Basic Research

Chemists in the Field

Richard Gross

Richard Gross
Professor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Kimberly Jackson

Kimberly Jackson
Associate Professor, Spelman College

Ranjit Koodali

Ranjit Koodali
Associate Professor of Chemistry and Graduate Program Director, University of South Dakota



research lab

Research and development (R&D) consists of three main activities: basic research, applied research, and development. Basic research is where it all starts: new ideas, fundamental theories, unanswered questions, and investigation into something that doesn't quite make sense. The basic researcher is driven by curiosity and a desire to explore unknown territory. Some ideas pan out, some don't, and that is all part of the process. Basic research includes theoretical research, but it also includes early-stage investigations in the laboratory or field.

There is no clear dividing line between basic and applied research—the two often overlap as they are both. Basic research projects do not have a specific commercial objective, but evolve into applied research as they uncover new materials or solutions to problems. Applied research projects aim to discover new knowledge related to a specific commercial objective. Applied researchers may investigate the basic principles underlying their products to identify the source of a problem or to construct a framework for discovering materials that successfully perform certain functions. Development is work that draws on existing research results and is directed specifically toward the creation of new and/or improved products and processes.

In 2011, spending on basic research accounted for about 18% of all U.S. R&D activities. Private industry performs less of this type of research than in years past because there is often no clear path to a marketable product. Pharmaceuticals and scientific research and development service industries tend to invest the most in basis research, since they are more directly tied to advances in science and technology. In 2011, the business sector performed 17% of the basic research, 57% of the applied research, and 88% of the development in the United States.

Most basic research is done in academic laboratories, but government agencies and nonprofit organizations are also major contributors. (The U.S. academic sector performed 15% of all research, but 55% of basic research in 2011.) More than half of all basic research funding comes from government sources.

The exploratory nature of basic research requires a high tolerance for uncertainty, an ability to deal with ambiguity, and perseverance to continue after a setback. Coming up with new ideas requires curiosity and the ability to recognize interesting and unusual areas to pursue.

Basic research projects usually involve teams. These can include a primary investigator and his or her students and postdocs, groups of researchers from one discipline, or researchers from several interrelated disciplines. Teams may involve researchers in many locations around the world, communicating by videoconference and sharing data using online collaboration tools. Chemists may work with materials scientists, biologists, geologists, physicists, or medical doctors. They may also enlist the help of computer scientists, engineers, and instrument design specialists to help them develop the new capabilities they need.

Typical work duties include the following:

  • Identifying research topics and applying for funding
  • Collecting and analyzing laboratory and field data
  • Developing synthesis procedures and characterizing products
  • Constructing models and theories
  • Performing computational laboratory studies to interpret observations, providing input data for models, and testing theories
  • Collaborating with colleagues in other fields on multidisciplinary projects
  • Reading scientific publications
  • Looking for useful ideas and techniques from other fields
  • Teaching courses and supervising student researchers
  • Assisting visiting scientists
  • Ensuring that their laboratory facilities meet health, safety, and regulatory standards
  • Publishing articles in scientific journals, and making presentations at conferences
  • Communicating research results to colleagues, funding agencies, and the general public
Related Fields
  • Applied research
  • Computational chemistry
  • Theoretical chemistry



Basic chemistry researchers require a solid background in chemistry or a related scientific field. Most positions, including primary investigator and group leader positions, require a Ph.D. and several years of postdoctoral experience. Some laboratory staff and management positions may require a master’s degree, and technician positions may require a bachelor’s degree. Internships are available for persons with bachelor’s degrees who intend to pursue graduate degrees.



Licenses are not generally required for basic research positions.

Researchers working at government agencies or national laboratories may be required to undergo background checks, based on the nature of the work and the security requirements of the laboratory.



research lab

Basic research chemists often work in laboratories, which they may share with other researchers. They may be responsible for obtaining and maintaining the instruments in their laboratory facilities. They may also use instruments in other local laboratories, or they may travel to national laboratories or international research centers to use specialized instruments and facilities.

Some basic researchers work outdoors, collecting samples or recording observations. Others may work mostly or entirely on computers, constructing theoretical models or building and maintaining databases.

Senior researchers often work side by side with students, postdocs, or visiting scientists. They may be responsible for training and supervising others in their laboratory and for ensuring that everyone follows safety rules and research ethics protocols.

Access to a good library is important, either in a physical space or online. Literature searches are an important part of planning and conducting research, and it is essential to stay current on published research in a given field.


Technical Skills

Scientific background Communication
  • Ability to collect and interpret laboratory data
  • Familiarity with computer modeling and statistical analysis methods
  • Ability to synthesize and characterize new compounds
  • Understanding of theoretical principles, including kinetics, thermodynamics, and quantum chemistry
  • Problem-solving skills and an interest in solving basic and applied research problems
  • Critical thinking and analytical skills to design and validate laboratory and computational models and analyze and interpret data results
  • Ability to work with and extract information from large datasets
  • Ability to interpret visual representations of models and datasets
  • Written and oral communication skills to explain findings and share results with scientists and nonscientists
  • Ability to articulate the relevance and significance of a particular project

Career Path

Basic research almost always requires a Ph.D. for entry, although some technician and support staff positions may be available to those with bachelor's or master's degrees. Students or recent graduates may do one or more internships or postdoctoral fellowships in preparation for obtaining a full-time career position.

Currently, postdoctoral associates do much of the work of assisting primary investigators, overseeing laboratories, and mentoring students. However, some funding agencies are advocating an increase in permanent staff positions to cover these responsibilities. Postdoctoral associates and research staff associates perform research and oversee laboratories without the administrative responsibilities of obtaining funding, serving on faculty committees, or running research programs.

Basic researchers may pursue careers in academic labs, or they may work for a government agency or national laboratory. They may also support and train facility users or students, or develop new capabilities for collecting and analyzing data.

Some basic researchers in academia may work strictly in a research capacity, rather than teaching classes and mentoring students. These researchers may be classified as “adjunct faculty” members, and they often support themselves using grant money rather than being paid directly by the university.

After gaining several years of postgraduate experience, basic researchers generally gain increasing independence and larger budgets for their work. They may supervise research teams consisting of undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, or technical staff members. Some experienced researchers move into program management or administration, where they spend much of their time preparing budgets and schedules and obtaining funding, in addition to overseeing research programs and other researchers.


Future Employment Trends

Basic research is highly dependent on government funding. Federal budgets and research priorities influence the number of available positions and the types of projects that are funded. Non-government research foundations and private industry also provide some funding for basic research projects that support their programs and goals.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of chemical technician jobs in 2012 was 63,600, and the field overall is expected to grow 9% between 2012 and 2022 (as fast as the average growth for all occupations). Much of this demand will be driven by environmental and sustainability research (e.g., pollution control, clean energy), and graduates of applied science technology programs who are trained to use equipment typically found in laboratories or production facilities should have the best opportunities.

The number of chemists overall was 88,000 in 2012, and this number is expected to grow 6% between 2012 and 2022 (slower than average). There were 25,300 chemistry teachers at postsecondary institutions in 2012, and this number is expected to grow 14% between 2012 and 2022 (faster than average), reflecting growing enrollment at these institutions. This number will depend on government funding levels, and not all new positions will be tenure-track.

In December 2013, R&D Magazine predicted a decrease in defense and aerospace research and development. They predicted increases in energy-related research, chemicals and advanced materials, and life sciences. They also predicted “strong growth” in information technology research.


Is This Career a Good Fit for You?

Most basic research is done in teams. Researchers must be able to work with colleagues in various fields, some of whom may take different approaches toward methodology and the interpretation of results. The increasingly global nature of research requires an ability to work with researchers from various cultural backgrounds and interact across many time zones.

Basic research requires the ability to identify interesting problems and to come up with original ideas. The researcher may have to invent new test methods, customize equipment, or create new computer software to perform specific functions. Verifying and replicating the work of others is a key part of the research enterprise, and the researcher must be able to think critically and look at the work of others from an original angle to identify gaps and alternative interpretations. Researchers may travel to national laboratories or other research facilities to use specialized instruments or learn new methods from other scientists. Researchers regularly read scientific articles and attend conferences to stay current with work in their field. This lets them benefit from their colleagues’ inventions and discoveries, and it provides a source of ideas for new research projects.

A tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity is essential. Data may not fit neatly into a theoretical framework, and new discoveries may require modification or replacement of existing theories (sometimes your own theories). For very new areas, there may be little to no theoretical background, only empirical observations.

The basic researcher must be able to persevere and move forward in the face of setbacks and obstacles—equipment failures, funding cutbacks, failed experiments, and skeptical colleagues. Patience is essential for mentoring students as well as awaiting the outcome of a particularly long or difficult project. It is not unusual for researchers to work odd hours, monitoring reactions and instruments or conducting time-sensitive experiments.

Researchers must be meticulous in their methodology and document their work in detail in order to provide credibility for their research. If they work with animals or human subjects, they must follow strict protocols for the safe and ethical treatment of their subjects. Researchers also follow ethical guidelines for citing the work of others, deciding on a list of authors for a research publication, declaring competing financial interests, and selecting methods for processing and analyzing data.

Primary investigators and group leaders spend a significant part of their working hours doing administrative work and are often responsible for maintaining laboratory facilities, which includes obtaining funding for the latest laboratory instruments, maintaining existing instruments, and ordering supplies. Often, researchers instruct students or assistants in performing maintenance and repairs, and they ensure that the lab facilities and lab workers conform to safety and environmental standards. They commonly participate in professional societies and serve on committees, and they may attend and give presentations at conferences. They write papers on their research for publication in scientific journals, and they may write articles for or give presentations to funding agencies, university administrators, government agencies, or members of the general public.

Academic researchers often (but not always) teach classes and labs. Researchers in government or industrial labs may teach university courses as adjunct faculty, or they may conduct training sessions or give seminars at their own facilities. Some research facilities sponsor lab tours for students, professional groups, or members of the general public.


Basic research includes theoretical research as well as early-stage investigations in the laboratory. Most basic research is done in academic and government laboratories, although some may be done by nonprofit organizations that have their own laboratory facilities. Private industry funds less of this type of research because there is often no clear path to a marketable product. Funding commonly comes from government grants or nonprofit organizations.


Most positions, including primary investigator and group leader positions, require a Ph.D. and several years of postdoctoral experience. Some laboratory staff and management positions may require a master’s degree, and technician positions may require a bachelor’s degree. Internships are available for persons with bachelor’s degrees who intend to pursue graduate degrees.


  • BS-level chemists doing basic research earned a median annual salary of $68,000
  • MS-level chemists earned $81,000
  • Ph.D.-level chemists earned $130,000. (Source: ACS 2014 salary survey.)