As an industry, chemistry research and development can be structured in three ways: by subdisciplines of chemical knowledge, by the occupations of the workers, and by the types of employers.
Subdisciplines of Chemical Knowledge
One of the major divisions of chemistry is between organic and inorganic. Organic chemicals, such as hydrocarbons, are built around a carbon skeleton. Many but certainly not all of them are produced by living organisms. Organic chemists have made many discoveries that have advanced the refining of petroleum, the development of useful new materials and pharmaceuticals, and our understanding of the origins of life.
Inorganic chemists focus on substances such as metals that are not based on carbon. They have contributed to the development of metallic alloys, ceramics, and superconducting materials.
Physical chemistry focuses on the fundamental physical basis of chemical properties and reactions. It contributes to materials science by studying the physical structure of matter and how chemical compounds interact with energy.
Analytical chemistry studies substances to determine their chemical composition and properties. Chemists doing analytical work may make discoveries that lead to commercial processes for extracting or synthesizing useful compounds, such as pharmaceuticals.
Biochemistry is concerned with the chemical processes that occur within living organisms. It has contributed to medical science, veterinary science, agricultural science, and pharmaceutical research and development. It is related to the study of molecular biology and genetics.
One relatively new subdiscipline is theoretical chemistry, also known as computational chemistry, which applies computer programs to solve chemical problems. For example, a computational chemist might create a program to determine how the properties of a material would change if its component molecules were rearranged in various ways. This approach could experiment with thousands of arrangements much more quickly than would be possible in test tubes.
Occupations of Workers
Chemists and materials scientists plan and conduct research projects related to the chemical properties and behaviors of substances. In their research, they may perform chemical analysis, prepare compounds that will react with one another or with the application of energy, or test the safety or quality of materials. They often publish their findings as technical reports, journal articles, and blog posts, and they may make technical presentations to other professionals.
Materials scientists differ from chemists in focusing on materials, which may be natural or artificially created synthetics or composites. Chemists may do either basic research to expand knowledge or applied research that will be used for the creation or improvement of products, but materials scientists tend to focus mostly on applied research.
Chemists and materials scientists need at least a bachelor's degree to enter the field, and about half of the workers hold this degree. The other half of the workforce is divided roughly equally between those holding the master's and the doctorate. For leadership in research, especially in pharmaceuticals, employers prefer a doctoral degree and perhaps some postdoctoral research work. The doctorate is also needed for teaching in college.
Chemical engineers apply the principles of chemistry to solve problems. They may also apply principles or biology or physics. Their research may find ways to scale up and optimize laboratory procedures for producing commercially useful materials. They may investigate substances that can usefully substitute for existing materials that are more expensive, more hazardous, or less durable. A bachelor's degree is generally required for this career, though some chemical engineers hold a master's or doctorate.
Chemists and chemical engineers supervise chemical laboratory technicians, who take part in experiments, set up and maintain laboratory equipment, prepare solutions and reagents for use in experiments and tests, analyze data, and prepare reports. A two-year degree in applied science or chemical technology can be a useful entry route to this occupation. About one-quarter of all chemical technicians have some college education but no degree; many of these workers may be employed as process technicians rather than assisting with research in laboratories. About one-quarter hold a bachelor's degree.
Chemical research also employs various computer workers, such as programmers, systems analysts, and database managers; technical writers; and research managers, who usually come out of a scientific or engineering background and learn managerial skills in business school or through on-the-job training.
Types of Employers
The two largest employers of chemical researchers are chemical manufacturers and companies that provide scientific and technical services
Chemical manufacturers employ chemists and materials scientists, chemical technicians, and about 30 percent of chemical engineers. Among manufacturers, those producing pharmaceuticals and medicines employ the largest concentration of chemists and materials scientists. Nearly 20 percent of chemical technicians work for testing laboratories.
Many chemists and materials scientists work for firms providing scientific and technical services. Some of these employers specialize in basic or applied research. Others provide services such as chemical testing of products, raw materials, or the environment. Still others are consulting companies that send skilled chemists to advise other companies about technical or managerial issues related to chemistry. Chemical technicians and chemical engineers also work for this type of employer.
Chemists and material scientists, chemical technicians, and chemical engineers also work in education. This does not include those who identify themselves primarily as postsecondary teachers.