If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



Salary & Employment Survey For Chemists

Survey of American Chemical Society members shows mixed conditions for chemists in 2012

by Sophie L. Rovner
September 24, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 39

Chemists continue to struggle with the lingering effects of the poor economy, despite the fact that the Great Recession officially ended more than three years ago in the U.S. Salaries for chemists have fallen slightly in 2012 compared with 2011, according to the latest figures compiled by the American Chemical Society. There is some good news to report, however: Unemployment is down, if only a bit. These results come from the 2012 Comprehensive Salary & Employment Survey of ACS members in the workforce, which the society conducted from March through early May this year. The data show that the median salary for chemists slipped more than 1% between 2011 and 2012.

Industry and government jobs paid much better than those in academia.NOTE: Median annual base salaries for chemists employed full-time as of March 1, 2012.SOURCE: ACS salary and employment survey 2012
This table shows the employment status of chemists.
Industry and government jobs paid much better than those in academia.NOTE: Median annual base salaries for chemists employed full-time as of March 1, 2012.SOURCE: ACS salary and employment survey 2012

Over that same time frame, full-time employment changed from a rate of 89.7% to 90.0%. That means that the fraction of chemists without full-time employment dropped from 10.3% to 10.0%. Within that group, the share of chemists who were unemployed but looking for jobs fell from a peak of 4.6% in 2011 to 4.2% in 2012. The proportion of chemists with part-time jobs shrank from 3.7% to 3.1%. And 2.6% of respondents were holding a job as a postdoc in 2012, up from 1.9% the year before.

In a project headed by Gareth S. Edwards, the ACS Department of Research & Member Insights conducted and analyzed the survey under the guidance of the ACS Committee on Economic & Professional Affairs.

The survey was sent to a random sample of 20,128 ACS members under the age of 70; the sample excluded student, emeritus, and retired members, as well as members living outside the U.S. The survey recipients returned 7,064 complete responses, for a response rate of 35.1%.

In the survey, members were queried about their status as of March 1, 2012. Some of the questions in the survey were directed at all respondents; the answers to those questions shed light on the demographics of the ACS membership. Other questions focused on those ACS members who are in the chemical workforce and excluded members who work in other fields, such as chemical engineering, business administration, computer science, or law. In each table in this article, the headline and footnote indicate the group whose data are presented.

The survey revealed that the median salary for chemists who were employed full-time—and who had not changed jobs over the prior year—fell 2.1% in 2012 to $92,000. That decline hit those with a Ph.D. hardest. This group saw a 2.0% drop in median salary to $100,000. Chemists with a master’s degree saw no change in salary from March 2011 to March 2012, while those with a bachelor’s degree experienced an increase of 1.9% to $74,200.

Greater disparities can be found when respondents are broken down into subgroups by citizenship. Chemists born in the U.S. saw a 2.2% decline in median salary to $91,000 from 2011 to 2012. The median salary rose 0.7% to $108,200 for naturalized citizens and held steady at $90,000 for permanent residents. But other visa holders suffered an 11.7% drop to $47,000.

From 2011 to 2012, the median salary fell 1.0% to $100,000 for chemists with government jobs who hadn’t changed their positions in the previous year. The median salary for those employed in academia stayed even at $70,000, and it rose 0.6% to $106,600 for chemists in industry.

For all chemists who were employed full-time—whether they had changed jobs in the prior year or not—the survey showed that the median salary slipped 1.1% from 2011 to $92,000 in 2012. Chemists with a bachelor’s degree saw their median salary rise 2.6% to $73,900. Those with a master’s degree held steady at $85,000, and those with a Ph.D. saw a decline of 1.4% to $100,600.

Compared with a decade ago, the median salary for bachelor’s chemists has risen an average of 2.5% per year. The median salary for chemists with a master’s degree has grown an average 2.2% per year and that for chemists with a Ph.D. has increased an average of 1.7% annually. These findings are in current dollars, and therefore don’t account for inflation. The sobering truth is that the average annual change in median salaries over the past 10 years in constant dollars—a calculation that eliminates the effect of inflation—is 0.2% for chemists with a bachelor’s degree, –0.1% for a master’s, and –0.6% for a doctorate. Overall, the median salary for all chemists has risen an average of 1.9% per year in current dollars, but shrunk 0.4% per year in constant dollars.

Between 2011 and 2012, industry, government, and academic chemists eked out a gain of about 1% in current dollars, bringing their median salaries to $106,000, $104,000, and $71,200, respectively. Chemists who were self-employed did a bit better, reporting that their median salary rose about 2% to $100,000.

These comparisons support the widely held presumption that academe is a considerably less lucrative environment for chemists than other employment options. The survey shows that the median salary as of March 2012 for chemists with a bachelor’s degree was $45,000 in academe versus $74,000 and $76,300 in government and industry, respectively. For chemists with a master’s degree, those median salaries were $62,000, $83,800, and $93,000, respectively. Chemists with a Ph.D. had a median salary of $73,600 in academe, $112,300 in government, and $121,100 in industry.

Despite the lower median salary in academe, universities and colleges are attracting an increasing percentage of the ACS membership. In 1995, only one-quarter of ACS members were employed in academe. But more than one-third of members now work there. Government’s share of the membership has been much steadier; the sector has attracted between 7 and 8% of members over time. Industry, which hosted nearly two-thirds of ACS members in 1995, supports just 56% of the membership in 2012. Self-employment typically accounts for about 2% of members.

The demographics of ACS members in the workforce are changing in other ways. For instance, the representation of women continues its gradual expansion. Just 22% of members were female in 1995; that figure currently stands at 29%.

On the other hand, the cultural makeup of the society hasn’t changed much since 1995. Some 78% of this year’s members were born in the U.S. compared with 82% in 1995. And 83% of members are white, only a slight change from 86% in 1995. The median age of members, at 48 years, is down a bit from the past two years, but tops the median age of 43 in 1995.

Much of the information collected via the survey can be found in the tables in this article, but other interesting findings abound. For example, unemployment as of March 2012 was lowest for members in the central region of the U.S. and highest in the Pacific region and New England.

Unemployment was worst for members with a bachelor’s degree. In March 2012, 5.9% of this group was seeking employment. By comparison, 5.4% of those with master’s degrees and just 3.4% of those with doctorates were looking for jobs.

Gender made very little difference in unemployment; the rate for men was 4.2% and for women, 4.1%.

But large differences between men and women show up in other categories in 2012. One example is the salary for chemists working in any field, when broken down by the number of years since earning a bachelor’s degree. The median annual salary for men who earned an undergraduate degree two to four years ago was $46,400; for women, that figure was $42,000, or 91% of the men’s median salary. Five to nine years after a bachelor’s degree, the median salary was $61,100 for men, while women earned 88% of that figure. The greatest disparity arose among chemists who earned a bachelor’s degree 25 to 34 years ago. In that category, women earned just 81% of their male counterparts’ median salary.

In fact, the median salary for male chemists was higher than that for women in all age groups in 2012. That isn’t the case when salaries are parsed more finely, though the resulting small sample sizes mean the data may not fully represent conditions in the working world. Among industrial chemists with a bachelor’s degree, for example, the median salary for women was higher than that for men for those who earned their degree 15 to 19 years ago or 25 to 29 years ago. The same was true for women who earned a master’s degree five to nine years ago or 20 to 24 years ago. And women who earned a Ph.D. five to nine years ago or anywhere from 15 to 29 years ago either equaled or beat the median salary for men in those groups.

Similarly, in academe, men and women each topped some salary categories. Among ACS members who were full professors, the median salary for women was less than that for men at most types of schools. But the median salary for women was higher than that for men at schools at which a bachelor’s was the highest degree offered.

Significant differences also crop up in other results from the survey. Chemists continue to make considerably less than chemical engineers. As of this March, the median salary for chemical engineers who were members of ACS was $114,000, 23.9% more than the median salary for chemists.

For members with a bachelor’s degree or a Ph.D., the median salaries were higher for chemical engineers than for chemists by 25.8% or 19.3%, respectively. The disparity was even more striking for those with a master’s degree: The median salary for chemical engineers was 41.2% higher than that for chemists.

As is the situation for chemists, industry and government pay chemical engineers more than academe. The median salary for a chemical engineer employed in industry was $120,000 as of March 2012. A job in government netted a median salary of $114,500 for chemical engineers, and one in academe brought in $91,000.

The size of the employer has a considerable impact on salaries, with the largest companies paying chemists as much as one-third more than the smallest firms. That’s the situation for chemists with a bachelor’s degree. The effect is much more modest for those with a master’s degree, while those with a doctorate fall somewhere in between, earning one-quarter more at the biggest firms compared with the smallest.

Chemists working in R&D management, general management, patents, computers, marketing and sales, and health and safety earned the highest salaries as of March 2012. Jobs with the lowest median salaries included production and quality control, and analytical services.

To download a PDF of the tables that go with this story, visit

This is unfortunate, given the large number of ACS members who work in the field of analytical chemistry. This field accounts for 14.8% of members employed either full- or part-time, the largest single sector of the membership. The next largest group—accounting for 10.1% of members—works in organic chemistry. Medicinal and pharmaceutical chemistry follows, with 8.7% of members, while chemical education employs some 7.4% of members.

Organic, physical, and analytical chemistry are the top fields in which chemists earned their highest degree. These subjects accounted for 23.0%, 10.5%, and 10.4% of employed members’ terminal degrees.

The survey turned up some other results that are both intriguing and disturbing. For instance, the percent of ACS member chemists who were unemployed at some point in 2011 was 8.2%, down slightly from 8.4% in 2010. This number has historically been about twice the March 1 unemployment number, ACS’s Edwards notes.

This year’s survey also includes for the first time questions related to issues of underemployment and staffing. A little more than 12% of ACS member chemists reported that they had accepted a position or compensation package over the prior three years that was less than their previous position in order to maintain employment.

Unemployment rates remained significantly higher for ACS chemists previously employed in industry (5.4%) than for those from academia (2.2%), according to Edwards.

Nearly two-thirds of ACS chemists reported that their department or business unit was either significantly or somewhat understaffed. Just over 30% of respondents expected their department or company to increase staff over the next year, and 59% believed staffing levels would remain the same; the other 11% expected staffing reductions.


If their predictions prove correct, next year’s survey should offer a somewhat brighter picture of the state of the chemical profession.

To download a PDF of the tables that go with this story, visit


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.