14 Myths about
Careers in Chemistry …
and the Realities
BY LISA M. BALBES
As you prepare to move into the next phase of your professional life, you are probably weighing your options — perhaps it’s graduate school, or a job in industry, government, or academic research. You may even be considering working for a non-profit, or starting your own company.
At this point, you probably know a significant amount about
careers in academia. You’ve spent years watching your professors,
so you know how they spend their time. If you’ve held a job or have
research experience, you know something about a particular industry or area of inquiry. But you might not be as aware of other, wide-ranging employment options. More importantly, many of the things
you’ve heard people say about the job market might be outdated or
Below are some of the most common myths about non-traditional (and traditional) careers in chemistry, along with the current
Myth 1: Few chemists pursue
Reality: To answer this, we need to define what a “traditional”
career is. If tenured university professor positions or any position
where you work at a lab bench first come to mind, the truth is, only a
minority of all chemists are engaged in these positions! Expand your
thinking to include the many chemistry-related careers relating to
medicine, regulatory affairs, or patent law, where you’re speaking,
writing, and thinking about science, but not working at a bench. You
don’t stop being a chemist when you aren’t working at a bench or
in a classroom. Your chemistry education teaches you how to think
and approach problems analytically. It also provides a background in
scientific principles and techniques that you will continue to use, no
matter what your job title is. It may sound a little paradoxical, but
actually, most chemists have non-traditional careers!
Myth 2: Non-traditional careers in chemistry
are a new thing.
Reality: Nope, sorry. ACS has been promoting non-traditional
careers at least as far back as 1963, describing the wide variety
of careers that chemists are prepared for. As long as there have
been chemists (or even alchemists), there have been those who
blaze their own trail!
Myth 3: There are no jobs for chemists.
Reality: The vast majority of chemists are employed. In fact, as
of March 2014, only 3.1% of all chemists surveyed by ACS were
unemployed and seeking employment — meaning 96.9% had
jobs (2014 ACS Salary Survey, C&EN, Sept 1, 2014, pp 68–71).
Of chemists with a bachelor’s degree, only 4.2% were unemployed, and of those with a master’s degree in chemistry, the
figure was 4.6%. There are jobs out there, though they may not be
as plentiful as they were in the past. There still are opportunities
in many new and emerging fields, including analytical testing and
professional services related to science, engineering, and the law.
We are also seeing hiring increases in agricultural and food
chemistry, specialty and fine chemicals, and chemical coatings,
paints, and inks. However, as the types of companies that employ
chemists have become more diverse, both geographically and
functionally, it has become harder to summarize employment
statistics than when the vast majority of chemists worked in a
few large industries. In addition, anecdotal evidence suggests
that governmental positions may open up as waves of retirement
begin in early 2015.
Myth 4: Most chemists have a Ph.D.
Reality: While ACS membership is highly skewed toward
advanced degrees (about 70% of ACS members have a Ph.D.),
according to O*NET OnLine, 86% of chemists overall have bachelor’s degrees ( www.onetonline.org/link/details/19-2031.00).
Myth 5: There is a glut of Ph.D. chemists in
the job market, so I should not consider
earning a Ph.D.
Reality: Whether or not that’s the case today, the job market
may change during the six years or so that you would be in
graduate school. If you decide to go on to earn a master’s or
Ph.D., make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, rather
than trying to second-guess the job market. Earning an
advanced degree will change the kind of work for which you are
qualified— it will become more intellectual and less hands-on.