How to Become an Organic Chemist: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become an organic chemist. Explore the education requirements, training information and experience required for starting a career in organic chemistry. View article »

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  • 0:02 Organic Chemists
  • 0:35 Career Skills & Info
  • 1:30 Step 1: Bachelor's Degree
  • 2:22 Step 2: Work Experience
  • 2:49 Step 3: Master's Degree
  • 3:32 Step 4: Doctoral Degree

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Video Transcript

Organic Chemists

Organic chemists study carbon-based compounds, which are the foundation of living organisms. Many organic chemists work in applied research and manufacturing, often in the pharmaceuticals industry. Organic chemists often work as part of a team, either with other chemists or with other scientists such as physicists and engineers. Much of their work takes place in laboratories and offices. Chemists face some risk of injury on the job if they don't follow the procedures necessary to work with potentially dangerous chemicals.

Career Skills & Info

Degree Level At least a bachelor's for entry-level positions, though many opportunities require a graduate degree
Degree Field(s) Organic chemistry or related field
Key Skills Analytical skills; mathematical skills; interpersonal communication; critical thinking skills; writing; computer skills including graphic modeling software, computerized laboratory equipment and word processing; ability to operate lab equipment such as centrifuges, mass spectrometers and lasers
Salary (2015) $77,860 (median for chemists)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net OnLine.

Job opportunities for chemists in general are projected to increase by just 3%, or slower than average, between 2014 and 2024, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Those with doctoral degrees may find more opportunities. As of May 2015, chemists earned an average yearly salary of $77,860.

In these next couple of sections, we'll take a look at some of the degree programs and work experiences that can help you begin and advance a career as an organic chemist.

Step 1: Bachelor's Degree

Bachelor's degree programs in chemistry offered at colleges and universities throughout the country focus on chemistry as a whole rather than organic chemistry; however, courses in organic chemistry are usually required or available as electives. Through lectures and labs, courses in organic chemistry focus on the structures and bonds of various classes of carbon compounds, such as hydrocarbons, amino groups and alkyl halides. Students also use instrumental and chemical methods, like spectroscopy and chromatography, to explore organic synthesis and separation and analyze chemical relationships.

Graduates with a bachelor's degree in chemistry can apply to graduate programs in organic chemistry or medical school. They can also apply for jobs as lab chemists working for the government, in healthcare, or in private industry.

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Step 2: Work Experience

A bachelor's degree in chemistry is sufficient for many entry-level jobs in the field, including quality control and analytical testing positions. Assistant to a principle research chemist is another possibility. Organic chemistry jobs are often found in the pharmaceutical, biochemical, and environmental industries. However, chemist positions unrelated to organic chemistry can help provide professionals with additional knowledge and experience.

Step 3: Master's Degree

Chemists interested in academic and teaching positions will need a master's degree in organic chemistry or general chemistry with a specialization in organic chemistry. Advanced coursework can include topics like electron pushing, physical organic chemistry, and the use of spectrometry to determine molecular structure.

Master's degree programs typically focus on research projects in synthetic organic chemistry, organoelement chemistry, enzyme engineering, or marine chemistry. They can also include pollution clean-up, organometallic reactions, or the creation of molecules with novel biological properties, among other topics. Graduate students also complete a thesis based on their research work.

Doctoral Degree

Some employers - especially larger companies, government agencies, colleges, and universities - prefer applicants with a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Organic Chemistry, or a PhD in chemistry with a concentration in organic chemistry. Once accepted into a program, students take proficiency examinations and conduct original research that culminates in a dissertation and an oral defense.

Just to recap, employment opportunities for chemists in general are expected to increase by a slower-than-average rate until 2024. As of May 2015, they earned an average annual salary of $77,860.

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