Chemistry Careers in Government

Federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and many more hire chemists to conduct research, work in regulatory affairs and public policy, or almost any other area that requires workers with scientific training.

Research can be late-stage, addressing current operational needs and solving problems stated by the agency in their strategic plan, or more basic research into areas of anticipated need.

Most agencies have staff in many locations across the country, although the highest concentration is in the Washington DC area. State and local governments also hire scientists (most forensics and water treatment plant jobs , for example, are on the state or local level).

Finding a Job in Government

Most federal jobs are at, but each state and local government has its own hiring system. Depending on the position, a background security check and/or US Citizenship may be required, so read the specifications carefully before you apply.

Federal job application forms require a thorough description of your "Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities" (KSAs). Taking the time to craft concise, direct answers to questions on the application form is highly recommended. Because federal agencies recruit from all over the country, they may have hundreds of applicants for each available position. Knowing your most relevant strengths and making yourself stand out in a crowd are essential to success in landing civil service jobs.

Career advancement in government jobs is a formal process. This is done to discourage unfair practices and to provide documentation of an agency's hiring and promotion practices. Civil service employees must fulfill specific qualifications to be considered for promotions or transfers to other agencies, and pay levels are set according to very specific criteria. Sometimes, preference is given to military veterans or members of under-represented demographic groups (by race or gender), but these preferences must be clearly stated and follow specific rules.

Types of Positions

  • Physical Scientist
  • Research Chemist
  • Medical Technologist
  • Postdoctoral Research Associate
  • Chemical reference librarian
  • Forensic scientist
  • Museum and art conservator
  • Policy advisor
  • Public affairs specialist
  • Patent examiner
  • Legislator
  • Industrial Hygienist
  • Physical Science Analyst


Contracting Jobs

Contracting jobs are somewhat easier to obtain, and the hiring process tends to be much faster, especially if your skills are in an in-demand area. In many cases, contractors perform much the same work as their civil-service counterparts. Contractors may work on-site at the client's agency, at their employer's facilities, or a combination of both.

Although government contracting work offers greater agility in starting and shaping a career, and many contracting jobs pay very well, however benefits packages for contractors are often not as generous as those for government employees, and opportunities for continuing education may be limited. In the event of severe budget cuts or a government shutdown period, contract workers must sometimes take unpaid leave time.

Government scientists working on policy may be political appointees, especially at the higher carer levels. These scientists must have the ability to reconcile the need to present objective facts and analysis with the requirement to support their employer's policies and agenda. They must be able to advocate for a particular point of view or course of action, making a compelling case without omitting or distorting the facts.

Featured Profile

Meet Steve Lehotay

Steven Lehotay develops analytical methods for monitoring chemical contaminants in food for the USDA Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS). He received his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry in 1992, and landed his first job by responding to an advertisement in Chemical & Engineering News.