as courses in analytical, inorganic, organic and physical chemistry. Undergraduate chemistry majors typically study biological sciences, mathematics, physics and computer sciences.
As the field of chemistry and materials science evolves, it will be important for these professionals to also have a grasp of other indirectly related fields such as business, marketing and economics; internships, fellowships and work-study programs in this industry are quite common and advised.
The fields of chemistry and materials science will continue to grow but will do so slowly, and these jobs will be found in professional, scientific and technical services firms because manufacturing firms continue to outsource the research and development work.
One area where this particular field will experience significant growth – albeit slower than other professions – is in the biotechnology sector. The studies of human genes will continue to drive the need for new drugs and products that will fight disease and illness. These jobs will be fiercely competed for and graduates with lower-level degrees may have to begin in science-related jobs, working toward a higher-level and higher-paying position; an individual with a Ph.D. will ultimately have the competitive edge.
Wages for chemists and materials scientists vary greatly and are largely dependent on the level of degree held and the position one is working in. The lowest 10 percent of wage earners receive compensation of under $40,000 per year, while the top 10 percent earn more than $110,000; the median wages for chemists fall near $65,000, while materials scientists, on average, earn $80,000.