Become a chemist: Seven tips to prepare for an amazing career
If you're an inquisitive person with a thirst for knowledge, you could have a bright future in the field of chemistry. Few professions are as diverse, rewarding, or downright influential. Chemists deserve credit for everything from the miracles of modern medicine to breakthroughs in sustainable living.
If you'd like to contribute to this vital field and pursue a career that matters, you'll need to begin with a strong education. A chemistry degree will prepare you to succeed in any future chemist job and various other fields. Keep reading to discover how to learn chemistry — and use that knowledge to pursue a career you love.
What does a chemist do?
Chemistry careers vary dramatically from one niche to the next, but they typically hold a few priorities in common: studying substances at their most basic levels — and examining how these substances interact with one another.
Many chemists are responsible for synthesizing new substances or improving upon existing ones. These fulfill a variety of practical applications, ranging from household cleaners to pharmaceuticals.
Many chemists' day-to-day work involves planning for and performing experiments, often in a lab setting. These findings provide robust evidence to support conceptual frameworks known as models. On a large scale, chemists make discoveries that shape our daily lives while making us safer, healthier, and happier.
What are the branches of chemistry?
There's no denying that the field of chemistry is vast. While niches and career options abound, the American Chemical Society identifies six main categories:
- Analytical chemistry: Centered around the identification and quantification of matter, analytical chemistry emphasizes material composition.
- Biochemistry: As its name implies, biochemistry integrates biology and chemistry to examine chemical processes relating to organisms. Within this niche, biological processes are studied at the cellular level.
- Chemical engineering: While this is technically a branch of engineering, it relies on the principles of chemistry to drive the production of commercial products.
- Inorganic chemistry: As the study of chemicals lacking carbon-hydrogen bonds, inorganic chemistry primarily focuses on metals and most elements.
- Organic chemistry: Sometimes referred to as the "chemistry of life," organic chemistry highlights the interactions between compounds that contain carbon.
- Physical chemistry: This branch examines how physics concepts (such as force, energy, and thermodynamics) influence chemical interactions.
Education required to become a chemist
It takes years of concentrated study to become a successful chemist. The absolute minimum requirement is a Bachelor of Science, although many research positions are only available upon earning a Master of Science or even a PhD. Beginning with an esteemed bachelor's program will ensure you build a strong foundation. This will take you far as you pursue specialties or explore interdisciplinary fields.
Tips for learning chemistry
There's no denying that college chemistry programs are intense. From hours in the lab to intense exams, this path requires a lot of time and discipline. However, all that effort will lead to considerable rewards, including various in-demand skills that will improve your employment prospects.
While challenge is an inherent part of your journey as a chemistry student, this program doesn't have to be stressful. In fact, with the proper study methods and a positive mindset, chemistry can be downright fun. Follow these suggestions to enhance your college experience as you prepare to become a chemist:
1. Learn the core concepts
Your academic trajectory could vary greatly depending on the chemistry niche you select — but acing the core concepts will always be necessary. At a minimum, you should understand:
- Properties of matter
- Molecular structure
These and other essentials are covered in detail during foundational courses. As you move into upper-level coursework, core concepts from physics, calculus, and quantitative analysis will also prove vital.
2. Become proficient with the periodic table
The periodic table lies at the heart of everything you'll do as a chemistry student and eventual chemist. Any time you take to memorize its contents early on will quickly pay off in your college coursework and later career.
Thankfully, there are plenty of excellent resources and strategies for mastering the periodic table. Begin by studying chunks of five elements rather than attempting to tackle the entire table at once. Many students use pneumonic devices or songs to trigger their memory. Download periodic table apps on your phone, so you can play memorization games or test your knowledge whenever you have a spare moment.
3. Experiment in the lab
The chemistry lab is a fascinating environment that provides endless opportunities for hands-on learning. Some chemistry students dread lab days, but far more find it exciting. With the right mindset, this can quickly become the most enjoyable and impactful learning opportunity of your entire college career.
To make the most of lab opportunities, remember that you might not always be correct — and that's perfectly okay. The lab is all about discovery and observation. Draw on concepts you've covered in class to drive your efforts in the lab. You may be surprised to discover that complex concepts feel much more accessible when you can see them play out in targeted experiments.
In addition to embracing lab time, be sure to reflect on your accomplishments later on. Often, your most significant breakthroughs will arrive not as you're immersed in the lab environment but as you think carefully about what happened there — and why.
4. Brush up on your math skills
Don't make the mistake of assuming that math is nothing more than a prerequisite to check off your general education to-do list. In reality, math will underscore everything you do as a future chemist. As such, it's crucial that you develop basic math skills early on. At a minimum, you should be familiar with ratios, unit conversions, graphing, and algebra.
Identify your weaknesses early on and consider reviewing these topics or even working with a tutor until relevant math skills feel natural. Don't hesitate to brush up on these competencies from time to time, as they'll remain important long after you graduate.
5. Read research papers and professional journals
The field of chemistry is rapidly advancing — and it takes much effort to keep up to date on the latest developments. These are detailed in professional journals such as:
- Journal of the American Chemical Society
- Journal of Organic Chemistry
- New Journal of Chemistry
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Depending on your niche, it may be best to regularly read targeted publications (such as the Journal of Organic Chemistry) and general resources. Both will provide powerful insight to keep you at the forefront of your field.
6. Get an internship or apprenticeship
You'll gain essential chemistry skills in the lab, but this is only one of many hands-on learning opportunities. Field experience is just as important, as you'll discover while applying your skills in the work world. The right internship or apprenticeship will quickly ground the theoretical knowledge you've built through class-based efforts.
After this initial experience in the professional world, you'll come away with a richer understanding of core concepts. Your resume could also get a significant boost. Many internships and apprenticeships lead directly to jobs. Even if you ultimately need to embark on a job search, your internship will produce professional connections and recommendations that help you find excellent employment elsewhere.
7. Develop strong relationships with faculty members
When concepts don't immediately sink in, faculty members can be an excellent source of insight. Boasting years of experience in their respective fields, these passionate professionals are determined to instill their love of chemistry in a new generation — so they'll respond enthusiastically to your efforts to interact.
Don't limit faculty's involvement to lectures and lab instruction alone; take advantage of office hours so you can benefit from their wealth of knowledge. You might even get to collaborate with industry leaders as they conduct cutting-edge research.
Every chemistry major at CMU completes thesis-based capstone research projects under the guidance of faculty members. Your findings could be presented at top scientific conferences or published in peer-reviewed journals.
While these opportunities are exciting on their own, the real value of these initiatives comes from working closely with highly knowledgeable and impactful professors. These faculty members inspire you as you make your earliest and most impactful chemistry breakthroughs.
Start Your Chemistry Career With CMU
While the suggestions highlighted above will take you far on your path to becoming a chemist, the first and most critical step is to enroll in a respected degree program.
At CMU, we offer several excellent chemistry programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. From chemical technology to environmental chemistry, we can help every type of aspiring chemist gain relevant knowledge in today's top niches.
Are you ready to take the next step on the chemistry career ladder? Contact our admissions office today to get started.