Chemistry Careers in Industry
Statistically, most chemists work in industry. Approximately 60% of all bachelor’s-level chemists work in the private sector. Industrial chemists work to develop and manufacture products and processes that will increase their company’s sales and profits.
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.
Product Development 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. 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.
In addition, all industries must be aware of and comply with many regulations, which 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.
Henry manages the microscopy and imaging lab for the Procter & Gamble Beauty business. He and his team are responsible for creating visuals that communicate the technology and benefits behind their products, and their toolbox includes high resolution photography and video, SEM (cryo and VP), thermal imaging, light microscopy of various forms and 3D imaging.
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 scale), manufacturing and production, quality control, quality assurance, sales, marketing, regulatory affairs, purchasing, human resources, health and safety, and all sorts of other non-laboratory careers. Some companies hire as many bachelor’s-level chemists to do sales and marketing as they do to work in their laboratories.
Companies of all sizes use placement agencies or contracting firms to find and manage many of their employees. Contractors generally work on-site at the client company, but their salaries and benefits are paid by the contracting agency. For entry-level positions, this can be a great way to try out a company to see if you like it. Contract employee terms can be anywhere from a few months to a few years and may be renewable. They also may include the right to be hired directly by the client company.
Qualifications for industry positions depend largely on your educational level. With a two-year associate's degree, you will be qualified for technician positions, usually in the lab. A bachelor’s degree will prepare you for a wider variety of positions, including bench scientist, technical support specialist, or quality control/quality assurance work. A master's degree will prepare you to be a research assistant or get you started on the management track. At the Ph.D. level, you will be expected to routinely take on more advanced roles, including supervising others and contributing original solutions to complex technical problems. The higher your level of education, the more independence and control over your own projects you will have.
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.
Careers in Industry