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.

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Should I Become an Organic Chemist?

Organic chemists study carbon-based compounds, which are the foundation for living organisms. Many organic chemists work in applied research and manufacturing, often in the pharmaceuticals industry. These professionals 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.

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Career Requirements

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 centrifuge, mass spectrometer and lasers
Salary (2014) $73,480 (median for chemists)

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

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Chemistry

Undergraduate chemistry degree programs are offered at colleges and universities throughout the country. They focus on chemistry as a whole rather than organic chemistry, but courses in organic chemistry are usually required or available as electives. Through lecture and lab time, these courses focus on the structures and bonds of various classes of carbon compounds, such as hydrocarbons, amino groups and alkyl halides. Students use instrumental and chemical methods, like spectroscopy and chromatography, to explore organic synthesis and separation and to analyze chemical relationships.

Chemistry graduates can use their training for further studies, such as entering medical school or getting a graduate degree in organic chemistry. They're also prepared to enter the job force as lab chemists working for the government, in healthcare or in private industry.

Step 2: Gain 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, but even chemistry jobs unrelated to organic chemistry could help provide additional knowledge and experience when later seeking work as an organic chemist.

Step 3: Earn a Graduate Degree in Organic Chemistry

Research and academic positions are only available to chemists with at least a master's degree in the field. At this level, students can focus specifically on organic chemistry or enroll in a general chemistry program with a specialization in organic chemistry, tailoring their studies toward their individual academic and professional interests. Advanced courses include topics like electron pushing, physical organic chemistry and the use of spectrometry to determine molecular structure.

Master's programs typically focus on research projects in areas such as synthetic organic chemistry, organoelement chemistry, enzyme engineering, marine chemistry, pollution clean-up, organometallic reactions and the creation of molecules with novel biological properties. Students complete a thesis based on their research work.

Success Tip:

  • Consider getting a doctoral (PhD) degree in organic chemistry. Some employers - especially larger companies, government agencies, colleges and universities - prefer candidates have a PhD degree. Doctoral degree programs require completion of proficiency examinations, as well as original research that culminates in a dissertation and oral defense. As with a master's degree program, students can earn a PhD in organic chemistry or in general chemistry with an organic chemistry concentration.
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