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What did you do with your chemistry degree ?

Im wondering if going for chemistry is worth it? What do you do now with a chemistry degree and are you happy?

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David’s Answer

Hey Selena! Maybe my experience can help you answer your question. A lot is going to depend on what you want to do as a chemist.

I earned my BS in Chemistry and went to work right out of college. Actually, I had been working at this chemical company for a few years part time. I should also preface my experience with this: I was a TERRIBLE college student. I had plenty of smarts, but not nearly the level of maturity I should have, and my grades reflected that....they were also terrible.
I was fortunate enough to work for a small company that made very high value products. It took a while, but I grew up, started acting responsibly, and got to do some very interesting chemistry.
Initially I was doing a lot of analytical work in their quality control lab. They also had a catalog of some small volume, very-high value chemicals that I got to synthesize in a large lab. Eventually I got to work on some very interesting projects where I'd travel with the sales folks, listen to what customers wanted, and then go work with the engineers to see if we could do novel things at scale. I did well, even authoring a handful of patents.
I enjoyed my time there, but there were a number of problems I saw with my career. The things I most enjoyed were more engineering related, not laboratory related, so the things I wanted to do did not match my education.
The pay was also an issue. Chemists with only a BS do not get paid well relative to the amount of training and the brain power you need for that degree. Part of it is that there are more folks with a BS degree (and higher) than there are jobs, partly because folks that hope for medical school and fail to get in have to have work, part of it is that there are too many Ph.Ds in the sciences than there are jobs for Ph.Ds, so they take a lot of the interesting BS-level jobs.
Part of the pay issue is also due to the overall maturity of the chemical industry. There are areas where there's a lot of effort, for example in the materials sciences space, with battery technology for example. But for much of the chemical industry it is a highly mature, highly commodotized set of products. Put another way, there's not a lot of work being doing trying to figure out novel ways to make methanol. Profit margins for the industrial chemicals are razor thin, and the way companies like that stay in business is by keeping costs as low as they can keep them. I would not recommend you go into chemistry in one of those areas.
I would also not recommend that you get into the analytical chemistry space. It is also an ultra-low cost business model, and the work is incredibly repetitive in my opinion.
You can still have a great career, but I'd suggest three things
Pick an area of chemistry that is new, where this is a lot of growth expected. Batteries, material sciences and the same.
Work as an intern while you're in college in the field that you would ultimately like to explore. The reasons to do this are almost countless, you will be grateful if you do.
Under no circumstances go for a Masters Degree in Chemistry. Get your docotorate if at all possible, and if not, stop at BS. The reason is that MS degrees in Chemistry (and many other natural sciences like Physics) are considered consolation prizes for failed Ph.D candidates. There's a stigma to them. There's an undeniable snobbery in all of the natural sciences among the folks that have Ph.Ds. I've had a Ph.D - who actually worked for me at the time and knew that I only had a BS degree - tell me that if another colleague of ours "had any real insight in Chemistry, he'd have a Ph.D" when he only had a BS degree. It's incredibly tiresome, and that, and my desire to do engineering type work ultimately led me to leave that career in the dust. I've been in IT now professionally for more than 20 years, and while I've missed working in a lab environment, I much prefer IT. And I can always go whip up something in my kitchen when I feel the urge to play mad scientist.

Take a long hard look at the industry, figure out what you'd like to be doing, and then see if the number of job openings are plentiful and what the pay would be. And aim high in terms of getting your degrees, but do not borrow ridiculous amounts of money to get there....you may very well find that the financial math does not work.

Good luck!!
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Randall’s Answer

Selena,

What do you do with a chemistry degree? Well, think about this: what in the world is NOT chemical? Indeed nearly anything you can think of is either a chemical or was a chemical! So, what do you do with a chemistry degree… arguably, just about anything! You may also find yourself doing some sort of chemistry, at some level or another regardless of what career path you have chosen, especially in any science or technology.

I started with intent to become a biologist of some sort. I was especially interested in environmental biology, but as an undergraduate, I discovered that in biology I had a bent for entomology and that led to an interest in insecticide resistance to pesticides. So I fell right into bed with chemistry! Ultimately as a master’s student, I worked with the permeability of mosquito peritrophic membranes. Never mind what all that is but notice this was largely chemistry. Then as a PhD student I worked routinely with insecticide resistance in cockroaches and completed my dissertation on the organophosphate insecticide mode of action on midge larvae. So, ultimately, chemistry was my way of life. It seemed like an accident but now I can see it was inevitable.

I first ended up in major industry doing government mandated research on pesticide products for environmental certification. So the types of work I did included physiological decomposition, environmental decomposition, percolation in soil, photolysis in the sun, biodistribution, and development of analytical methods.

Was I happy with all that? The chemistry was fabulous! However, where you end up and what you are doing; upper level management sets the stage for you and often you might find it disagreeable. Which is what happened to me several times before I found teaching to be the working environment I was most comfortable with. Although some of my experiences with industry were quite scandalous, I do not mean to suggest you should avoid it. But I would say you need to expect turns and switches in your career, unless you are unusual or lucky!

Also, I should suggest you carefully examine yourself. Are you someone who does not like repetitive work to be done all day long, or do you wish to play a more creative role? If you are former, a BS degree will largely suffice to get you in some lab or industrial facility. If you are the latter, you should expect to go to graduate school. I got an MS and a PhD and I can say it was the most enrichening era of my life! It isn’t for every one. But as a bench chemist processing samples all day long was a huge bore for me. Other folks loved it because it was largely predictable and you don’t have management breathing down your neck.

Ultimately, you will find life opening and closing doors in every direction. Choose your doors carefully and expect to make, what you might call “errors” on the way. But even if they are errors, you can always use them as learning experiences… and pass it on!
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Mack’s Answer

Dear Selena,

May I add a little more to the previous suggestions? I encourage you to consider integrating your passion for chemistry into an engineering degree. As a chemical engineer myself, I've had the opportunity to work in diverse fields such as manufacturing, quality assurance, technical development in manufacturing, research and development labs (with a strong focus on development), teaching, and general management.

The beauty of science-related disciplines, particularly engineering, is that they're all about solving problems. Whether you're striving to cut costs in a manufacturing process or inventing a product that could change lives, it all boils down to problem-solving. And since, as Randall rightly pointed out, almost everything involves "chemistry", a background in this field can open up a world of opportunities.

I hope this encourages you to find a path that aligns perfectly with your abilities!
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Liz’s Answer

Selena,

I have been a chemist for over 27 years. Most of the chemistry was pure research. I performed a variety of reactions, synthesis, purifications and characterizations. But, unfortunately, there is little opportunity these days to do such work. I like what David had to say about the market being mature as well as what kind of pay to expect with a BS degree. If you are going to remain in the science field, having a good understanding of chemical principles will most definitely help you, but I don't recommend solely pursuing a chemistry degree.
There are more than a few jobs for analytical chemists-mostly in quality control labs. You would be doing work on various instruments, but you would be doing the same sort of thing day-in and day-out. I've learned and performed some analytical chemistry, but I would hate to have to do that full time-there is no adventure in it, in my opinion.
If you are interested in pursuing chemistry, and you're not interested in analytical work, then the next option would be to combine an organic chemistry degree with an engineering or biochemistry degree, as there is still a lot of work to be done in developing new materials, such as plastics, nano-particles, semi-conducting materials, or even new enzymatics.
Best wishes to you.
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