Chemistry Major: Hard, Good, Well Paid?

The name alone is enough for many college-bound students who are terrified of numbers to have cold sweats: chemistry. However, since it’s challenging, you may be wondering if it’s a good major for a degree-seeking student who wants not only a well-rounded college experience but also a promising career after graduation.

Chemistry, due to the fact that it involves a lot of math and hard sciences, too, is one of the hardest college majors. However, it’s also a good major, particularly for those who like to take on a challenging academic program as well as hold jobs in an assortment of career sectors and industries.

Wondering if you should leave or cross out chemistry on your list of potential majors? Read on.

By the time you get to the end of this post, you will have a much better idea of whether or not you should earn a bachelor’s in chemistry and spend your professional life having a career in a direct or related field.

chemistry major

Myths About a Degree and Career in Chemistry

Some teens gearing up for college do not consider majoring in chemistry because they’re bad with numbers.

But then there are also those who cross chemistry out of their college major list simply for not wanting to end up as mad scientists after graduation, which is nothing but a myth.

Here are a few other misconceptions about having a career in chemistry:

  • Chemists can be found in laboratories only. Chemists are everywhere — from offices to universities. As a matter of fact, almost two-thirds of chemistry majors work outside of laboratories.
  • Always wearing a pair of goggles and a lab coat. While chemists who work in laboratories do have to wear protective clothing and equipment for their safety, many of those who work elsewhere don’t.
  • Blowing things up constantly. Although it could happen from time to time simply because anything is possible, explosions typically happen in movies only when high schoolers don’t listen to their chemistry teachers.
  • Secretly making illegal drugs in the basement. Clandestine chemistry is chemistry performed in illegal drug laboratories — not all chemists partake in it, particularly those who do not wish to end up in jail.
  • Tasked with finding a cure for all diseases. In most instances, chemists are responsible for carrying out specialized research in a tiny niche area of chemistry, although it could be about a miracle drug, too.

How To Know If a Chemistry Degree is Right for You

A chemistry degree is right for students who would like to learn about atoms, molecules and other particles without being intimidated by a math- and hard science-heavy curriculum. It’s also the ideal undergraduate degree for those who would like to attend graduate school, including medical school.

There is no denying that a degree in chemistry can open doors to jobs that are not fulfilling for those who are interested in the properties, composition and structure of elements and compounds but high-paying, too.

But everyone knows that it’s hard, too, which can make some chemistry major wannabes have second thoughts.

On the fence as to whether or not you will succeed as a chemistry major as well as a bachelor’s in chemistry holder in the future? Then answer the following with a “yes” or “no”:

  • Do you love numbers and math classes such as geometry and calculus?
  • Do you find hard sciences such as physics and, of course, chemistry, interesting and enjoyable?
  • Do you like solving puzzles as well as coming up with solutions to real-world problems?
  • Do you dream about one day working as a researcher, writer, teacher or doctor?
  • Do you consider attending graduate school after earning a bachelor’s degree?

If you gave most or all questions a “yes” answer, then chances are that majoring in chemistry is the smartest thing to do. But please keep in mind that, in most instances, degree-seeking students have until the end of their sophomore year of college to declare a major — you have plenty of time to think about majoring in chemistry.

Here’s a tip on how to have a much better idea of how to know whether or not chemistry is the right major for you: take electives that have something to do with the discipline of study.

Sad Student
Sad Student

Is Chemistry a Hard Major in College

As a major, chemistry is considered very hard. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of listings of the hardest college majors include chemistry in them. Making earning a bachelor’s in chemistry challenging are the difficult core courses undergraduate students have to take before they are allowed to graduate.

Before anything else, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: if math and hard sciences are some of your least favorite subjects in high school, then consider steering clear of majoring in chemistry in college.

Majoring in chemistry can be the toughest undertaking among degree-seeking students!

Despite this, it’s still the 40th most popular major out of nearly 400 majors ranked. And, for the academic year 2019 to 2020, nearly 22,000 undergraduate degrees in chemistry were conferred. So, in other words, although it’s one of the most difficult majors out there, many students are still able to successfully complete a chemistry program.

The general education or gen ed courses are the same for all college students no matter the major or program. The fact that chemistry as a major is hard comes in when it’s time to take core courses.

An undergraduate degree in chemistry is made up of core courses in four main areas, and they are:

  • Analytical chemistry. The science of separating materials into their different components so that each one of them may be identified and examined as well as determining how many of those components exist.
  • Inorganic chemistry. Simply put, inorganic chemistry studies the properties and reactions of materials from inorganic compounds or compounds lacking carbon-hydrogen bonds, such as metals and minerals.
  • Organic chemistry. A branch of chemistry that focuses on the study of the structure, properties, composition, reactions and preparation of organic or carbon-containing compounds.
  • Physical chemistry. Basically, physical chemistry deals with the principles of physics involved in chemical reactions in order to determine how matter behaves on a molecular level and how chemical reactions happen.

Here are the core courses you are likely to take should you decide to become a chemistry major:

  • Analytical chemistry
  • Analytic geometry and calculus
  • General chemistry
  • Inorganic chemistry
  • Instrumental analysis
  • Organic chemistry
  • Physical chemistry
  • Physics for science and engineering
  • Mathematics for chemists

Please take note that almost all bachelor’s in chemistry core courses have a lab component.

A few of the core courses above do not have prerequisites, which means that it’s very much possible to take them whenever you can fit them into your schedule.

On the other hand, the majority have prerequisites — you will have to take either one or more courses, which can be gen ed or core courses, before you are allowed to enroll in them.

What Can You Do With a Chemistry Degree?

Contrary to popular belief, a degree in chemistry does not restrict the holder to a career in the laboratory. Majoring in chemistry allows one to choose from among an assortment of careers across a wide variety of sectors. It also prepares the bachelor’s holder for graduate school in chemistry or a related discipline.

Earlier, we mentioned that being a chemist doesn’t mean right away that your work involves mixing two things and creating an explosion in a laboratory.

If truth be told, majoring in chemistry prepares you for taking on in-demand and well-paid jobs.

While it’s true that the majority of careers available for those with a bachelor’s in chemistry involve studying and testing chemicals, there are also some that do not require them to be surrounded by test tubes and various laboratory equipment. As a matter of fact, some chemists can be found in offices, manufacturing plants and lecture halls.

Here are just a few lucrative career possibilities for chemistry majors:

chemistry engineers

Chemical engineer

  • Median annual salary: $105,550
  • Job outlook in 10 years: 9%

In a nutshell, chemical engineers solve real-world problems that involve the use of food, drugs, fuel and other products by applying hard science, including chemistry, physics and biology, and math principles. While some employers may prefer candidates with a degree in chemical engineering, some also hire chemistry majors.


  • Median annual salary: $79,760
  • Job outlook in 10 years: 6%

As a chemist, you are tasked with what everyone expects a chemist would do — study various substances at the atomic or molecular level and analyze how they interact with each other. While it’s true that the large majority of chemists work in laboratories, some also work in offices, depending on the job title or position.

Materials scientist

  • Median annual salary: $79,760
  • Job outlook in 10 years: 6%

It’s customary for materials scientists to work with other professionals when developing new materials or investigating the properties of existing ones, which is why good communication and team playing skills are must-haves.

Technical writer

  • Median annual salary: $78,060
  • Job outlook in 10 years: 12%

Simply put, what technical writers do is communicate complex pieces of information in a way that’s easier to understand. They do so by preparing articles, journals, guides, manuals and others.

Agricultural and Food Scientists

  • Median annual salary: $74,160
  • Job outlook in 10 years: 9%

Working as an agricultural and food scientist, your primary role is to look for ways to improve the safety as well as efficiency of establishments and products within the agricultural sphere. Agricultural and food scientists can be found in various work settings, including offices and laboratories and even in the field.

Forensic science technician

  • Median annual salary: $61,930
  • Job outlook in 10 years: 16%

As the job title suggests, forensic science technicians are professionals who assist in criminal investigations by collecting as well as analyzing pieces of evidence. It’s common for forensic science technicians to work unusual or extended hours. Traveling to various crime scenes is very much likely, too.

High school chemistry teacher

  • Median annual salary: $61,820
  • Job outlook in 10 years: 8%

The role of high school chemistry teachers is obvious: teach lessons and administer coursework tasks, in particular chemistry-related ones, which will prepare high school students for college or the workforce. In the US, public high school chemistry teachers are sometimes required to have state-issued certification or license besides a bachelor’s.

lab technician

Chemical laboratory technician

  • Median annual salary: $48,990
  • Job outlook in 10 years: 5%

What chemical laboratory technicians do is that they carry out an assortment of tests in order to help analyze the properties of substances and materials. It’s not uncommon for many chemical laboratory technicians to work in manufacturing.

Other than applying for a job, you may also take your undergraduate degree to graduate school in order to obtain a master’s in chemistry. Because it will provide you with advanced training in the various chemical science branches, you can have access to higher-level and higher-paying careers in research and various science disciplines.

Typically, it will take you one and a half to two years to earn a master’s in chemistry. As of this writing, the average cost of a master’s in chemistry program in the US is $66,340.

Here are just some of the jobs that master’s in chemistry holders usually have:

  • Brewmaster
  • Chemical engineer
  • College chemistry teacher
  • Conservationist
  • Cosmetic developer
  • Environmental scientist
  • Epidemiologist
  • Food technologist
  • Medical laboratory technologist
  • Paint developer
  • Product development scientist
  • Quality control analyst
  • Research chemist

Which Famous People Majored in Chemistry?

With the exception of some of the most well-known chemists throughout the history of mankind, not a lot of people whose names ring a bell have a degree in chemistry. A few of those who do can be seen in movies or politics — there’s one who, as of this writing, is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

In some instances, researching which famous people have a major in a particular discipline can give you an idea of where majoring in it, too, can take you.

Nearly 70% of all chemistry majors work in a direct or related field — some can be found attending graduate schools. It’s because of this why it can be very rare to see people with a bachelor’s in chemistry elsewhere, including especially in popular media such as TV shows and movies.

But it’s not uncommon for people to be surprised to learn that the following majored in chemistry:

  • Pope Francis. It was from the University of Buenos Aires where the pope earned a chemistry degree. However, there isn’t any source that confirms if he worked as a chemist before entering the seminary.
  • Dolph Lundgren. The Swedish actor earned an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology and obtained a master’s in the same discipline from the University of Sydney.
  • Margaret Thatcher. In 1947, she graduated from the University of Oxford with a bachelor’s in chemistry, which allowed her to work as an industrial chemist at British Xylonite Plastics.
  • Janet Reno. Before attending Harvard Law School and becoming a lawyer, she went to Cornell University, which is #17 in National Universities by US News, where she got her hands on a chemistry degree.

Best Schools for a Chemistry Degree: Domestic and International

The best colleges and universities for students who would like to earn a bachelor’s in chemistry are those that offer chemistry programs that are accredited by the American Chemical Society (ACS). To date, there are a total of 699 ACS-accredited chemistry programs being offered by various US institutions.

By now, we have established the fact that while it’s a good major, chemistry can be hard.

Because of this, it’s a good idea to major in chemistry where there’s a good chemistry program available for a degree-seeking student like you.

Luckily, such a program often comes from highly ranked colleges and universities, the ones that you and many other college-bound high schoolers would gladly include in their respective college lists.

According to US News, the following are some of the best schools for chemistry majors (in descending order):

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • California Institute of Technology
  • Stanford University
  • University of California – Berkeley
  • Harvard University
  • Scripps Research Institute
  • Northwestern University
  • Princeton University
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign
  • Cornell University
  • Columbia University
  • Yale University
  • University of California – Los Angeles
  • University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
  • University of Wisconsin – Madison
  • University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of Texas – Austin
  • University of California – Irvine
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Johns Hopkins University
  • Texas A&M University
  • University of California – San Diego
  • Ohio State University
  • University of California – San Francisco
  • University of Minnesota – Twin Cities
  • University of Washington
  • Pennsylvania State University – University Park
  • Purdue University – West Lafayette

Besides the US institutions mentioned above, there are also many international schools perfect for degree-seeking students who would like to major in chemistry outside the country.

Here are some of the top according to QS World University Rankings:

#4University of Cambridge (Cambridge, England)
#6University of Oxford (Oxford, England)
#7National University of Singapore (Queenstown, Singapore)
#8Nanyang Technological University (Nanyang, Singapore)
#9ETH Zurich (Zurich, Switzerland)
#10EPFL (Lausanne, Switzerland)
#12Imperial College London (London, England)
#13University of Tokyo (Tokyo, Japan)
#15Peking University (Beijing, China)
#17Tsinghua University (Beijing, China)
#19University of Toronto (Toronto, Canada)
#20Kyoto University (Kyoto, Japan)

Just Before You Enroll in a Chemistry Program

If you love math and hard sciences and you would like to work one day as a chemist, chemical engineer, forensic science technician, technical writer or chemistry teacher, feel free to consider majoring in chemistry. Although it’s one of the hardest majors around, it can be very fulfilling and rewarding for those who are suited to major in it.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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