In ancient times, alchemists were philosophers who tried to turn lead into gold and concoct potions to give themselves long lives. Their efforts were fruitless, but early scientists drew on the knowledge of compounds accumulated by alchemists to create the powerful discipline of chemistry. Today, chemists are skilled professionals who play an integral role in modern research, technology development and manufacturing.
The Work of Chemists
The stuff of chemistry is matter – the composition, interactions and properties of materials and compounds. Research chemists design and perform experiments, tests and analysis to discover how chemicals behave. Applied chemists investigate different compounds to find ways to develop them into useful products and processes. Chemists supervise technicians and monitor manufacturing operations to ensure quality and safety. As scientists, chemists also prepare presentations and write papers to communicate their findings to colleagues.
Salaries and Employers
The median salary for chemists in 2012 was $71,770, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Pay ranged from less than $41,080 for the bottom 10 percent to over $120,600 for the top-paid 10 percent. The largest employers of chemists were research and development firms, where the average salary was $84,300. Manufacturers of drugs and other pharmaceutical products were the second largest employers and paid an average of $75,980. Other major employers of chemists were federal government agencies, academic institutions and engineering services firms.
In 2012, chemists working for oil and gas companies earned the highest average salaries at $113,500 per year. The federal government came in second, followed by clay product producers at $94,000 and aerospace manufacturing firms with an average salary of $93,450. Firms manufacturing synthetic materials like artificial rubber, resins and fabrics also paid chemists a high average salary of $91,940.
Job opportunities for chemists are growing, but at a slower rate than most occupations. The BLS projects 4 percent growth from 2010 to 2020. Employers are outsourcing chemical work abroad or to research firms and universities. On the other hand, the BLS says work related to environmental concerns offers good opportunities. Companies are investing heavily in technologies to reduce pollution, improve energy storage systems and improve energy efficiency.
2016 Salary Information for Chemists and Materials Scientists
Chemists and materials scientists earned a median annual salary of $75,840 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, chemists and materials scientists earned a 25th percentile salary of $55,450, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $102,920, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 96,200 people were employed in the U.S. as chemists and materials scientists.