What Is a Master’s in Chemistry (and What Can I Do With One)?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

A master’s in chemistry can open the door to various careers in science, academia, and beyond. 

[Feature image] A woman in a Master of Chemistry program stands in front of glass beakers.

There’s more to the field of chemistry than beakers and laboratories. It’s a fascinating field that’s more diverse than many people realize. When you earn a master’s in chemistry, you have the opportunity to develop advanced skills that you can apply to a variety of careers. You may choose to work in a traditional lab or university setting or use your degree to specialize in a different field, like nutritional science or chemical engineering. You might focus on organic chemistry as a gateway to a career as a product developer for a cosmetics company. 

Earning your master’s in chemistry may also allow you to specialize in several areas to best meet your career goals. You might be surprised by the number of different roles you could pursue with this degree. Let’s look at what a master’s in chemistry is and what it takes to graduate, plus jobs you might pursue after graduation.  

What is a master’s in chemistry? 

A master’s in chemistry is a graduate-level degree in the science of chemistry—the study of the properties, structure, and composition of substances. You can use this degree to build on the skills and knowledge you gained in your undergraduate degree program to develop a deeper understanding of chemical principles. Depending on the school or program you choose, you may earn a Master of Arts (MA) or a Master of Science (MS) in chemistry. 

The curriculum is typically the same for both degrees, with one notable difference. To earn an MS, you’ll likely need to complete a laboratory-based thesis project—a good choice if you want to pursue a career in hands-on chemistry. An MA in chemistry often requires a research paper or a comprehensive examination and is typically geared toward students interested in working outside of the lab within the chemistry field. 

Common disciplines in a chemistry graduate program

Chemistry is a broad field, and most master’s programs include courses that cover topics like materials and polymers, surface science, nanoscience, photonics, and medicinal chemistry, to name a few. Additionally, you may have opportunities to specialize, which helps you prepare and hone the skills you need for your career goals. For example, common disciplines that learners focus on include:

  • Nutritional science examines how nutrients, foods, and other substances impact the human or animal body, biochemical processing, and how nutrition relates to both disease and health.

  • Physical chemistry studies the physics involved in chemical reactions, including how matter behaves, how chemical reactions work, and the significance of the physical properties of molecules and atoms.

  • Analytical chemistry combines chemistry, statistics, computers, and instrumentation to better understand the structure and composition of matter.

  • Biochemistry relies on chemical knowledge and techniques to better understand the chemical processes within and related to living organisms at a molecular level. Focuses include how cells communicate, how molecular structure relates to function, and what happens within different types of cells.

  • Chemical engineering uses chemical processes to produce and manufacture products. This may include chemicals, food, pharmaceuticals, fuel, and more.

  • Organic chemistry studies the properties, reactions, structure, and composition of compounds that contain carbon, including living organisms and many human-made substances, including plastics, detergents, cosmetics, and fuels.

  • Forensic chemistry applies analytical techniques to samples and evidence that are part of a criminal investigation. Practices include toxicology, microscopy, spot testing, separation analyses, and mass spectrometry.

  • Environmental chemistry is a specialty that studies how chemicals enter the environment and their effects. It also assesses long-term risks to ecosystems and human health and monitors the impact of human activity on the environment.

How to earn a master’s in chemistry 

As a prospective learner considering a master’s degree program in chemistry, you might start by considering what you enjoy, what your career goals are, and where your talents are. That can help shape the direction in which you take your degree. An MA or MS in chemistry is typically interdisciplinary, with options to specialize in specific areas. While you can usually customize your degree program to best meet your goals, some factors are relatively the same, including prerequisites and what you can generally expect. 

Prerequisites 

Although the requirements for admission may vary from school to school, most look for applicants who have an undergraduate degree in chemistry, biochemistry, or a related field. You'll likely need to have a GPA of at least 2.75 and have graduated from an accredited college. Most schools also require that you take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and submit your scores. 

If your background doesn't meet the requirements, you may need to complete prerequisites before starting the program. For example, you may need to take biochemistry as part of your prerequisites. Additionally, many schools look for at least two letters of recommendation, a CV or resume, and a personal statement along with your application. 

Average timeframe 

The typical graduate-level chemistry program requires you to take 30 credits, which typically takes 1.5 to two years of full-time study. The time it takes you to complete your degree will depend on the pace you set for yourself. If you have other commitments or you already work full-time, you may choose to take part-time classes, which will extend the amount of time it takes to graduate.

Common courses 

Graduate-level work in the chemistry field is challenging, and you need to be committed to putting in the time. It also helps to have a deep fascination with scientific discovery and a sense of curiosity, which can fuel your studies and work. No two master’s programs are exactly alike, and you’ll have ample opportunities to customize your courses according to your specialization and ultimate career goals. There are a variety of courses that most learners do take, including: 

  • Organic and inorganic chemistry

  • Biochemistry

  • Physical chemistry

  • Analytical chemistry

  • Research in chemistry

  • Chemistry communications

  • Quantum mechanics and its application in chemistry

Other requirements

When you enroll in a master’s in chemistry program, you may have a choice in whether you opt for a thesis track or a non-thesis track. If you choose the thesis track, you may need to complete research courses as part of your requirements. For non-thesis tracks, you may have to complete a research paper or pass an exam in addition to taking electives and a core course that replaces the thesis and research courses.

Do I need a PhD in chemistry?

Depending on your career goals, getting your MA or MS in chemistry may be all you need. However, if you want to go into high-level management positions, academia, or scientific research, you might consider earning your PhD in chemistry. This terminal degree may open the door to certain academic circles and lab management positions.

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9 jobs to consider with a master’s in chemistry

After earning your degree, you may be able to pursue a role in various industries, including health care, research, or manufacturing. 

You might choose to work in a lab or university conducting research. Your master’s in chemistry could also prepare you for a surprising career as a paint developer who creates new colors or a brewer who tests product quality. You could pursue a wide range of jobs with this degree, including the following nine options:  

1. Product development scientist 

Average annual salary: $96,612 [1]

Job outlook through 2028: 8 percent [2]

As a product development scientist, you'll use your skills and knowledge to develop new products. Engage in scientific research, analytical thinking, and various testing methods. You may work in food, medicine, pharmaceuticals, and other industries. Typical tasks include assessing safety, creating product designs, and researching production methods.

2. Epidemiologist 

Median annual salary: $74,560

Job outlook from 2020 to 2030: 30 percent [3]

As an epidemiologist, your research will center around diseases. Typical tasks include collecting data, tacking diseases, and conducting experiments to control or prevent specific conditions. You might work closely with health care organizations and interact with the public since you'll often be involved in improving public health. 

3. Research chemist 

Median annual salary: $80,680

Job outlook from 2020 to 2030: 6 percent [4]

You'll study different chemicals and analyze how they interact in this role. You might carry out experiments and tests, monitor the results, and write reports to demonstrate your findings. You could collaborate with production teams and entrepreneurs, testing new products and reporting on the results. 

4. Makeup developer 

Average annual salary: $77,970$ [5]

Job outlook from 2020 to 2030: 6 percent [4]

As a cosmetic chemist, you'll consider the physical and cosmetic processes that affect the skin as you create new products. While this role is steeped in creativity and science, it requires forward-thinking so that you can address issues that consumers might face. You’ll often be tasked with creating products that best meet consumer needs while also considering the impact that those products have on the environment after they've been used and washed down the drain. 

5. Food scientist 

Median annual salary: $68,830

Job outlook from 2020 to 2030: 9 percent [6]

You may not have previously thought about all the chemical interactions and processes that occur to make a delicious scoop of ice cream, but there's solid science required to create many food products. In this role, you'll design and refine food product recipes, research ingredients and foods, and work with companies to produce healthy, safe foods for customers. You might create systems for food production, devise quality guidelines, and test food quality. 

6. Forensic scientist 

Median annual salary: $60,590

Job outlook from 2020 to 2030: 16 percent [7]

As a forensic scientist, you’ll use your analytical, mathematical, and scientific skills to help solve puzzles. You may work at crime scenes or in laboratories to collect and analyze evidence as part of criminal investigations. Other typical duties may include making crime scene sketches or taking photos, investigating crime scenes to figure out the best way to collect evidence, and cataloging evidence for crime labs.

7. Environmental scientist 

Median annual salary: $73,230

Job outlook from 2020 to 2030: 8 percent [8]

In this role, you'll often collect samples, conduct investigations for research, write reports, and analyze data involving the environment. Other tasks you might engage in include developing plans to control or prevent environmental issues. You might also guide businesses, the public, and the government about potential ecological impacts, hazards, and health problems. 

Read more: 5 Jobs That Help Fight Climate Change

8. Chemical engineer 

Median annual salary: $108,540

Job outlook from 2020 to 2030: 9 percent [9]

You'll design, refine, and test different chemical-related products and systems in this role. Many chemical engineers choose to specialize in areas like fuel or pharmaceuticals. Others work with various industries, helping to solve problems related to the use of chemicals. Common tasks include designing equipment and processes, testing protection methods, creating safety procedures for working with chemicals, and estimating production costs. 

9. Quality control analyst 

Average annual salary: $66,609  [10]

Job outlook from 2018 to 2028: 9 percent [11]

As a quality control analyst, you'll work to test different products to meet quality guidelines and other standards, like governmental or business-related regulations. You might work in medical devices, pharmaceuticals, or other manufacturing industries. Common tasks include doing research, testing products and chemicals, and writing reports to sum up what you've found. 

Next steps

You can do a lot with a master’s in chemistry. If you’re not sure if this is the right graduate degree for you, take some time to explore your options. Consider your career goals and passions and whether advancing your chemistry skills will get you where you want to go. 

If you’re still figuring out the direction you want to go, explore the field to see what resonates. For example, if you might be interested in becoming a food scientist, you could take The Science of Gastronomy offered by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. If forensic chemistry piques your interest, a course like Nayong Technological University's Introduction to Forensic Science may align with your goals.  Take some time to explore different areas of chemistry to find your passion and the direction you would like to take your master’s in chemistry and your career. 

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Article sources

1. Glassdoor. “Salary: Product Development Scientist (March 2022), https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/product-development-scientist-salary-SRCH_KO0,29.htm.”Accessed March 12, 2022.

2. Zippia. “How to Become a Product Development Scientist: Step by Step Guide and Career Paths, https://www.zippia.com/product-development-scientist-jobs/.” Accessed March 21, 2022.

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Epidemiologists: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/epidemiologists.htm.” Accessed March 13, 2022.

4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Chemists and Materials Scientists: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/chemists-and-materials-scientists.htm.” Accessed March 13, 2022.

5. Glassdoor. “Salary: Cosmetic Chemist (March 2022), https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/cosmetic-chemist-salary-SRCH_KO0,16.htm.” Accessed March 13, 2022.

6. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Agricultural and Food Scientists: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/agricultural-and-food-scientists.htm.” Accessed March 13, 2022.

7. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Forensic Science Technicians: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/forensic-science-technicians.htm.” Accessed March 13, 2022.

8. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Environmental Scientists and Specialists: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/environmental-scientists-and-specialists.htm.” Accessed March 13, 2022. 

9. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Chemical Engineers: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/chemical-engineers.htm#tab-1.” Accessed March 13, 2022. 

10. Glassdoor. “Salary: Quality Control Analyst (March 2022), https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/quality-control-analyst-salary-SRCH_KO0,23.htm.” Accessed March 13, 2022.

11. Zippia. “How to Become a Quality Control Analyst: Step by Step Guide and Career Paths, https://www.zippia.com/quality-control-analyst-jobs/.” Accessed March 21, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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