The U.S. Government has spent the last few decades doing its best to convince our nation’s youth to “say no to drugs.” We’ll bet more than a few chemists would have something to say about that.
Of course, chemists (the ones we’re talking about, at least – the ethical and legal chemists) are involved in creating an entirely different sort of drug than the ones your parents and teachers are urging you to stay away from. There aren’t a lot of teens OD’ing on Zoloft or Crestor.
But the work of chemists is not limited to prescription drugs - not by a long shot. Organic chemists create artificial flavorings for food products, develop plastics and rubber, and make paints and adhesives. Physical chemists work on quantum-related sensors, nanotechnology, and biosensors, create surfactants/chemical cocktails (non-alcoholic), and build extremely useful hardcore instruments. Inorganic chemists make chemicals that glow different colors when you swallow them for MRIs, as well as create semiconductors and chips, such as those used in HD TVs, LEDs, and OLEDs. Biochemists make life-saving pharmaceutical drugs, test how they work with proteins, and experiment to learn the ins and outs of molecules. Analytical chemists perform formulations, optimizations, and concentration experiments. And 8-year-olds everywhere are, at this very moment, opening up their brand new chemistry sets and attempting to dissolve their little sister’s favorite doll in a potassium chloride solution.
Chemicals are involved in some way in nearly everything that is produced in a lab or industrial plant, and so behind almost every product is a chemist. Not literally, mind you. That would actually be pretty startling every time you grabbed a box of cosmetics off the shelf.
Some of the biggest companies in this massive industry that you may be working for are Pfizer, Merck, Dow, Monsanto, Unilever, Amgen, Johnson & Johnson, Intel, Astrazeneca, Wyeth, Clorox, SC Johnson, Bayer, BASF, and ExxonMobil. Many of those you have already heard of, and not all of these companies have the most squeaky clean reputation. They don't eat live babies for breakfast. But they pollute. They enact questionable practices and strong-arm their smaller competitors. And once in a while one of them is responsible for a major oil spill which devastates marine life. But they are the indisputed leaders in the business, and if you are looking to become a successful (and highly paid) chemist, you will want to target one of these giants when seeking employment. To do so, you will definitely need to have a PhD, as chemists without one are left mainly to do grunt work or carry out technician type duties. Getting a PhD is going to mean investing a lot of time and money into your schooling, but it will pay dividends once you begin making a chemist’s salary. Just don’t suddenly decide after getting your degree that the theatre is calling…
To even consider this career path, you have to have hot sweaty dreams of someone talking nerdy to you. You don’t have to be a nerd in general – you can even be good at sports and have a healthy social life – but when it comes to science, and chemistry in particular, you have to be bonkers about it. If you don’t truly enjoy the process of testing and developing chemicals and pharmaceuticals, you will never be happy in this business. You are the mad scientist, the tinkerer, the discoverer of a cure to cancer. Christopher Columbus in a test tube filled lab. You may encounter plenty of stress on the job, but the essence of the work itself should not add to it. If the only reason you enjoyed chemistry class was because you got a hot lab partner, then you should move on and find something else that suits you better.
If you end up being a chemist who is titrating tinctures and running reactions all day, you may not have that much face time with other human beings, so this career isn’t always the best fit for exceptionally social creatures. If you’re not much of a loner and would prefer to hang out with people all day long, maybe become a bartender instead. You’ll get more than your fill of people in that job.
Chemists make a great salary and are able to partake in interesting work, if you find combining chemicals and developing useful products interesting. We do. But then, we’re Shmoop. We’re pretty much interested in everything brainy. And like the notion of being able to cure cancer – is there anything cooler on Earth that you could do with your life?