What is it like to be a Chemist?

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Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash

I’m writing this because it is something I would have wanted to read when I was 18 years old and thinking about majoring in chemistry. I had originally wanted to be an English major so I could be a writer. I do not regret my decision to go into chemistry, but it has been a journey so far that has been deeply satisfying, terrifying, and frustrating all at the same time. What has been most surprising is that my goal of wanting to be a writer was accomplished in someways. I’ve published plenty of peer reviewed papers, a thesis, patent applications, and I write here on Medium.

This is a story in my PhD in Chemistry series. Check out my other stories such as Pursuing a PhD in Chemistry. I also write frequently about chemistry, the chemical industry, the advances at The Polymerist — a free biweekly newsletter.

What does a Chemist do?

There are two types of Chemists:

  1. Chemists on the bench — practicing wet chemistry, making molecules, characterizing things, the scientific method, designing and doing experiments. Creating magic.
  2. Chemists off the bench — reading, writing, talking on the phone, going to meetings, traveling, presenting, networking, and telling people to do things for you, or teaching

The majority of chemists practice chemistry on the bench and off the bench throughout the day. This is at all levels, but those with Bachelor’s degrees typically work more on the bench under the supervision of people with either more experience or more education.

There is a spectrum of work in chemistry and this is more easily evident in the chemical industry where the majority of practicing chemists work. To the left is 100% being on the bench and this could be occupied by someone without a Bachelor’s degree. These positions are typically under the names of technician, operator, or associate scientist.

There are people with high school educations that know more about a very particular subset of chemistry than tenured professors with 30 years of teaching experience. I know this because I’ve worked with both. We can illustrate this spectrum with a simple picture that I’ve drawn below correlated roughly with education. I think this figure works for all chemists except theoretical chemists (aren’t they just physicists anyway?).

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The spectrum of working on the bench for chemists

To Bench or Not to Bench

Translation: working in a lab or not working in a lab.

On the bench:

A typical day of doing experiments on the bench might involve organic synthesis, application testing of new materials, formulation of existing or new materials, doing a series of experiments, doing some sort of analytical testing either through wet chemistry or through instrumentation. You might have to handle really toxic and nasty chemicals or it might be as easy as taking the pH of water. You will often be wearing some sort of personal protective equipment such as chemical, cut, or heat resistant gloves, safety glasses, steel toed boots, fire retardant clothing, hearing protection, maybe a hardhat, maybe a chemical suit, maybe a respirator or dust mask. I’ve worn everything except the full body chemical suit.

Some of the hazards might be heavy machinery, people driving fork trucks, something could fall and hit you on the head, you could get burned, you could get exposed to lethal doses of chemicals, you can get cut, and you can get exposed to loud noises for extended periods of time. There are a whole myriad of ways you could get hurt that you will think about and hopefully translate to the rest of your life. The world is dangerous.

The goal of your work on the bench in your lab will be to solve the problem of a customer or to try and solve a problem that faces humanity. Maybe you are looking to make a polymer that will easily degrade in the environment or you want to cure a disease or figure out a refrigerant that is more efficient and safer than the current alternatives. Want to figure out how to utilize biomass to make useful products for the rest of humanity that also combat global warming? It’s going to have to be on the bench.

The one cool thing about being active on the bench is you get to be the first one to see what is happening. You first look at a molecule that is new the world, or a drug that could be a cure, or a polymer that could change the way people build things. You get to be a person who creates things and help advances society. It’s a bit of a dirty job — even with the Ph.D. so don’t be afraid to put on all that protective gear and get to work.

Off the Bench:

A typical day off the bench could involve reading papers, patents, or internal reports/memos and trying to figure out what to do in the lab. In the chemical industry you will often be looking to make sure you are either free to practice a specific technology (not infringing on active patents) or determine if something can be patented (exclude others from copying you). If you are an academic you want to be doing original work so it’s best to know the literature.

On the spectrum I show above the number of jobs off the bench will typically decrease as one moves further towards being off the bench. The pay will typically top out around 200,000 USD/year for a technical fellow no matter where in the country you work or who you work for and a technical fellow is something you could achieve after 20–30 years of experience. Maybe a very high up R&D director of a big chemical company (100% off the bench) will make more than that, but there are maybe only 20–30 of those people in the world.

So the moral of this section is that if you love working with chemicals, mixing stuff, seeing what happens then stay to the left. The problem is your pay will be relatively low, you will get little to no autonomy, and little responsibility. I had a hard time working with a bachelor’s degree because I felt that I was capable of so much more. That feeling would ultimately lead me to graduate school and working with my Ph.D. and I will say that the pay is better, but I’ve had to make some sacrifices with respect to moving away from my family, enduring some tough graduate school years, and trying to navigate the job market for doctorate holders in my 30s, which can be unstable and very competitive.

On going to graduate school

Maybe the last question to ask yourself is if you should attend graduate school. For most of the readers here that might be a Ph.D. (4–6 years) and for fewer of you it could be either an MBA (1–2 years) or a JD (3 years). The big sacrifice for a doctoral student is going to be your mental health, relationships, being poor while in school, and entering an extremely competitive job market.

The drawbacks for an MBA or JD will be similar to the PhD, but you will also have student loans, a competitive job market, but more lateral movement potential away from anything dealing with chemistry.

My advice to any chemistry graduate going into additional education is to be the best. Just be better than everyone else and you shouldn’t have to worry about losing out.

I guess that is advice that is generally applicable to everything in life.

In Conclusion

It can be a rewarding, maddening, dirty, dangerous, and tough to stay gainfully employed being a chemist. Would I recommend to myself to do it all over again? Yes, but also major in economics or something related to business. Most chemists I know aren’t actual chemists anymore. It was too tough to find work for them in their specific areas and it was easier for them to learn how to code.

Let me know if anyone has questions.

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Writer of The Polymerist newsletter. Talk to me about chemistry, polymers, plastics, sustainability, climate change, and the future of how we live.

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