FAQs About Chemistry as a Field of Study

What does the study of chemistry involve?
Why is chemistry an important field of study?
What could I do with a chemistry major?
What are typical salaries of chemists?
Will I need an advanced degree?
Are there other things that I could do to be better prepared?


What does the study of chemistry involve?
Chemistry is the study of matter and the changes it undergoes. The scale and level of complexity of chemistry places it between the world of subatomic physics and the world of biology. As a chemist, one starts by noticing that there are many different material substances in the everyday world and one ends by creating an imaginary world of atoms and molecules whose natures and actions account for the properties of these substances. Chemistry therefore requires a thoughtfulness that can find uniformity in diversity and an imagination that can create a view of an unseen microscopic world. Chemistry is also very exacting of its practitioners since predictions based on one's views of the atomic-molecular world are easily tested and mistaken ideas are quickly identified. Thus, chemistry emphasizes both analysis and imagination.

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Why is chemistry an important field of study?
Think about how our world has changed in the last century. In just 100 years, the life expectancy of humans has increased by over a quarter of a century largely because of improvements in the quality of drinking water, the increase in the amount and nutritional quality of food produced, and the development of antibiotics and other drugs. These improvements have one thing in common; they are all chemical in nature. Look around you. How many of the modern conveniences in your life are possible without chemistry? The fuel to run our cars, the materials which make them more efficient, the fibers to clothe us, the specialized materials to produce computers and lifesaving medical devices all require chemistry. Imagine our lives without paint for our homes or dyes for printing. Without chemistry there would be no anesthesia or disinfectants for surgery. Imagine life without the packaging to keep our food fresh or without the materials that make refrigeration possible. Our modern life would be impossible without the contributions of chemistry. As you can see, chemistry is a very practical field and chemists find a wide variety of employment opportunities.

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What could I do with a chemistry major?
Our chemistry majors go on to do a variety of things. A good number go into the health professions. Many go into the chemical industry and work in manufacturing, product development, quality control, or testing. Some remain as "bench" chemists while others opt for management positions. A fair number go into teaching at the high school or college level. Others may go into government positions or choose a career in law or public policy. Cornell graduates go on to many different careers. For more information on career options or specific job openings for chemists, see the American Chemical Society site on career opportunities.

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What are typical salaries of chemists?
The salaries of chemists are quite variable depending on their education, number of years experience, employer, and even the area of the country in which they work. The American Chemical Society's annual salary survey is a good place to start. Unemployment in the chemistry field remains lower than the national average. Over the last ten years, at any given time about 2% of chemists were unemployed while the figures for non-chemists ranged from 4-8 %.


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Will I need an advanced degree?
That depends on what you want to do. Obviously, to become a physician requires a medical degree, to become a lawyer requires a law degree, and to teach at the college level requires a Ph.D. There are also many job opportunities for those without advanced degrees. The majority of the jobs are in industry where many of the routine chemical procedures are performed by bachelor level chemists. People in related fields such as sales reps, writers, or advertisers often have a bachelor's degree. Ph.D. level chemists often direct the research that bachelor level chemists perform. Postdoctoral research experience is usually helpful in preparing for a position involving research in industry or academia. From the salary data, above, you can see that the level of education has a large influence on earning potential.

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Are there other things that I could do to be better prepared?
Certainly. Along with having strong performances in required courses, it is beneficial to keep active in the department by attending seminars and guest lectures, or possibly doing work-study with the department or serving on hiring committees. It is also helpful to get some practical experience through chemistry related summer employment or internships. Students may wish to become affiliated with the American Chemical Society. Students should also begin their professional development by reading related professional magazines and journals.

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