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A Day in the life of a Chemist

Chemists "are paid to be creative, careful, and productive" said one of our survey respondents, and the rest agreed. "It's a career for people who think about the future," mentioned another. Chemists analyze the basic properties of matter. In the commercial sector, they find new uses and applications for it. In the academic sector, they study the implications of newly discovered chemical properties.

Chemists spend over 60 percent of their time in the lab or in front of their computers analyzing data. Most work is done in teams, and more than one respondent pointed out that teamwork skills are "essential" to success in this field. Specific duties may include modeling, analysis, synthesis, research, limited fieldwork, or even sales and information management. There are as many specialties, such as quality control chemists or organic chemists, as there are areas of application of chemical principles.

A chemist's specialty would depend on his style of working, but the desire to search for the ability to manipulate matter and make more useful materials is common to all chemists. Chemists work closely with other experts, including chemical engineers, who plan the production and development of discoveries made by chemists; sales forces, who explain their products; and academic chemists, who share information at cutting-edge levels. This requires good interpersonal skills and an ability to always keep end goals in mind. "You don't spend a lot of time hanging out with other chemists, but you do spend a lot of time reading about them." Professional reading can be significant in this profession, as discoveries can change the understanding of the physical systems that are critical to this profession. Chemists are challenged, excited and satisfied with the profession in which the majority spend their entire careers.

Paying Your Dues
About 600 colleges offer undergraduate degrees in chemistry, and 300 offer graduate degrees. Quality control, assistant, and production chemists generally need only an undergraduate degree in chemistry, but many employers look for cross-disciplinary studies including biology, physics, materials science, English, and communications courses. The commercial sector hires chemists most often in the petroleum, chemicals, medical, food, and production industries, while the academic sector hiring of chemists is dominated by universities and research institutions. As most chemists work in teams, a growing number of employers look for strong interpersonal skills: “The ability to play well in the sandbox,” as one of our survey respondents put it. This means that intelligence, for a long time the single factor in determining job opportunities in the field of chemistry, is no longer the only consideration. Later in their careers, many find it helpful to join a professional organization such as the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Associated Careers
Chemists become chemical engineers more often than anything else, but their analytic skills recommend them to many professions. They become entrepreneurs, research managers, and hazardous waste managers, as well as software and sales engineers. Any field that rewards a curious, organized mind is open to an emigrant from the field of chemistry.

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