What Can I Do With A Bachelor’s Degree In Chemistry?

"I love chemistry. I’ve been taking all the chem classes I can since I started my freshman year. The thing is, I’m running out of elective space if I’m not going to major in this, and that’s really upsetting to me. Originally I was planning on majoring in computer science, which seemed nice and practical, but it just doesn’t interest me, and chemistry does. But I have heard that I’m not going to find a job with a chemistry degree. That seems unbelievable considering how hard it is. You would think there’d be plenty of demand for people with advanced knowledge in a difficult field. What can I do with a bachelor degree in chemistry? I really want to declare and jump ship from computer science."

asked by Matt from Fresno, CA

It is actually pretty tough these days for graduating chemists. We can have a look at some statistics published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to make this point. In 2010, there were 90,900 jobs for chemists. This included jobs which had already been filled as well as opportunities which were unfulfilled. The problem is, the bureau has projected that this field is growing at a rate of only 4%. This is quite slow compared to the average growth rate for all other occupations in the country, and represents only 4,000 new openings. I think you will agree that is a pretty small number.

Should that turn you away from your dream? Not necessarily; 4,000 chemists will be needed to fill those roles, after all, and not all of those openings are going to go to chemists who are currently unemployed (many of whom will search for work in different fields in the meantime). You will however need to have a very concrete game plan for what you are going to do with your degree well in advance of graduating. Otherwise you may find yourself out of work once you graduate. Still, careful planning and maybe going on to earn a master’s degree sounds more fun than working in an industry you do not enjoy, right?

Some other statistics from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill can help to paint a clearer picture of the landscape awaiting chemistry grads. The university stated that its 2012 B.S. graduates in chemistry and biochemistry were distributed as follows: 33% found jobs. Half went on to graduate school. Seventeen percent remained unemployed at the time that the survey was taken. The unemployment figures were up from the previous year by 7%. Another school, however, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, was more optimistic. While they stated that many students were having a hard time, others were getting multiple offers, and that more and more companies were recruiting on campus.

What are some examples of jobs that students have found after graduating with a bachelors degree in chemistry? Many students find work as research assistants or lab technicians. This is the most common option in the actual field of chemistry (others go on to get generic jobs which require a B.S. or B.A.). If you become a lab tech, you will be doing actual chemistry, which is good—but you will be working as an assistant to someone else, who will earn a lot more money than you do. Lab technicians in roles like these typically work very hard and often make less than $40,000 a year. In terms of boosting your employability, a pharmaceutical concentration in your field will likely give you the most opportunity.

As you may have guessed, there are a lot more opportunities that will open to you if you go on to get a higher degree, which is why half the students surveyed by the University of North Carolina chose to do just that. With those lab assistant jobs discussed above, there is usually a chain of command with a Ph.D at the top, and someone with a master’s degree in the middle. As you might guess, the pay grade increases as you move up the chain. The lab technicians with bachelor’s degrees make a lot less money than the PhD chemists who run the show in the lab.

So what is the best option for you after you graduate with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry? Probably graduate school. If you plan to get a bachelor’s degree, you should also plan to go on to higher education. With an M.A. or M.S., a lot more positions will open to you which offer you higher pay. With a Ph.D, you will have even more opportunity. Ph.D chemists often start out at around $80,000 and may earn around $120,000 a year with experience.

A bachelor degree in chemistry may work in a wide range of industries, even though odds are you will have the lab technician role in any of them. You could find yourself with a job in chemical technology, biotechnology, biochemistry, pharmaceuticals, plastics, petroleum or natural gas, perfume, textiles, or something else altogether. Many chemistry majors may go on to find jobs as educators at the high school or college level. This may be a good option for you if you want to do research on your own. As mentioned earlier, a lot of the best jobs are in the pharmaceutical industry. The medical industry as a whole is booming these days, and that may help you to find job openings in a competitive market.

Is it easy to find a job as a chemist? I won’t lie to you. It is not going to be a walk in the park, especially with a bachelor’s degree and nothing more. It is possible, though, especially if you choose a smart concentration like pharmaceuticals and you are willing to work for somebody else in a relatively modest position in a lab. You will have an easier time getting an excellent and rewarding job in chemistry if you go on to earn your master’s degree or Ph.D. If you love chemistry as much as you say you do, I say go for it!

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