Given the diverse nature of chemistry, there are many opportunities available for chemists, and the areas that are open to chemists can generally be classified under the headings listed below. Degree requirements are usually a minimum of a BSc Honours, and depending on the nature of the employment, a graduate degree (MSc or PhD) may be advantageous or necessary. Contrary to popular belief, chemists are not always confined to the lab.
Countless chemists are employed at government agencies, such as Health Canada, Defense Research and Development Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, and the National Research Council. These agencies are usually engaged long-term, fundamental research, similar to what is conducted at a university laboratory.
In an industrial setting, the work is usually directed towards a specific goal that is in accordance with the interests of the company. In a pharmaceutical company, for example, work may involve the design of new pharmaceutical drugs, the analysis of drug metabolites, and the purification of an enzyme. A different company may be interested in the development of instrumentation for the detection of explosives – did you know that the Ionscan detectors found at airport gates worldwide were developed in Canada with the assistance of chemists.
Many of the chemistry graduates going into industry will eventually climb the corporate ladder and reach positions in management, where they are far removed from the laboratory, but yet are able to take advantage of the soft skills acquired during their training as a chemist. The chemical industry tends to select people with technical backgrounds for promotion to administrative positions, and many of its top executives started their careers as laboratory chemists.
Over the past several years, there has been immense concern about the levels of unsafe pollutants in the water, the existence of pesticides in our food, and the presence of explosives and chemical or biological agents that may affect homeland security. Naturally, the science of the detection and characterization of trace substances is undergoing an tremendous growth. Companies that produce consumer goods are potential employers for chemists, as are government agencies such as the Ontario Centre for Forensic Sciences, the Canadian Wheat Board, and Health Canada.
Canada is a country that is rich in natural resources, particularly the minerals. Companies in the mining industry, such as Teck Cominco, Inco, and Xstrata (Falconbridge) employ chemists to routinely assay samples that are retrieved from drilling for mineral content. These positions require individuals with not only technical abilities, but also good organizational and record-keeping skills.
Chemistry teachers have the unique ability to directly influence the next generation of young adults and Canada’s future workforce by increasing their interest and excitement in science. There is currently a need for chemistry teachers at the secondary level, according to an information brochure published by the Ontario College of Teachers, the governing board for teachers in Ontario.
To teach at the Intermediate/Senior level (Grades 7-12) in Ontario, applicants to a teaching program are required to have two teachable subjects. Usually, applicants need to have taken, in their undergraduate program, 5 full courses in their first teachable subject, and 2 full courses in their second teachable. Admission requirements may vary depending on the university, so interested individuals are advised to contact the universities for more information.
Most university faculty members, in addition to their teaching duties, supervise graduate students, write research papers, participate in chemistry conferences, and provide service to the university and community. Faculty members across all disciplines, not just chemistry, are currently undergoing renewal due to the ageing population of the faculty hired during the expansions 30-40 years ago.
Considering the teaching, research, and service responsibilities of a faculty member, a PhD degree is almost always required. For smaller post-secondary institutions, such as community colleges and liberal-arts colleges, an MSc may be sufficient, particularly if there is no research component to the position.
Graduates with a rigorous training in the sciences, and who have a business background, are often recruited as investment bankers, stock analysts, or related positions. These positions require individuals with expertise in scientific and technological matters, as they are often required to, for instance, analyze the prospects of a pharmaceutical company.
What happens when a company, university, or institution makes a new scientific discovery or invention and wishes to patent it? What if a company sues another for patent infringement? Lawyers usually lack the scientific and technical expertise required to understand the basis of the invention or lawsuit. As a result, there is currently a very high demand for individuals in the field of patent prosecution and litigation. In Canada, a law degree is not required to practice in the area of patent law, but it is often helpful in securing employment at a law firm.
Canadian patents are filed at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) in Ottawa, and they often recruit chemistry graduates at various levels, with no law background, to act as patent examiners. These are individuals who have the scientific background necessary to understand the basis of scientific patents. The 2007/2008 hiring target at the CIPO includes 15 positions for Honours Chemistry graduates to start in March of 2008.
Besides patent law, chemists often called upon to testify at litigation cases. The scope of these cases can be left to the imagination, as they encompass countless possibilities (environmental disasters, workplace hazards, issues with pharmaceutical drugs, etc.).
Choosing the right electives for your desired career path is important, and we have some suggestions on our electives page.