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What Chemists Do

Chemists and materials scientists research and analyze the chemical properties of substances to develop new materials, products, or knowledge.

Chemists and materials scientists typically do the following:

  • Plan and carry out research projects, such as the development of new products and testing methods
  • Direct technicians and other staff in chemical processing and testing, including for ingredients, mixing times, and operating temperatures
  • Collaborate with engineers and other scientists on experiments, product development, and production processes
  • Prepare solutions, compounds, and reagents used in laboratory procedures
  • Analyze substances to determine their composition and concentration of elements
  • Conduct tests on materials and other substances to ensure that safety and quality standards are met
  • Write technical reports that detail methods and findings
  • Present research findings to scientists, engineers, and other colleagues

Chemists and materials scientists usually work in either basic or applied research. In basic research, chemists and materials scientists investigate the properties, composition, and structure of matter. They also experiment with combinations of elements and the ways in which they interact. In applied research, chemists and material scientists investigate developing new products or improving existing ones, such as medications, batteries, and cleaners.

Chemists and materials scientists use computers and other laboratory equipment for modeling, simulation, and analysis. For example, chemists may use three-dimensional computer modeling software to study the structure and properties of complex molecules.

Most chemists and materials scientists work as part of a team that may include physicists, microbiologists, and engineers. For example, chemists in pharmaceutical research may work with biochemists and biophysicists or chemical engineers to develop new drugs and with industrial engineers to design ways to mass-produce the drugs.

Chemists may work in interdisciplinary fields, such as biochemistry or geochemistry. They may also specialize in a particular field. The following are examples of types of chemists:

Analytical chemists identify elements and compounds in a substance to determine its structure, composition, and nature. They also study the interactions between parts of compounds. Some analytical chemists specialize in developing new methods of evaluation. Their research has a range of applications, including food safety and pollution control.

Forensic chemists aid in criminal investigations by testing and analyzing evidence, such as DNA. These chemists work primarily in laboratories but may testify in court as expert witnesses to explain the results of their analyses.

Inorganic chemists study the structure, properties, and reactions of molecules that do not contain carbon, such as metals. They work to understand the behavior and the characteristics of inorganic substances, such as ceramics and superconductors, for modifying, separating, or using in products or for other purposes.

Medicinal chemists research and develop chemical compounds to create and test new drug products. They also help develop and improve manufacturing processes to effectively produce new drugs on a large scale.

Organic chemists study the structure, properties, and reactions of molecules that contain carbon. They also design and make new organic substances for use in developing new commercial products, such as medicine and plastics.

Physical chemists study how matter behaves and how chemical reactions occur. From their analyses, physical chemists may develop theories, such as how complex structures are formed, and research potential uses for new materials.

Theoretical chemists investigate abstract methods that predict the outcomes of chemical experiments. Their specializations may incorporate different branches of computer science, such as artificial intelligence. Some examples of theoretical chemists are computational chemistsmathematical chemists, and chemical informaticians.

Materials scientists typically specialize in the material they work with most often. Examples include ceramics, metals, polymers, and semiconductors.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Chemists and Materials Scientists, 
at (visited October 2, 2023).

How to Become a Chemist

To enter the occupation, chemists and materials scientists typically need at least a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or a related field. However, they may need a master’s degree or Ph.D. for some jobs, such as research positions.


Chemists and materials scientists typically need a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or a related physical science field. Some jobs require a master’s degree or Ph.D. and work experience. Chemists and materials scientists with a Ph.D. and postdoctoral experience may lead research teams.

Undergraduate chemistry programs typically require a number of courses in chemistry, most of which include a laboratory component. They also require courses in a variety of other subjects, including math, biological sciences, and physics.

Some chemistry programs offer materials science as a specialization, and some engineering programs offer a joint degree in materials science and engineering.

Graduate students in chemistry commonly include specialization in a subfield, such as analytical chemistry or inorganic chemistry. For example, those interested in doing pharmaceutical research may choose to develop a strong background in medicinal or organic chemistry.

Combined programs, which offer an accelerated bachelor's and master's degree in chemistry, also are available.


Laboratory equipment in the workplace is expensive and may differ from the equipment available in university laboratories. As a result, chemists and materials scientists may receive training after they are hired, with experienced chemists and materials scientists demonstrating proper use of their employers' laboratory equipment.

Laboratory experience gained through internships, fellowships, or cooperative programs in industry is also useful.


Chemists may advance as they gain experience, typically by receiving greater responsibility and independence in their work.

Another path to advancement is through further education. For example, Ph.D. chemists may lead research teams and take on larger, more complicated projects as they progress.

Some chemists and materials scientists advance to become natural sciences managers.

Important Qualities

Analytical skills. Chemists and materials scientists need to evaluate the results of experiments to ensure accuracy in their research.

Communication skills. Chemists and materials scientists must be able to convey information in reports and presentations for both technical and nontechnical audiences.

Interpersonal skills. Chemists and materials scientists typically work on teams and need to be cooperative. Chemists and material scientists who serve as team leaders must be able to motivate and direct others.

Math skills. Chemists and materials scientists regularly use calculus, algebra, statistics, and other math for calculations.

Organizational skills. Chemists and materials scientists must document processes carefully when conducting experiments, tracking outcomes, and analyzing results.

Perseverance. Chemists and materials scientists must persist in the trial-and-error demands of research. They must be self-motivated to avoid becoming discouraged.

Problem-solving skills. Chemists' and materials scientists' work involves posing questions during research and finding answers through results.

Time-management skills. Chemists and materials scientists usually need to meet deadlines and must be able to prioritize tasks while maintaining quality.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Chemists and Materials Scientists, 
at ​ (visited October 2, 2023).

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