Learn more about working as a chemist

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A chemist reviews research

The work of chemists affects every corner of daily life. Chemists design the rechargeable batteries in consumer electronics such as phones and laptops, develop the petrochemicals that underpin plastics and adhesives, and determine the formulas of medications and cosmetics, among with many other possible responsibilities.


The chemist role is versatile, in-demand and relatively well-compensated. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated 7 percent growth in total employment of chemists and materials scientists from 2016 to 2026. Median pay for this profession was more than $76,000 in 2017, considerably above the national median household income of approximately $61,000 measured by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2018.


Read on to learn what it takes to become a chemist — including the benefits of earning an advanced online engineering degree, such as a Master of Science in Engineering (MSE) from the University of California, Riverside (UCR) — as well as what you can expect on the job.

Chemist: Key education requirements and other qualifications

The starting point for any chemist career is a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or a related field. A Bachelor of Science in Chemistry (or in a discipline such as engineering) by itself provides sufficient background for many positions, but there are good reasons to pursue advanced education.


For starters, chemists with a master’s or doctoral degree as their highest credential have better employment prospects than ones with only a BS, according to the BLS. An MSE or Ph.D. provides the right background for research-oriented roles, which are expected to see especially strong growth in the near future.


Chemists with advanced degrees often serve in supervisory and managerial roles. The BLS groups these positions with natural sciences managers. This category has predicted employment growth of 10 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is faster than the average for all occupations. They also had higher compensation than chemists in 2017, at almost $119,000 per year.


Moreover, earning an MSE or Ph.D. helps develop the specialized skills and practical experience that contribute to success as a chemist. The UCR MSE program offers seven specializations, including one in materials at the nanoscale that can pave the way toward a career in nanochemistry.


The American Chemical Society (ACS) recognizes nanochemistry as a distinct field in which chemists develop and apply nanomaterials across a wide range of use cases. For example, a nanochemist might work on carbon nanotubes, which have benefits — in terms of added durability and flexibility — for products such as lithium-ion batteries and automotive parts. The ACS also noted the development of more cosmetically appealing sunscreen lotions that can still efficiently absorb ultraviolet rays.


In addition to specialized knowledge of fields such as nanomaterials, MSE students at UCR also gain more generalized expertise in how to lead and serve as part of an engineering team. All MSE students complete four core courses — Engineering in the Global Environment, Technology Innovation and Strategy for Engineers, Introduction to Systems Engineering and Principles of Engineering Management — that collectively help them understand and navigate challenges in modern engineering practice.

Chemist job description: The most common responsibilities

Since chemists can work in so many different contexts, it’s difficult to generalize about their responsibilities in a one-size-fits-all job description. However, there are some fundamental competencies common across the possible roles:

  • Chemists often work in laboratories, where they develop and prepare the solutions and compounds for testing and eventual use in practical applications.
  • They also frequently engage in research projects focused on the discovery and improvement of these same chemicals.
  • A chemist might be responsible for implementing a new discovery or updated chemical in a specific product.
  • To ensure rigor and consistency, chemists document the results of tests and evaluate them against any applicable standards for safety, efficacy, cost and more.
  • Chemists are usually expected to have demonstrated aptitude with the relevant equipment necessary for mixing, heating, and otherwise preparing and testing chemicals.
  • Research chemists have the added responsibility for preparing reports about their findings. They might publish their work in journals and share it with other chemists, scientists and engineers.
  • In fact, many chemist positions are team-oriented. The BLS cites the example of chemists collaborating with biologists and engineers on the development of new pharmaceuticals. Chemists’ work intersects with that of professionals across the sciences.
  • In a role fitting the BLS’ natural sciences manager category, a chemist would likely handle many administrative functions. Responsibilities might include recruiting and hiring personnel, making sure facilities are adequately staffed and stocked with the right supplies, interacting with company executives, managing proposals and supervising laboratory tests.

How an online MSE prepares you for a career as a chemist

The UCR MSE is a 100 percent online program designed to build advanced expertise in engineering while providing significant flexibility in both its specializations and learning formats. For a career as a chemist, the materials at the nanoscale concentration is most relevant, consisting of an equal number of credits in the program core and the specialization. The latter includes the following courses: Thermodynamic Foundations of Materials, Crystal Structure and Bonding, Nanoscale Science and Engineering, and Introduction to Microelectromechanical Systems.


Combined, the program’s 32 total credits of coursework plus its capstone project develop the knowledge and experience needed for a career as a chemist. Thanks to the online format, no residency is required, and expedited completion is possible in as few as 13 months. MSE students can earn a rigorous and recognized credential in a way that fits into their busy schedules.


To learn more, return to the program overview page, where you can answer a few quick questions to receive a copy of the MSE brochure.


Recommended readings:


Career spotlight: Chemist

3 nanotechnology innovations on the horizon




Natural Sciences Managers

Nanochemistry Overview

US median household income climbs to new high of $61,372