If you enjoyed messing about with a chemistry set in your younger days and find the prospect of spending your working life experimenting with different compounds in a laboratory attractive, a career as a chemist could be for you. But before you start firing off applications to universities running chemistry courses, it'll be worth weighing the potential downsides of a life as a chemist.
Demand for chemists is expected to rise by 4 percent between 2010 and 2020. Over the same period, employment across all occupations is forecast to grow by 14 percent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted that chemical and drug manufacturers will cut the number of chemists they employ over the decade in an effort to control costs and minimize risks, and it has forecast that many companies will outsource work formerly done by in-house chemists to research universities and testing services firms.
Working as a chemist can be dangerous. Handling potentially hazardous materials and conducting experiments with flammable or explosive compounds can pose a significant risk to chemists' health. Although the risks are minimal if proper health and safety precautions are followed, human error or equipment failure in labs can result in life threatening situations. A 2006 report from "Nature" magazine found that university chemistry labs reported more accidents than any other departments, although the majority of incidents involved undergraduates cutting themselves on glassware.
Although it's possible to land a chemistry job with just a bachelor's degree, according to the BLS, you'll stand a much better chance of early career progression if you have a master's or a doctorate. This takes time and no small amount of money. If you're not independently wealthy and don't have well-off parents who are happy to subsidize your education, you could be starting your chemistry career knee-deep in debt if you choose to study for a higher degree.
With a mean annual wage of $74,780 in May 2011, according to the BLS, chemists certainly aren't poorly paid. However, professionals in similar roles that require roughly the same amount of study earn more. Medical scientists, biochemists and biophysicists all took home a mean annual salary of $87,640, as of May 2011. Physicists pocketed a cool $112,090 a year. Anybody of a scientific bent who's thinking of becoming a chemist might like to consider other specializations if money's a major motivator.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Chemists, Job Outlook
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Chemists, Work Environment
- Nature: How Dangerous is Chemistry?
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Chemists, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2011
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Medical Scientists, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2011
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Biochemists and Biophysicists, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2011
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Physicists, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2011
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