What Chemists Do and Where They Work

Most chemists operate in two worlds of work. One is the macroscopic world that you see, feel, and touch. Chemists also operate in the microscopic world that you can’t directly see, feel, or touch.

  • The macroscopic world involves lab coats — weighing out things like sodium chloride to create things like hydrogen gas. This is the world of experiments.

  • In the microscopic world, chemists work with theories and models. They may measure the volume and pressure of a gas in the macroscopic world, but they have to mentally translate the measurements into how close the gas particles are in the microscopic world.

  • Pure versus applied chemistry

    In pure chemistry, chemists are free to carry out whatever research interests them — or whatever research they can get funded. There is no real expectation of practical application at this point. The researcher simply wants to know for the sake of knowledge.

    In applied chemistry, chemists normally work for private corporations. Their research is directed toward a very specific short-term goal set by the company — product improvement or the development of a disease-resistant strain of corn, for example.

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What Does a Chemist Do All Day?

You can group the activities of chemists into these major categories:

  • Chemists analyze substances. They determine what is in a substance, how much of something is in a substance, or both. They analyze solids, liquids, and gases. They may try to find the active compound in a substance found in nature, or they may analyze water to see how much lead is present.

  • Chemists create, or synthesize, new substances. They may try to make the synthetic version of a substance found in nature, or they may create an entirely new and unique compound. They may try to find a way to synthesize insulin. They may create a new plastic, pill, or paint. Or they may try to find a new, more efficient process to use for the production of an established product.

  • Chemists create models and test the predictive power of theories. This area of chemistry is referred to as theoretical chemistry. Chemists who work in this branch of chemistry use computers to model chemical systems. Theirs is the world of mathematics and computers.

  • Chemists measure the physical properties of substances. They may take new compounds and measure the melting points and boiling points. They may measure the strength of a new polymer strand or determine the octane rating of a new gasoline.

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