Nuclear chemists are interested in how chemical reactions change the nuclei of atoms. They conduct research in areas such as nuclear imaging, fusion and fission. In contrast to nuclear engineers, who apply their skills in power plants and nuclear waste facilities, nuclear chemists typically work in theoretical research.
It takes seven or eight years to get your doctorate in nuclear chemistry. Because research skills are so important to a nuclear chemist, most graduate schools place great emphasis on conducting original research and assign graduate students to a research group within their first year of graduate study. Many students will also complete post-doctorate work in an area in which they seek to specialize, such as radiochemistry, radiation chemistry or nuclear reactions.
Nuclear chemists must be familiar with research methods, be adept at applied mathematics and the use of laboratory equipment, such as a radiation monitor. They must be adept at computer usage, particularly statistical software and nuclear equation modelling tools. Because much of the research involves collaboration with other nuclear chemists around the world, a nuclear chemist must have good people skills and should be willing to travel.
Nuclear chemists analyze organic and inorganic substances to determine their chemical and physical properties, structures and compositions. When working for private industry, nuclear chemists try improve and customize products. In the laboratory, they seek to improve equipment, processes and formulas. After conducting an experiment, a nuclear chemist uses statistical analysis to interpret the results. Those working at the university level as professors not only conduct research, but they also mentor students and teach graduate and undergraduate level courses.
Salary and Outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics includes nuclear chemists in the general category of chemists, and reports a median salary of $74,780 as of May 2011. The BLS predicts that demand for all chemists, including those working in nuclear science, will increase by 4 percent from 2010 to 2020, compared to 14 percent average for all other U.S. jobs. The BLS cites a trend for U.S. companies to conduct research overseas as a major cause of the predicted slow growth in chemists' jobs.