How do I Become an Organic Chemist?

Vicki Hogue-Davies

Organic chemists work with carbon compounds to develop and improve upon common products, such as detergents, cosmetics, plastics and more. They work for drug and biotech companies, at government agencies and in universities. To become an organic chemist, a bachelor's degree in organic chemistry — or a degree chemistry with study in organic chemistry — usually is the minimum education necessary. Most often, a doctoral degree is desired by employers, especially for organic chemists who will conduct advanced research, lead interdisciplinary teams and teach. According to the American Chemical Society, organic chemistry has the most doctoral degree graduates of any chemistry discipline in the United States.

Industrial firms employ organic chemists who specialize in developing new compounds for commercial applications.
Industrial firms employ organic chemists who specialize in developing new compounds for commercial applications.

Hundreds of colleges and universities offer undergraduate programs in chemistry and advanced degree programs in organic chemistry. To prepare yourself for obtaining a degree to become an organic chemist, you should study chemistry, other basic sciences and math in high school and develop strong computer skills. Organic chemists often use three-dimensional computer modeling to aid in studying complex molecules and work with sophisticated computerized instruments in the laboratory.

Drug and biotech companies often employ organic chemists.
Drug and biotech companies often employ organic chemists.

During your undergraduate years, look for opportunities to work in summer internships. An internship will provide hands-on training, possibly help you make contacts for future employment and can give you insight into career paths and what level of degree to pursue. Many people in the organic chemistry field who have bachelor's degrees work as research assistants, so the ability to follow direction and work on a team is important. People who obtain their doctoral degree often work in leadership roles, overseeing research and product development teams. To work in this role, leadership and motivational skills are needed.

Organic chemists often work on teams, but they also work independently, so having a flexible personality to work in either environment is a good prerequisite to become an organic chemist. Other characteristics helpful to become an organic chemist are good reading, writing and overall communication skills. A desire to work with your hands as well as your brain is important if you want to become an organic chemist, because you might spend a great amount of time in a hands-on laboratory environment.

Having some understanding of other chemistry disciplines and areas such as business and marketing can be important for an organic chemist. Organic chemists increasingly work as part of interdisciplinary teams to conduct research and develop products. For an example, an organic chemist might need to understand the identity of compounds as prepared by an analytical chemist or understand how a particular product will be received by consumers.

Organic chemists develop and improve products.
Organic chemists develop and improve products.

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