What Does a Research Chemist Do?

Mary McMahon

A research chemist studies chemicals and materials to learn more about them in both pure and applied scientific applications. In applied science, the goal is to create a new product or process, or to improve an existing process. Pure researchers focus on improving basic understanding of scientific topics to add to the body of knowledge in chemistry. Research chemists can work for private companies, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations in fields ranging from environmental chemistry to pharmaceutical development.

A research chemist might work for a private firm or government agency.
A research chemist might work for a private firm or government agency.

Research chemists work primarily in a laboratory environment. They have access to a range of tools and equipment they can use to study the chemical makeup of substances of interest. Using tools like spectrometry, they can find out more about the content of unknown samples. They can formulate and study new samples, analyze natural materials like biological toxins, and evaluate compounds used in industry to learn more about them.

The research chemist may work with a specific goal in mind, like developing cleaning chemicals that are not harsh on the environment, or studying the chemical structure of natural compounds to figure out how to synthesize them. This process can involve experimentation and repeated testing to determine if processes are replicable and reliable. Research chemists can also develop health and safety recommendations for the compounds they work with, to keep scientists and workers safe.

A pure research chemist may have an interest in a family of chemicals and processes, or another topic. This work can involve more free-form research, as the goal is not to develop something specific, but to learn more in general about chemistry. This knowledge may eventually turn into a new product or process, or could enrich the depth of scientific understanding. The research chemist might, for example, test various hypotheses to explain the development of life on earth. This work could provide important information that might help scientists identify the possibility for life on other planets.

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It may be possible to become a research chemist with a bachelor's degree, but a graduate degree is usually preferred. Many colleges and universities offer chemistry programs and can provide training. If a student has a particular area of interest, it may be possible to work with leaders in the field who are performing cutting edge research at academic institutions. For talented graduate students, this could lead to a job offer in a research lab to contribute to the body of knowledge on the subject.

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