North Central College chemistry students working on an experiment.

What Can You Do With A Chemistry Degree

Jacob Imm

Nov 05, 2021

What can you do with a chemistry degree?

If you’re thinking about a degree in chemistry, the odds are that you love conducting experiments, you’re comfortable with a lot of time in the lab, and you can appreciate a challenge. But your future has a lot more to think about than whether you can succeed in a chemistry class. 

While it might seem premature to think about your post-graduate career before you’ve even taken a chemistry course, the truth is that your full career after your academic journey ends is worth planning now. You should definitely think about what you can do with any given major before you settle on one.

So let’s examine what you can do with that chemistry major, including how your course of study will affect your chemistry career prospects, what kind of salary you can expect, and a glimpse at the range of chemistry degree jobs available to a chemistry graduate. 

What Kinds of Chemistry Degrees Are There?

Before we find out what chemistry major jobs are available, let's find out what you learn in chemistry, first. The answer all depends on what subdivision of chemistry you choose to focus on, whether it's environmental chemistry or clinical chemistry.

Every institution and bachelor’s degree program in chemistry will structure things differently and have their specialties, but there are some areas of chemistry that occur most commonly. Ilana Kowarski wrote in U.S. News and World Report, “Experts note multiple branches of chemistry, including:

  • Analytical chemistry. According to the American Chemical Society, this field focuses on ‘determining what matter is and how much of it exists’ and often involves using technological equipment.
  • Biochemistry. This area of chemistry focuses on chemicals and chemical compounds that affect living organisms, and knowledge within this discipline can be used to address health challenges.
  • Inorganic chemistry. This chemistry sub-discipline primarily concentrates on compounds that do not contain carbon, such as metals and most minerals.
  • Organic chemistry. This specialization within chemistry focuses on carbon-containing substances.
  • Physical chemistry. The ACS defines this area of chemistry as ‘the study of how matter behaves on a molecular and atomic level and how chemical reactions occur.’
  • Theoretical chemistry. This type of chemistry involves applying physics and math concepts to make predictions about the behavior and reactions of chemicals.”

There are, of course, many other sub-disciplines in chemistry, some of which are well known like forensic chemistry, while others are not as such. Whether you want to be a forensic chemist, forensic science technician, medicinal chemist, agricultural chemist, or create your own area of chemistry to work in, starting with one of these branches is your best bet to get started.

The different chemistry degrees are similar in many ways, and your preference will likely depend on which has the most interesting subject matter for you. A big commonality between them is the skills you need to be successful in any given chemistry course.

Mathematics is a huge part of chemistry, and you will need to learn unique kinds of math you likely haven’t had much experience with. You need to be committed to the scientific method, willing to pursue theories and back them up with careful experimentation and record-keeping. Being a laboratory enthusiast, comfortable with scientific instruments and chemicals, and spending a lot of time with them, is also key. 

If you want to know even more about what it takes to succeed in chemistry, check out our guide, “Is Chemistry Hard in College?” 

To learn even more about your choices, check out our guide on types of chemistry majors. And if you need help making up your mind between chemistry and biology, we also have a guide on biology vs. chemistry majors.

What jobs can you do with a chemistry degree?

The next piece of the puzzle is connecting your chosen bachelor’s degree with a career that will suit your specialty. Chemistry is a sought-after undergraduate degree, known for the high-level skills it provides and the versatile expertise it gives you as a chemistry job candidate.

Brandt discussed the career types he commonly sees a chemistry graduate go into, saying a chemistry student typically goes onto graduate or professional school, teaching, or being a research chemist.

These are indeed common career paths for chemistry graduates, but you can feel good about casting your net wide when looking for chemistry jobs. Chemistry has numerous applications that contribute to a wide range of careers for an analytical chemist, forensic chemist, or even an environmental chemist or organic chemist in government positions as well as the private sector.

Here are some jobs you can get with an undergraduate degree in chemistry:

  • Food technologist
  • Management consultant
  • Lab technician
  • Chemical or geochemical engineer
  • Science writer
  • Professor
  • Materials scientist

Kowarski’s article offered some specific places to look for work in chemistry, including some less conventional industry choices: 

  • Chemical companies
  • Forensics labs
  • Government labs
  • High schools
  • Instrument manufacturers
  • Paint makers
  • Petroleum companies
  • Pharmaceutical manufacturers
  • Plastics manufacturers
  • Technical or pharmaceutical sales firms”

Chemistry is a major factor in the production and sale of consumer goods. Chemical compounds are the building blocks of so many of the foods we eat, and chemical processes are what create cleaning and styling products we use every day. So rest assured that this degree is not necessarily a direct route to years working alone as a research chemist or laboratory technician. Those are important roles, but they don't have to be your only choices.

According to Brandt, being open to working in a business capacity is an excellent route to employment and security. He said, “Typically, the businesses or industries that (graduates) go into are with companies that make products to sell. (Chemistry) graduates may go into sales, quality control, (or become a materials scientist and assist in the) development of new materials, or even forensic science type of work. Quality control seems to be the highest need, and we are regularly asked for a recent graduate to apply for positions.”

Find out more about North Central College

Does a chemistry degree pay well?

According to Kowarski’s article, “A benefit of pursuing a chemistry degree, experts say, is that the credential is marketable and versatile. Compensation figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that the median annual salary among chemists in May 2019 was $77,630.” In 2020, the figure rose to $79,300, well above the overall national median of $51,168.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also tells us that the salary range is trustworthy across numerous industries. They say the following about the sectors that employ the most chemistry graduates accompanied by their mean annual salary:

  • Pharmaceutical and Medicine Manufacturing - $81,250
  • Scientific Research and Development Services - $99,720
  • Architectural, Chemical Engineering, and Related Services - $67,050
  • Chemical Manufacturing - $91,480
  • Federal Executive Branch - $120,510

Is a chemistry degree worth it?

Ultimately, you are the only one who can answer this question for yourself. Chemistry is a challenge that will take hard work during your time in college and even harder work when you become a professional chemical engineer or another similar job. The rewards can be significant.

To begin with, salary isn’t the only consideration. Chemistry also creates a significant level of job security. Kowarski interviewed Kelsey Achenbach, head of marketing for a global pharmaceutical business unit, who said, “Because chemistry programs are rigorous and degrees in the field are difficult to earn, there are typically fewer job seekers with a chemistry degree. It gives you a leg up in times when the job market is tough."

Chemistry also provides ample opportunities to learn and pass on important life skills, make a difference in people’s lives, and have a positive impact on the world. 

Anne Marie Helmenstine wrote on ThoughtCo about 10 reasons why you should study and work in chemistry:

  1. “Chemistry helps you to understand the world around you.
  2. Basic knowledge of chemistry helps you to read and understand product labels.
  3. Chemistry can help you make informed decisions.
  4. Chemistry is at the heart of cooking.
  5. A command of chemistry can help keep you safe!
  6. Chemistry teaches useful skills, (like) how to reason and solve problems.
  7. Chemistry helps you to understand current events, including news about petroleum, product recalls, pollution, the environment, and technological advances.
  8. Makes life's little mysteries a little less mysterious.
  9. Chemistry opens up career options.
  10. Chemistry is fun, (and) chemistry projects don't just go boom. They can glow in the dark, change colors, produces bubbles, and change states.”

If you want to learn more about why studying chemistry is important, read our linked guide. 

A Degree is the First Step to Successful Career in Chemistry

One thing is for sure: you need to get the best education you can to back up your diploma in chemistry. Any career you pursue requires great skills and professional training.

Look for a school with a program like the chemistry program at North Central College. North Central’s chemistry faculty is hands-on, working with you on your research every step of the way and giving you the chance to work on projects reserved for graduate students at most schools. You’ll get a great grounding in the liberal arts to help improve your resume, work in state-of-the-art laboratories with the latest technology, have easy access to industrial chemistry job openings as well as other careers and internships in the Chicago research and development corridor, and receive ample opportunity to present your research.

Find out more about North Central College and get your journey started today.

Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 11 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.