Chemistry Careers in Academia
Perhaps you enjoyed your time as an undergraduate so much, you don’t want to leave academia. About 30% of chemists at all degree levels work in academic settings. Academia is all about educating the next generation of students and increasing the general body of knowledge through original scientific research.
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. Faculty members at two-year colleges generally teach 4–5 courses per semester, and a very small percentage conduct any original research. At four-year institutions (PUIs), faculty members typically teach 2–3 courses per semester, while also running their own laboratory in which they teach students how to conduct research.
If Oluwatoyin Asojo had trouble deciding in which technical area to pursue a career, she found the perfect balance. “I work at the interface of math, chemistry, biology, computation,” she says, “and I am constantly learning new things.” Asojo is Associate Professor of Pediatrics-Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine as well as researcher at the Sabin Vaccine Institute Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development.
At R1, Ph.D. granting institutions, faculty may only teach 1–2 classes per semester (with the help of teaching assistants), and spent the majority of their time working with graduate students and postdoctoral assistants, pushing back the frontiers of scientific knowledge.
Tenure Track 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, funding cuts, and instances of tenured faculty becoming complacent and unproductive, have pushed many universities away from offering permanent positions. Many universities hire adjunct faculty, who often teach and do research at more than one institution, or who couple teaching with careers in industry or other areas. Competition for the remaining 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.
Academic Professional 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.
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.
Job Titles in Academia
Traditional Tenure Track Positions
- Professor at community college, primarily undergraduate institution, research-intensive university
Nontraditional Education Positions
- Term appointment
- Research faculty
- Sabbatical replacement
- Adjunct professor
- Staff research associate
- Technology transfer officer
- Instrumentation technologist
- Academic support and advisor
- Stockroom manager
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.
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.
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.
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, communicating your work with others, and so on. All these skills will come in handy, no matter which sector ends up being right for you.