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How to Become a Chemist or Materials Scientist

Chemists and materials scientists need at least a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or a related field. However, a master’s degree or Ph.D. is needed for many research jobs.


A bachelor's degree in chemistry or in a related field is needed for entry-level chemist jobs. Although some materials scientists hold a degree in materials science, these scientists commonly have a degree in chemistry, physics, or engineering. Many employers, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, prefer to hire chemists and materials scientists with a Ph.D and postdoctoral experience to lead basic and applied research. 

Many colleges and universities offer degree programs in chemistry. The number of colleges that offer degree programs in materials science is small but gradually increasing. Also, many engineering schools offer degrees in the joint field of materials science and engineering.

Undergraduate chemistry majors are typically required to take courses in analytical, organic, inorganic, and physical chemistry. In addition to chemistry coursework, they also take classes in mathematics, biological sciences, and physics. Computer science courses are essential, because chemists and materials scientists need computer skills to perform modeling and simulation tasks and to operate computerized laboratory equipment.

Experience, either in a college or university laboratory, or through internships, fellowships, or work-study programs in industry, is also useful.

Graduate students studying chemistry commonly specialize in a subfield, such as analytical chemistry or inorganic chemistry, depending on their interests and the kind of work they wish to do. For example, those interested in doing research in the pharmaceutical industry usually develop a strong background in medicinal or organic chemistry.

Important Qualities

Analytical skills. Chemists and materials scientists need to be able to carry out scientific experiments and studies. They must be precise and accurate in their analyses because any errors could invalidate their research.

Critical-thinking skills. Chemists and materials scientists carefully evaluate their own work and the work of others. They must determine if results and conclusions are based on sound science.

Mathematical skills. Chemists and materials scientists regularly use complex mathematical equations and formulas, and they need a broad understanding of mathematics, including calculus, algebra, and statistics.

Problem-solving skills. Chemists and materials scientists research and develop new and improved chemical products, processes, and materials. This work requires a great deal of trial and error on the part of chemists and materials scientists before a unique solution is found.

Speaking skills. Chemists and materials scientists frequently give presentations that describe their findings.

Teamwork. Chemists and materials scientists typically work on research teams. They need to be able to work well with others towards a common goal. Many serve in a leadership capacity and need to able to motivate and direct other team members.

Writing skills. Chemists and materials scientists often write memos, reports, and research papers that explain their findings.


Chemists typically receive greater responsibility and independence in their work as they gain experience. Greater responsibility is also gained through further education. Ph.D. chemists usually lead research teams and have control over the direction and content of projects.

Some chemists and materials scientists move into managerial positions, often as natural sciences managers. For more information, see the profile on natural sciences managers.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition