Research & Development

Chemists involved in research and development apply their academic knowledge to real-world problems. They develop products that meet a specific need, while factoring in business considerations.

If you love scientific research and want to see a practical application of your work, you may be well suited for a career in research and development. Also required are a strong desire to create useful products and an entrepreneurial spirit.

Typical Job Functions

Careers for chemists in research and development are largely found in the industrial sector. Companies need people to develop new products and/or enhance existing ones. 

Product development involves a blend of science and business. Coming up with an idea for a new product is one thing; convincing a business manager and manufacturers that it will be profitable and can be manufactured cost-effectively is another. And product development timelines must be synchronized with sales and marketing departments and with manufacturing efforts.

Activities in the field of research and development fall broadly into two phases: applied research and product development.

  • Applied Research: Industrial scientists modify, combine, and formulate compounds for specific uses to meet a business goal or need. For example, if the business goal is to increase sales, a chemist might develop a new food with enhanced flavor. But if the business needs to reduce costs, the chemist might work on developing a food with a longer shelf life. 
  • Product Development: Once applied research has identified a workable solution to a specific problem, the focus shifts to developing the product. The solution is refined to produce a substance that a) is effective, safe, and appealing, and b) can be manufactured in a timely and cost-effective way.

Job duties in research and development vary widely and depend on the industry and the development stage of the product. Common job duties include:

  • Conducting experiments to ensure the desirable features and functions of a product are retained as other properties are changed
  • Working with process engineers to “scale up” processes (i.e., make a new product in larger quantities for commercialization)
  • Filing regulatory documents
  • Identifying acceptable ranges for starting materials and final products (e.g., do the starting materials need to be 95% pure, or is 90% acceptable?)
  • Reformulating existing products in response to changes in regulations or availability of raw materials
  • Using Design of Experiments methodology to learn as much as possible in the fewest number of experiments (part of Six-Sigma training)

Career Paths

In industry, most chemists start out in research, then advance by climbing either the research or management career ladder.

  • Research ladder: Involves staying close to product development, taking on more supervisory responsibilities and larger projects. 
  • Management (or business) ladder: Involves moving away from the lab bench and into sales/marketing or operations/production.

Scientists in management generally have slightly more experience than those in research, and they earn higher salaries. Once you move out of research and into management, it is difficult to move back to the laboratory, as your technical knowledge and skills become outdated quickly.

Getting Started

A minimum of a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or engineering is usually required to work in research and development. Master’s and Ph.D. degrees are also valued. 

Many universities have co-op programs with local industry, which allow undergraduate and graduate students to obtain experience while earning their degree. Industry typically places high value on this kind of experience.

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