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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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Careers in Chemistry

Chemistry makes up the scientific basis of a wide variety of career options. These range over "traditional" activities (e.g. analysis, synthesis), interdisciplinary fields (e.g. materials, biophysics), and "non-traditional" professions such as medicine, patent or environmental law, pharmacology, and forensic science, as well as education, technical writing, art conserva­tion, environmental studies and many others.

Typically, about half of our graduates go directly to graduate school for an M.S. or Ph.D. degree in Chemistry or a related science; almost all of these students receive support in graduate school as teaching or research assistants.

Our graduates have gone to the most prestigious schools in the nation and abroad Their ultimate careers are industrial research, government research or regulation or college level teaching.

A significant number of our graduates continue their professional education in medical school or law school and a few take advanced degrees in management. Most of the remainder go directly into industrial positions.

Examples of Major Fields Employing Chemists

  • Polymers and plastics - synthesis of new polymeric materials and mixtures; characterization of physical properties, development of new applications.
  • Pharmaceuticals - drug design using computational modeling, synthesis of new drugs, study of drug metabolism, quality control analysis.
  • Materials chemistry - semi-conductor and solid state materials and devices, nano-materials.
  • Biotechnology - biochemical and pharmacology studies.
  • Forensic chemistry.
  • Environmental chemistry - environmental analysis, emission control and abatement, testing and regulatory agencies
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    Chemistry vs. Chemical Engineering:

    Many students who are interested in chemistry think of chemical engineering as their major - what is the difference? Both disciplines deal with much the same things and there is much overlap, but the basic differences are novelty and scale.

    A chemist is more likely to be developing new compounds and materials; a chemical engineer is more likely to be working with existing substances.

    A chemist deals with small amounts of materials in glassware on a laboratory bench. The chemical engineer deals with large scale reactions with factory scale equipment.

    A chemist may make a few grams of a new compound, while a chemical engineer will scale up the process to make it by the ton, and at a profit.

    The chemical engineer will be more concerned with heating and cooling large reaction vessels, pumps and piping to transfer materials, and plant design and operation, while a chemist will be more concerned with establishing the details of the reactions before the plant is designed.

    Some idea of the differences can be obtained by looking at the names of the required courses in the two curricula.

    Fields Available to Chemists

    The examples below are some of the fields available to chemists; our recent graduates have gone into many of them:

    Chemical Research and Development. This is one of the classical career options for chemistry majors. About half of our graduates take this path. It involves acquiring and/or applying scientific knowledge for such pur­poses as developing new or improved methods for the synthesis of substances, and under­standing the behavior of materials and how to control it. This typically is done in industry; examples include chemical companies such as Du­Pont and Monsanto, but also many  that are not popularly connected to chemistry, such as IBM, Xerox, United Technologies, General Electric, that are concerned with materials or pro­cesses. Most chemists in this area require a graduate degree, although there is opportunity for B.S. chemists in some of the more routine synthetic and analytical aspects of this work, and with small companies.

    Materials. Chemists play a central role in development and application of materials, both in research and development and quality control. Materials fields requiring chemists include polymers, metals, semi­conductors and other solid state devices.

    Medicine. A B.S. in chemistry is a suitable program for entrance to medical school; many of our graduates have gone on to obtain the M.D. degree. Others have chosen dentistry and veterinary medicine. Some with advanced degrees work in biomedical or pharmacolo­gical research. Others are involved in research, testing, or regulatory functions in state or federal health agencies, either with or without an advanced degree.

    Biotechnology. Many of the techniques of modern biotechnology have been adapted from chemistry, and chemists with a biochemistry background work in this field at the B.S. and Ph.D. levels.

    Pharmacy, Pharmacology and Medicinal Chemistry. A licensed pharmacist requires a Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) degree. This is a professional degree program that in some schools can be entered directly but in others is entered after a minimum of two years of a regular college science program. A degree in chemistry can lead into programs at this level, or can be a preparation for more advanced Ph.D. level programs in the pharmaceutical sciences involving research. A chemistry B.S. also is preparation for careers in the analytical and manufacturing parts of the pharmaceutical industry. Development of new drugs and study of drug action and metabolism are activities that chemists with graduate degrees in organic or biochemistry can undertake. A B.S. in chemistry followed by a graduate degree in pharmacology is a good career path in this area.

    Forensic Science. State and federal law enforcement organizations use chemists in their forensic laboratories. Chemists with either B.S. or advanced degrees work in this field. Forensic science includes many distinct disciplines that may be used in a legal investigation. While forensic science is multidisciplinary, most practitioners work in a particular field, and often a particular specialty in that field. A laboratory science is a valuable background. In a recent survey of qualifications that they preferred, crime lab directors gave a B.S.degree in chemistry as their first preference, followed by biology and then by forensic science degrees with significant chemistry components (J. Forensic Sci., 1999; 44(1); 128). B.S. chemists can become laboratory analysts or crime scene investigators (contrary to popular TV impressions, the same person generally does not do both) and can use the chemistry B.S as an entry to a graduate program in forensic science to further their careers. The degree is also a good basis for further study leading to an M.D. degree, which is necessary for work as a pathologist or medical examiner. Elective courses in biology, microscopy and statistics are additionally helpful technical courses for a career in this field, and remain useful for jobs in other areas as well.

    Environment. Chemists play a wide and growing role in areas related to the environment. Careers include work in environmental analysis firms, in industry dealing with emission control and abatement, and in state and federal government  testing and regulatory  agencies. All levels of training are involved.

    Law. Several of our graduates have used their chemistry degrees as a background for patent law, for which technical knowledge is essential and which includes contact with cutting edge technologies and working closely with scientists. Two basic types of legal activity exist, and one can specialize in either one; litigation, which involves defending or challenging existing patents in legal proceedings, and patent development – preparation and filing of new patent applications. Patent law may be pursued at several levels.

    • Technical Advisor. Provides technical advice and information in regard to patent applications or litigation. Typically an interim position while you gain legal knowledge.
    • Patent Agent. Represents the client in filing a patent and can represent a client in dealings with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. No additional degree beyond the B.S. is necessary, but a registration exam (patent bar exam) must be passed. Typically, one enters this path as a technical advisor for an established firm while learning the material for this examination.
    • Patent Attorney. In addition to having the qualifications of a patent agent, a patent attorney can represent a client in court. A law degree and passing the bar exam are required.

    At any level, practitioners may work for a corporation or for an independent law firm; or might also become a patent examiner or attorney for the USPTO.

    Environmental law is a growing field that deals with a wide range of matters relating to environmental concerns such as pollution, waste management, land use, resource extraction and many others. Activities involve interpretation and development of regulations as well as litigation, and may be practiced through private practice, public interest groups, government or as inhouse counsel for a corporation.

    Consulting. Some chemists act as independent consultants, or work for consulting firms. Independent consulting usually requires considerable background and experience in a specific area.

    Energy. Chemists are involved in developing modern sources of energy, such as battery systems to be used for large-scale energy storage and electric vehicles, conversion of coal to liquid or gaseous fuels, and solar energy conversion. Chemists also play a vital role in the nuclear power industry.

    Quality Control. This is another popular classical career option for chemists. Work involves analysis and testing to ensure that materials meet specifications. A wide variety of companies large and small have requirements for professionals in this area, with many positions involving B.S. graduates.

    Technical Sales and Service. Manufacturers of chemicals, scientific instruments and equipment and products based on chemicals require technically trained people for direct sales and to provide problem-solving assistance to their sales division. This is usually requires a B.S. rather than an advanced degree.

    Technical and Science Writing. Careers in this field include writing of technical material for industrial companies, science writer for magazines or newspapers, and editor of scientific publications.

    Management. A B.S. in chemistry makes an excellent background for those who want a management career in a technologically based industry. A second B.S. or a master's degree in management or business administration are options. Many chemists enter management after beginning their careers in a technical position; many companies will provide the necessary management training.

    Government. In addition to positions in government research labs or regulatory agencies, some chemists serve as technical staff for a variety of government departments and offices.

    Museum Conservation. A small but interesting field for chemists is in the conservation and authentification of art and artifacts. This is particularly attractive to those with an interest and courses in art history, archaeology or related fields.

    Education. Secondary school teaching is a career that has interested some of our gradu­ates. Many others enter teaching in two or four year colleges and universities; almost all chemistry faculty positions at these schools require an advanced degree.

    Business Ownership. Some of our graduates use their technical training, often supported by a few years practical experience, to start their own companies. An example is Charybdis Technologies Inc., started by a graduate of the class of '91.

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