Designing your Undergraduate Program

Part of the Careers in Chemistry section of The Alchemist's Lair Web Site
Maintained by Harry E. Pence, Professor of Chemistry, SUNY Oneonta, for the use of his students. Any opinions are totally coincidental and have no official endorsement, including the people who sign my pay checks. Comments and suggestions are welcome (

Last Revised July 23, 2000

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Designing a Strong Undergraduate Program

Graduates with a B.S. degree commonly begin industrial careers as a bench chemist, that is, an individual who works directly with chemicals on a small scale under the supervision of a more experienced chemist. Often these positions are in the field of quality control, analyzing starting materials and products to insure that required standards are met, but well-qualified individuals may find positions as research associates. A strong background in analytical chemistry, including advanced instrumental methods of analysis is very helpful in obtaining quality control positions.

As you design your undergraduate program, try to build one or two special strengths in addition to your major. Most chemists move away from bench jobs in a few years, and so it's helpful if your undergraduate program helps to prepare you for some of the most likely opportunities that you may encounter. For example, if you think that you might eventually be interested in chemical sales or product representation, you should consider taking at least an introductory course in business. Since communications skills are valuable in all types of industrial positions, you should consider taking courses in composition and speech. Computer courses are always a good complement to your chemistry background, especially if you are interested in one of the hot new fields, like biometrics. Similarly, chemists do very well in biological related careers, but it is essential that you have undergraduate biology courses.

Students commonly ask, "What does a chemist do?" Whittier College has created an extensive list of chemistry-based careers, with links to more information. Another source of information is the Occupational Outlook Handbook, maintained by the U.S. Department of Labor. Search for the word "chemistry.", then look under chemists. The page describes the nature of the work, working conditions, required training, and employment prospects. You will also find a number of related occupations listed under the chemistry title. The University of Alberta list of occupational profiles is another possible source of information.

Undergraduate research experience can also provide an edge when applying to graduate school as well as when seeking entry-level positions in the chemical industry. Be sure to check the page on this site that provides information about summer programs.

Many industrial positions are related to polymer chemistry, and even though this is not an undergraduate course at most institutions, you may be able to find an organic or industrial chemistry course that gives you some background in this important area. If you wish to focus on environmental chemistry, be sure to take a strong background in biology and related courses. Instrument development is a common career direction, which requires a good background in analytical chemistry, especially some experience with newer methods of analyses. Computers are becoming an important factor in all chemistry programs, and the combination of chemistry with a broad background in computer science is quite attractive to some employers.

Always try to provide yourself with options. If the medical school or graduate school doesn't accept you, does your program give you other options? Some choices are useful no matter what direction you eventually decide to choose, for example, undergraduate research work. On the other hand, if you focus too much on graduate school or medical school, you may not have completed a program that will be effective if you have to hunt for a job.

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