What jobs can chemists do in academia?

Academic careers are about educating the next generation of students, advancing knowledge through original scientific research, and supporting the needs of students and teachers in facilities such as labs and libraries. About 30% of chemists at all degree levels work in academic settings.

Career Paths in Academia

Higher Education

There are more than 4,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States, from two-year community colleges and Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs) to Research-Intensive (R1) universities. Faculty (professors) at all types of institutions balance teaching duties with original research projects and service, but the relative importance of each aspect of the job varies significantly:

  • Two-year colleges: Faculty generally teach 4–5 courses per semester. A very small percentage conduct original research.
  • Four-year institutions (PUIs): Faculty typically teach 2–3 courses per semeste, while also running their own laboratory in which they teach students how to conduct research.
  • Ph.D.-granting institutions (R1s): Faculty may only teach 1–2 classes per semester, with the help of teaching assistants. They spend the majority of their time working with graduate students and postdoctoral assistants, working to advance scientific knowledge.

Tenure-Track & Adjunct Faculty Positions

The traditional tenure track requires new faculty members to start at the assistant professor level, where they teach classes, establish funding sources, and build their research groups and laboratory facilities. If they are successful, they move to the associate professor level, where they continue their work and build their list of scholarly publications. At the end of the assistant/associate term, the university may grant the professor tenured status, or the professor may seek a tenured position at another university.

Tenured positions give a professor a high degree of job security, with the idea that a researcher will feel free to pursue more innovative research if he or she is not in danger of losing his or her job. Tenured faculty positions are not as common now as they were a few decades ago. Rising costs and funding cuts have pushed many universities away from offering permanent positions. Competition for tenured faculty positions is intense, but scientists with in-demand skills and a strong record of research and publications can often find positions at smaller universities and work their way up.

Many universities hire adjunct faculty, who often teach and do research at more than one institution, or combine teaching with careers in industry or other areas.

Academic Professional Staff Positions

In addition to full-time faculty members, who must have a Ph.D. and often several years of post-doctoral experience, educational institutions also hire scientists with bachelor’s degrees help set up and run teaching labs, and sometimes to help with research. Scientists with master's degrees may work as instructors, especially at two-year colleges and PUIs, or they can land staff jobs as research associates, helping faculty members to run their research labs and mentor students and postdocs.

The pace of the work for those supporting teaching labs corresponds to the academic calendar. Academic research also ebbs and flows, requiring more attention when deadlines for grant applications or conferences approach. Research projects follow the interests of principal investigators and generally progress at a slower pace than industrial research. Especially at PUIs, most research progress happens during the summer months, when undergraduate students have more time to devote to it.

Primary & Secondary (K-12) Education

Working in education at the K–12 level is also an option, which generally requires certification but usually not a Ph.D. Requirements for teachers vary by state, and certification is usually required by public high schools, but not always by private high schools. Programs such as Teach for America and the National Science Foundation's GK–12 program provide training and certification for those interested in teaching at the elementary and high school levels.

Teachers are responsible for class preparation, classroom management, as well as developing and grading assessments, and meeting with students and parents outside class. High school educators may teach between four and six classes comprised of 20 to 30 students. They may also lead field trips, organize afterschool activities, and provide tutoring outside of class.

High school chemistry teachers often develop curriculum objectives for their classrooms using state and national science teaching standards, guidelines from national science organizations, and local input. Teacher use the objectives as a planning guide for daily lessons that might include guided lectures, modeling laboratory investigations, projects, and group inquiry.


Public schools in all states generally require some sort of certification in order to teach, as do some private schools. The requirements for certification vary considerably from state to state. Some states require completion of a degree from an approved teacher education program. Other states require competency testing, student teaching experience, and/or specific academic degrees.

A number of states offer alternative certification programs that allow technically qualified professionals to begin teaching immediately and catch up with the certification requirements in the evening or summer. A few states allow teachers with strong content backgrounds to meet alternative criteria.  

Most states require a passing score on the Professional Assessments for Beginning Teachers Skills Exam and Chemistry Exam. PRAXIS stands for Professional Assessments for Beginning Teachers. The PRAXIS series of exams is administered by the Educational Testing Service at various times during the year and at various locations.


Tenure provides job security for public school teachers who have successfully completed a probationary period. Laws governing teacher tenure vary from state to state. According to the National Federation of Teachers, teachers must successfully a probationary period to obtain tenure, which can vary from state to state.

During the probationary period, supervisors observe new teachers in classroom several times each year and evaluate them on such factors as classroom management, lesson planning, presentation skills and using the data from student test scores to plan instruction. After successfully completing their probationary periods, new teachers are granted tenure, entitling them to due process governing the discipline and dismissal of tenured teachers.


There are many ways to pursue your passion for chemistry education. While tenured faculty positions may be increasingly difficult to get, academic staff positions and K-12 teaching positions offer alternatives that also don't require a Ph.D. Depending on your career goals and your interests in having a work-life balance, you may find a meaningful job that is right for you among the wide variety of positions in academia.

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