What is a Chemist?

Did you love science as a kid? Was your erupting volcano the best in your class? You were probably a chemist in the making!

A chemist is a scientist who researches chemical substances, performs experiments with the properties of chemical substances, measures the effects of chemical compounds in various situations, and studies inter-chemical reactions.

Almost every industry benefits from the theories and chemical compounds brought about by research in the chemical sciences.

What does a Chemist do?

A chemist will often work as part of a larger research team in order to create much needed compounds for use in a wide variety of practical applications. A chemist also works to improve the quality of established chemical products and utilizes advanced computer programs to establish new technologies in the field.

A chemist looking through a microscope.

All chemists work with simple forms of matter to either reach a greater understanding of the chemical itself, uncover the elements of unfamiliar substances or create entirely new chemical compounds for use in a variety of applications.

Chemists typically specialize in one of the sub disciplines of chemistry, the most prominent of those being:

  • Biochemistry
  • Neurochemistry
  • Nuclear Chemistry
  • Theoretical Chemistry

There are even those involved in forensic chemistry who work with law enforcement to establish evidence in criminal investigations. Some of the sub disciplines are interrelated because of the complex and widespread nature of the field.

Biochemists work only with those chemicals and reactions that occur in living organisms. Also known by its longer name, biological chemistry, the field covers all types of biomedical research.

Biochemists delve deep and experiment with organic matter on a cellular level to produce new technologies in genetic engineering, pharmaceutical drugs, DNA therapies and even agricultural products. Human insulin, prenatal diagnosis of genetic conditions, DNA testing, and improvements in crop yield were all a result of the work of biochemists.

Biochemists that work in basic research may study the genetic mutations in organisms that lead to cancer and other diseases. Others may study the evolution of plants and animals to understand how genetic traits are carried through successive generations.

Biochemists who do applied research develop products and processes that improve our lives. For example, in medicine, biochemists and biophysicists develop tests used to detect diseases, genetic disorders, and other illnesses. They also develop new drugs and medications, such as those used to treat cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.

Neurochemistry (combination of neuroscience and chemistry) is the study of neurochemicals; the system that allows the brain to function by using chemicals (neurotransmitters). These neurotransmitters are needed in order to move information around in the brain.

Since each person's brain chemistry varies, so do the levels of neurotransmitters in each brain. These levels affect each person's brain function differently, therefore explaining the many behavioural disorders out there. Environment, age, diet, medications, drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol can influence the levels of neurotransmitters and their receptors in the brain - with some of these having long-term affects (such as nicotine).

A neurochemist is a biochemist who specializes in the area of neurochemicals, and seeks to research and understand the biochemistry and molecular biology of organic compounds in the nervous system. Neurochemists have mostly research-based jobs, where they study the human brain and nervous system in order to understand human thoughts, emotions, and behaviour.

Nuclear Chemist
Another subfield, nuclear chemistry, deals specifically with radioactivity and other properties and processes of nuclear matter. Nuclear chemists study the effects of radiation on living things in order to create medical treatments which will counteract or prevent negative outcomes on the cellular level. They may also aid in the development of new technologies to create or harness radioactive power.

A nuclear chemist working at a power plant, for example, might study which chemical compound allows for the safest storage of radioactive material or investigate new and more efficient ways of extracting nuclear power.

Theoretical Chemist
Theoretical chemists explore scientific ideas and theories in an attempt to more fully explain chemical reactions. Scientists in this field work with advanced subjects like quantum chemistry, molecular dynamics, statistical thermodynamics and quantum mechanics in order to develop solid theories which can be applied in industrial, medical and nuclear applications.

The theories they formulate underlie modern technologies like DNA analysis, advanced medical treatments and new alternative fuels.

Are you suited to be a chemist?

Chemists have distinct personalities. They tend to be investigative individuals, which means they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive. They are curious, methodical, rational, analytical, and logical. Some of them are also realistic, meaning they’re independent, stable, persistent, genuine, practical, and thrifty.

Does this sound like you? Take our free career test to find out if chemist is one of your top career matches.

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What is the workplace of a Chemist like?

Chemists mostly work indoors in laboratories and other controlled environments conducive to compromised research. They work with various types of scientific equipment, such as spectrometers and chromatographs, which allow them to examine and evaluate chemicals and compounds at a microscopic level.

Chemists tend to work in teams and may have assistants or working students at their disposal. These apprentices perform more menial tasks so the chemists can focus on evaluating the results in order to create new theories and applications for chemical compounds.

They are employed by both governmental agencies and companies in the private sector. Some chemists work in college and university research departments and those with a doctoral degree may work in an educational setting, teaching students the fundamentals of chemistry.

Chemists typically maintain a regular work schedule and are largely self-managed during the work day due to the unpredictable nature of their work.

A chemist studying living organisms.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a degree in chemical engineering and a degree in chemistry?

A degree in chemical engineering is appropriate for students who are interested in getting an engineering degree in chemical applications (as opposed to theoretical foundations). It focuses on certain aspects of math and physics, such as fluid dynamics, distillation, absorption, leeching and membrane separation, heat transfer, and equipment design.

The focus for a chemical engineer is the development of new materials and/or substances, and turning new ideas and discoveries into useful products and materials for humans. Graduates are able to work in entry-level positions in engineering, or can continue their education by pursuing a master's or doctoral degree.

A degree in chemistry looks at the analytical, organic, inorganic, and biochemistry side of chemistry. A chemist will focus on materials and processes, testing theories, analyzing substances, and measuring the physical properties of substances. A chemistry graduate can get a job as a research assistant in a chemistry lab, or continue on with their education by getting a master's or doctoral degree. Medical school is also an option.

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What is the difference between a chemist and a materials scientist?

Most chemists and materials scientists work together as part of a research team. It is also common for chemists and materials scientists to work on teams with other scientists, such as biologists, physicists, computer specialists, and engineers.

Many colleges and universities offer degree programs in chemistry that are approved by the American Chemical Society with some colleges offering materials science as a specialization within their chemistry programs. Some engineering schools also offer degrees in the joint field of materials science and engineering.

The differences between a chemist and a materials scientists are as follows:

Chemistry is concerned with reactions between elements and molecules, and how they can be controlled and improved upon. Chemists research and experiment with the properties of chemical substances, improve the quality of established chemical products, measure the effects of chemical compounds in various situations, study inter-chemical reactions, and establish new technologies in the field.

They work with simple forms of matter to either reach a greater understanding of the chemical itself, uncover the elements of unfamiliar substances, or create entirely new chemical compounds for use in a variety of applications. Many industries benefit from the theories and chemical compounds brought about by research done by chemists.

Chemists often specialize in a particular branch of the field - for example, inorganic chemistry, medicinal chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, forensic chemistry, theoretical chemistry, biochemistry, neurochemistry, and nuclear chemistry.

Materials Scientist
Materials science is concerned with how microscopic elements such as atoms and molecules together account for macroscopic properties of materials. It mainly deals with how objects are made, as in what materials and what processes are used.

Materials scientists study and analyze the chemical properties and structure of different man-made and natural materials, such as glass, rubber, ceramic, alloys, polymers, and metals. They then take this knowledge and devise ways to strengthen existing materials, combine particular materials, or create brand new materials with certain properties and characteristics for use in different applications and products. They have created many of the items that people use today such as shoes, soap, canisters, containers, makeup, packaging materials, and so on.

Materials scientists tend to specialize by the material they work with most often - for example, ceramics, glasses, metals, nanomaterials (extremely small substances), polymers, and semiconductors.

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What is a chemist's day like?

Chemistry is responsible for many of the things that we use on a daily basis. Some of these things include various medicines, clothing materials, semi-conductors, and environmental improvements.

Chemists can choose to work either in a macroscopic environment that one can see, feel, and touch, or work in a microscopic world that one can’t directly see, feel, or touch. They can also choose to work in research (pure chemistry) which has no practical application and is simply knowledge gathering.

Because chemists are involved in so many areas, there is no typical day. However, there are some common tasks they all share.

Common Duties and Responsibilities:

  • Create, or synthesize, new substances
  • Analyze substances and create data
  • Carry out lab work to develop and improve both new and existing products
  • Create models and test the predictive power of theories
  • Develop formulations in the lab
  • Measure physical properties of substances
  • Analyze basic properties of matter to find new uses and applications
  • Conduct quality control tests
  • Analyze compounds to determine chemical or physical properties
  • Analyze compounds to determine composition, structure, relationships, or reactions
  • Introduce chemical catalysts for quantitative or qualitative analysis
  • Use chromatography, spectroscopy, or spectrophotometry techniques
  • Test material made for quality and performance, then report results
  • Help solve quality issues and troubleshoot manufacturing issues
  • Develop new products and improve existing products and manufacturing processes
  • Write technical papers or reports
  • Confer with scientists or engineers to conduct analyses of research projects
  • Interpret test results or develop nonstandard tests
  • Prepare standards and specifications for processes and products
  • Evaluate laboratory safety procedures
  • Ensure compliance with standards and make improvements as needed
  • Study the implications of newly discovered chemical properties
  • Maintain laboratory instruments
  • Prepare test solutions and compounds for laboratory testing
  • Direct, coordinate, or advise personnel in test procedures
  • Communicate with customers to determine what they require from a product
  • Communicate with suppliers to determine what products they can offer for a project

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What is the difference between chemistry and physics?

There are two branches of science that study matter - chemistry and physics. Chemistry has an entire industry, the chemical industry, named after it. Many chemists work in research and development, production, training, or management. Chemists also work in other industries, for example, the petroleum, pharmaceutical, and food industries. There is no industry named after physics, however, many industries have grown out of physics research, such as the semiconductor and electronics industries.

The difference between the two disciplines is in the training, scope, and approach. Even when working as a team, chemists and physicists have different roles. Although the fundamental laws that control the behaviour of matter apply to both chemistry and physics, the disciplines are quite different.

Chemistry focuses on the study of chemical reactions and synthesis, the properties and reactions of matter on a large scale, how substances interact with each other, and with energy. It also focuses on the methods for identifying molecules and their mechanisms of transformation. A chemist's explanations and predictions are correlated to the underlying atomic structure.

Physics, on the other hand, focuses on nature - from the entire universe all the way down to subatomic particles. All the fundamental principles of physical phenomena, the forces of nature, and aspects of space and time are measurable and follow some behaviour that sync with the most basic principles of physics. By following concepts taken from the most fundamental principles, matter and energy can be explained.

Chemistry and physics may overlap in fields such as physical chemistry, chemical physics, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics/chemistry, materials science, spectroscopy, solid state physics, solid-state chemistry, crystallography, and nanotechnology.

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Chemists are also known as:
Theoretical Chemist Nuclear Chemist Neurochemist