Should I Become a Polymer Chemist?
Polymer chemists work with materials on a molecular or atomic level, studying the ways that smalls chains of molecules bond to form larger molecules known as polymers. Polymer chemists work in research and manufacturing to create synthetic polymers used in a variety of applications, including plastics, paints, and pharmaceuticals. Polymer chemists operate out of laboratories and offices to conduct experiments, collect data, and analyze results. A polymer chemist typically requires at least a Master's degree, while jobs in academia and some manufacturing jobs require a PhD.
|Degree Level||Master's degree; Ph.D. recommended for advancement|
|Experience||Internships available; work experience|
|Key Skills||Mathematics, analytical skills, detail-oriented, organizational; knowledge of scientific processes|
|Salary (2014)||$73,480 per year (median salary for all chemists)|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Chemistry
Polymer chemistry is one of several emerging subfields in chemistry. It's possible to earn a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry with a polymer chemistry major; however, some schools offer a separate degree program in polymer chemistry. In addition to general chemistry lecture and lab courses like inorganic chemistry and organic chemistry, courses focusing on polymer science might include such topics as:
- Fundamentals of polymer science
- Polymers and color chemistry
- Synthesizing polymers
- Elastomers and plastics
- Natural and synthetic biopolymers
Step 2: Gain Experience via Internships and Summer Employment Experience
Acquiring ongoing hands-on experience in polymer chemistry beginning at the undergraduate level is advised by many schools offering polymer chemistry programs as well as the American Chemical Society (www.acs.org). Whether as part of an internship or cooperative (coop) work experience during a degree program or summer employment, students may develop their job skills as researchers. Internships may be completed concurrently with the academic semester or during summer, while coop experiences typically alternate semesters of school and paid employment. Some schools assist students with internship, coop or summer job placement.
Step 3: Earn a Master's Degree in Chemistry
A master's-level curriculum in chemistry may include interdisciplinary coursework in math, biology, physics or chemical engineering and is offered through Master of Science, Master of Engineering or related degree programs. In general, polymer chemistry is offered as a specialization within the chemistry program. A thesis may be required. Courses delve into the chemistry of polymers, as well as their generation and the technologies required to perform these processes. Courses might include:
- Organic chemistry of polymers
- Polymer science technology
- Bulk polymers
Step 4: Earn a Ph.D. in Chemistry to Advance
Original polymer chemistry research is often part of a doctoral program, and it usually takes place under the tutelage of a Ph.D. advisor. For students interested in specific research topics, the selection of a school and a faculty advisor can be an important step: for those interested in nanocomposites, for example, finding a program that supports this research, and a faculty advisor who has experience in the necessary theory and methods, would be part of selecting a program. Doctoral students generally choose their courses from the same list of classes available to master's degree students, although classes can't typically be repeated. The curriculum is often tailored to student research interests and, in addition to courses and research in polymer chemistry, may include classes in chemical engineering, math and physics.
Polymer chemists can work in research-oriented positions in academia or industry where they develop new materials or new processes for creating them. Industries that employ polymer chemists include those where adhesives, coatings and synthetics like rubber and fibers are made or used. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that chemists with advanced degrees, especially a Ph.D., should have the best outlook for employment from 2012-2022 (www.bls.gov).