What do chemists do in industry?
Industrial chemists work to develop and manufacture products and processes that will increase their company’s sales and profits. Most chemists work in industry.
Products manufactured by the chemical industry fall into three categories: basic chemicals, specialty chemicals, and consumer chemicals.
- Basic chemicals are manufactured in large quantities and are mainly sold within the chemical industry and to other industries before becoming end products for the general public. Examples of basic chemicals include calcium carbonate, chlorine, sulfuric and nitric acids, and sodium carbonate. There is no product differentiation among basic chemicals; these products are sold for their composition.
- Specialty chemicals are high value-added products that are produced in a much lower volume. These chemicals are used in a wide variety of products, including fine chemicals, additives, advanced polymers, adhesives, sealants and specialty paints, pigments, and coatings.
- Consumer chemicals are produced by formulating basic and specialty chemicals to make end products such as detergents and soaps for the general public.
Career Paths in Industry
Product Development Research
The majority of industrial work is in product development (moving from proof of concept to marketable product). The main focus is on developing products that customers want at a reasonable price rather than expanding new knowledge or pursuing research.
Product development research is fast-paced, since profits often depend on how fast the product can reach the market. This pressure does come with rewards, as industrial salaries are traditionally higher than other job sectors.
In addition, all industries must be aware of and comply with many regulations. These may include Current Good Laboratory Practices (cGLP) and Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP), as well as applicable by federal regulators, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Adminstration, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Other Employment Areas
In addition to research and hands-on science, there are many other career opportunities for chemists in industry, including work in:
- Formulation Chemistry (determining the right components to put into a finished product)
- Process Chemistry (scale-up from laboratory to pilot plant to manufacturing)
- Health & Safety
- Quality Assurance & Control
- Industrial Management
- Technical Sales & Marketing
- Human Resources
Getting Started in Industry
In addition to hiring employees directly, companies of all sizes use placement agencies or contracting firms to find and manage many of their employees. For entry-level positions, working as a contractor can be a great way to try out a company to see if you like it.
Contractors generally work on-site at the client company, but their salaries and benefits are paid by the contracting agency. Contract employee terms can be anywhere from a few months to a few years and may be renewable. Contracts also may include the right to be hired directly by the client company.
Qualifications for industry positions depend largely on your educational level. The higher your level of education, the more independence and control over your own projects you will have.
- Associate’s (two-year) degree: You will be qualified for technician positions, usually in the lab.
- Bachelor’s degree: You’ll be prepared for a wider variety of positions, including bench scientist, technical support specialist, and quality control/quality assurance work.
- Master’s degree: This will prepare you to be a research assistant or get you started on the management track.
- Doctorate: With a Ph.D., you will be expected to routinely take on more advanced roles, including supervising others and contributing original solutions to complex technical problems.
One of the biggest surprises to many who move into industry is the fact that virtually all projects are done in teams. In school you may have done a few group projects, but for the most part your grades were determined by your own work. In industry, your success or failure often depends on the people around you, and how well you interact with each other.
Effective and efficient communication is essential in industry, especially since you will be working on teams with widely diverse cultural backgrounds. Your manager will expect you to be able to explain your ideas both orally and in writing, to others on your team, and to those who know nothing about your project.
Learning to describe your project to managers, co-workers, and non-scientists who deal with customers is essential: What problem does your project solve or what new capability are you adding, what does your solution cost, and how quickly can you bring this to market? The better you are at clearly and concisely communicating your ideas and needs, the more your ideas will be heard, and the more valuable you will be to the team.
Teamwork requires leadership skills, which are highly valued in industry. Any experience you can get while you are in school — organizing an event, chairing a committee, or starting a project — will be valuable. Not only will you build your skill set and learn which types of skills you enjoy, you will also have specific examples of your success to talk about during the interview process.
No matter which sector you choose, one of the best things you can do while still in school is to get as much laboratory experience as possible, preferably in a field similar to where you want to work after graduation. The specific type of experience you get doesn’t matter so much as making sure that you learn instrumentation, laboratory techniques, scientific calculations, problem solving, and so on.
Take advantage of opportunities to learn and practice non-technical skills, such as written and oral communication, time management, leadership, and teamwork. There will be a lot of on-the-job training, but you will need to be capable of keeping your own schedule, keeping a good laboratory notebook, recording observations completely and accurately, storing data properly, and communicating with others. All these skills will come in handy, no matter which sector ends up being right for you.