Polymer chemists study large, complex molecules. They understand how the smaller building blocks (monomers) combine to form polymers, and they manipulate both their molecular structure and chemical or other processing to develop specific functional characteristics in an end product.
Chemists create polymers as ingredients for products with unique physical and chemical properties. These products are lightweight, hard, strong, and flexible and may have special thermal, electrical, and optical characteristics. Many of these products are used in the furniture, communication, packaging, and transportation industries, in everything from tractors to detergents to fabrics to aircraft. The polymer can be the end product in itself, or it can be an ingredient that changes the properties of another mixture.
Industrial polymer chemistry focuses on the end-use application of products, with a smaller emphasis on applied research and preparation. Polymer chemists need to adopt a business outlook in their work and understand the commercial applications of the polymers they are developing and the needs of the market they are serving. They often find themselves working with the sales and marketing divisions of their companies to develop products that meet specific customer’s needs.
At the intersection of polymer chemistry and green chemistry is the development of green (environmentally-friendly) packaging—photodegradable plastics, edible food wrappings, and other ways to use as little packaging as possible.
Most people employed in the polymer chemistry field have a Ph.D. and were trained as organic chemists. They stress the importance of a solid education in the fundamentals of chemistry. However, they acknowledge the value of the interdisciplinary degree available through programs in polymer science.
“You should take polymer classes, but not without a strong foundation in organic chemistry,” says Jim Mason, a senior chemist in the polymers division of the Bayer Corporation. “You learn a lot on the job,” he adds. He says that an employer can teach you about polymers, but the fundamentals should be learned while in school. Mason adds, “Traditional training may also provide you with more long-term job security.”
Polymer chemists are employed in industry, government, and academia. Most jobs are in industry, where polymers are manufactured and products containing polymers are made. Opportunities for polymer chemists in industry exist in areas where adhesives, coatings, synthetic rubber, synthetic fibers, agricultural chemicals, packaging, automotive, aircraft, and materials for the aerospace and biomedical industries are made.
Because polymer science is product oriented, hiring is expected to follow the economy. Polymer chemists stress the need to remain as broad-based and as flexible as possible for long-term employment security, but creative and well-trained individuals should be able to find positions in this field. Most major chemical companies have made deep cuts in their central research divisions, and industry is still in a downsizing mode. The field remains highly competitive, but some say they think these dynamics are cyclical and that the job market will improve.
A polymer chemist’s work is interdisciplinary in nature. Individuals should be able to communicate with others in a number of fields. Those who are interested in materials and the end uses of polymers as well as their synthesis will be particularly well suited to the field. This is also true for individuals who like hands-on work as opposed to purely theoretical thinking.
As many as 50% of all chemists will work in polymer science in some capacity during their career. Creative, well-trained people should be able to find positions in this field.