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How do chemists’ salaries stack up?

ACS’s annual employment survey shows unemployment down and salaries steady in 2016

by Andrea Widener
November 14, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 45

Unemployment dropped in 2016 among ACS members...

Note for all graphics: Survey of 6,321 U.S. ACS members taken between March and April 2016. Salaries reflect the median salary for full-time employees who say their work specialty is chemistry, with the exception of chemical engineers.

...while salaries were essentially flat in most sectors.

Note: The money stacks in each category reflect 2016 salaries. A single full stack represents $40,000.

Men continue to make significantly more than women...

...and chemical engineers make more than chemists.

What you make depends a lot on where you live.

These are the ACS members who took the 2016 survey.

Note: Numbers do not add to 100 because Hispanic is asked separately.
a Permanent resident or other visa.

Here are the top 10 industries where they work.

Those in education fields work in a large variety of jobs.



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Chad (November 14, 2016 9:12 PM)
Any ideas why the salary for a BS degree is higher than a masters in 2 sectors?
DC (November 16, 2016 5:13 PM)
My guess would be that there are fewer MS individuals in those areas. This results in an MS with less experience making less money than a BS with more experience.
Oscar (@kemfizix) (November 15, 2016 1:31 AM)

Do you have stats on how long after receiving a degree? For example,PhD, industry, 5 years, vs. 10/20 years.

While it is a positive outlook that unemployment is down, are the salaries published average salaries,average starting salaries,etc?

Thank you.
Dustin (November 15, 2016 5:00 PM)
It's interesting the disparity between men and women chemists, however I do not think it is accurate depiction of income inequality. I think a slightly better metric would be to compare me and women of certain age groups (men age 35 - 45 / women age 35 - 45). Because there are many more women chemists and engineers now (still early in their career and relatively lower income) than there were in the past, the overall income total would appear skewed if you didn't account for age groups. If women are getting paid 20% less than men at the same job when they both come out of graduate school at the same time, overall, then that's a problem.
KAORU AOU (November 19, 2016 5:45 PM)
That makes a lot of sense. It would also make sense to segment by total years worked (family or medical leave time would be subtracted) as that is probably a more direct influence on amount of experience than age itself to wages.
Joe (November 18, 2016 7:58 AM)
The data misrepresents the profession of Chemistry. Survey only represents the elite of the industry and deceives students to get into a profession that is oversturated with job applicants. I recall past ACS data showed that only 2 of 10 graduates will become employed as chemists. Employers have all the leverage with the hiring decision often made based upon who accepts the lowest pay.

There are 2 sizable shortfalls for this study. 1) Survey only includes salary data from ACS members who can access the survey. The survey is biased for chemists who can afford to pay dues or have funding to pay membership dues. This excludes the majority of American chemists, who are employed as lab technicians. Chemists with low pay cannot afford ACS dues. Thus, for low paid chemists their salary and job details are excluded from the survey pool.

2) Many chemists who have strong skills move out of chemistry work due to better income in other jobs. When not in chemistry-related job the survey is likely to be passed up. These individuals also may no longer associate themselves as chemists and are not paying membership dues to ACS.

I continue to ask ACS to make a lower level of membership so Chemistry technicians can have affiliation, and the survey should be sent out to entire profession of chemistry.
Andrew (January 4, 2017 9:46 AM)
I agree with Joe. I worked as a 'Chemist' (it was my official title, but not on par with may others with that title) but I only earned about $36,000 after about 3 years (2011-2014). I am not ACS certified (although I went to an ACS accredited school) and am not a member. I left the field to earn more elsewhere, because the well paying chemist jobs are not available to me. I was led to believe (by the ACS and others) that chemistry is a well paid profession; since it is a STEM job and all that, but that hasn't been the reality of many of the people that I knew in my field. High school teachers make more than many of us do and only work for 3/4 of the year.

It is important to have an accurate picture of everyone who works in the field, not just the top echelon of earners and learners. I don't know any bachelor's earning $82k+ in the northeast; they might be out there, but I'd guess there aren't many of them.
Tony (January 5, 2017 10:26 AM)
I agree with Andrew and Joe here to some extent. the average age cited above is 49 and when those people were getting jobs a BS in chemistry was a pretty good ticket into getting a good paying job. I work with some guys who are 60+ who only have a BS and make more money than I do with a PhD.

I'm a bit below the average for my region, but then again the average age is 49 and I'm 29. So I've got 20 years to hit the average or exceed provided it doesn't shift too much.

Also, not all ACS members are working as "Chemists," because there is not a huge surplus of "chemist" jobs out there. I'm guessing a lot have transitioned to regulatory, consulting, and other adjacent fields as opposed to a traditional R&D/Tech Service position within the industry.

Then again, the boomers should be retiring pretty soon and more jobs should in theory be opening up.
Tom (January 5, 2017 10:01 AM)
yup had to to start a brand new career because a BS in chemistry, graduating with honors, and ACS accredited got me about nowhere. I was fairly disappointed in how limited you are with just a BS degree in Chemistry. A masters will get you slightly farther, but not much. Chemistry jobs pay fairly poorly at first. You would be considered lucky to be making much more than 40k for your first job with a BS degree.
M (January 7, 2017 9:15 AM)
I disagree with the findings of this article in my own personal experience as a chemist. Our lab is staffed with highly competent BS, MS, and PhD level chemists. A fresh BS chemist is typically making low 30's, an experienced MS or PhD may make mid to high 40's. We are located in the South East and are a government institution.

I also believe the national market for chemist, at least in the analytical realm, is saturated. I've had many talented colleagues, alongside myself, unsuccessfully find opportunities paying anywhere close to the salaries depicted in this article.
Daniel (January 10, 2017 8:54 AM)
I agree with what most have said about the results. We need a breakdown of time in career/position.
Looking at all Chemists with only BS and not taking into account how long he/she has been working does not help us compare at all.
Naomi (January 11, 2017 10:01 AM)
where can you take the next survey?
Kyle (January 11, 2017 11:53 PM)
I received my Bachelor's degree in 2012. I was lucky enough to get a job in industry right away, and 5 years later I still make about 30K less than the average reported for my state. I also don't perform any chemistry, my job is more aligned with manufacturing. I'd like to point out that I'm a LUCKY one. Most people performing actual chemistry are PhD graduates, which means no jobs doing benchwork for the rest of us and little pay for the PhD. I only have an ACS membership because my company pays for 1 professional membership per year, if it wasn't for that I wouldn't be able to afford it.
Pam (January 13, 2017 7:51 AM)
20+ year chemist and I have seen my salary reduce year after year after year. Moved from the Midwest to the SE and there is a HUGE pay gap, not to mention almost all of the jobs being contract positions. I am currently making what I was 15 years ago when I was classified as a technician and I am performing GC/MS work. I guess I am lucky to even have a job but the above survey is completely out of touch with reality.
Mark (January 14, 2017 1:26 AM)
Does the regional data show just the median income for chemists or does it also include chemical engineers? As a chem eng, the numbers seem low. Also, seems like a hard sell on STEM education when you compare starting salaries as indicated by some of the comments here. Especially for BS chemists which is a real shame given the hard work that goes into the degree. If you check the AIChE site, it confirms that it is more lucrative to get a degree in ChE.
Chris (January 22, 2017 10:51 AM)
As chemists, we are competing against an international pool of candidates, since employers try to fill positions with H1B candidates, who are willing to work for less. This has pushed our salaries down, and perversely, created the lack of chemists that allows the companies and universities to regularly solicit congress for increases in the H1B visa cap. I was always proud that I went into Chemistry, completing my Masters, and several years of PhD research, but I had to leave the bench when I had kids.
Tz (November 8, 2017 1:50 AM)
Chris, you did the right thing to leave it. We all had fun doing the research even though it was hard work. I felt like I was contributing and making a bit of a difference. I think that there is a lot of propaganda about how there about how we need to be more stem graduates targeted at elementary school kids on up- pretty irresponsible stuff, as the career paths are lousy. I pay my associate level nurse more than most PhD chemists make!
Bob (May 20, 2017 10:29 PM)
These salaries are ridiculously high. I'd say that unless you are in management (i.e., not doing chemistry or rarely doing anything related to what most people think of as chemistry), the salaries listed here are about 30% to 50% lower. This information is not hard to dig up; just look at the pay and experience necessary for chemists on job boards. A good industrial chemist in the west south central region makes around $30K to $40K, which is about half what is reported here.

Moreover, there's little opportunity to move up the career ladder because you cannot get hired or promoted unless someone dies or retires, which is not happening as fast as needed to absorb all the new graduates. The reality is that chemistry is not growing, and companies are not adding new jobs. Instead, companies are reluctantly filling jobs that they would gladly outsource if they could. Were it not for the ever-shrinking small amount of specialty chemical development and agricultural chemical research going on in the USA, industrial chemistry research and development would die, and chemical engineers would be the ones doing what chemists do now until the factories shutter their doors.

The problem is that the hierarchy of companies is inverted. It should be the researchers and engineers who are paid double the amounts shown here while those with business degrees would be paid paltry wages commensurate with the difficulty of their job. Until this is the case, the pay and unemployment for chemists is only going to be worse, though I suspect ACS will still promote chemistry as a wonderful career even at 99% unemployment, since only 1% will be ACS members who are part of their surveys.
Jeff (June 14, 2017 12:08 PM)
I'm with Bob on this one, although I think the numbers are painted with such a broad brush as to be pretty much useless. The chemical industry is dying a slow death. Any jobs and products that can be off-shored economically will be eventually. This, coupled with the constant supply of fresh graduates, keeps salaries low. We hire B.S. chemists to do jobs that anybody could do and have Masters level people (and at least 1 PhD) working as technicians! The U.S. will eventually be the lowest-cost labor source and we will become the new Vietnam.
Paul (July 13, 2017 11:52 AM)
I am an ACS member and graduated with a BS in chemistry in 2004. I have worked in my field as a chemist for my entire career. I do fill out the annual ACS salary survey. For me, the numbers have always been nearly in line. I have never had a problem finding employment, but I am more mobile than most and have had to move several times. My experience may be the exception, but I do not believe this. The above posters are anecdotal. The salary survey does breakdown pay along various categories. I think ACS does a fine job. With regard to chemical technicians, I find that most of these people tend to be people who have a BS in biology or other field. Many of the lab technician jobs in my industry (petroleum) do not require any college degree. The pay for these positions does start out lower than chemists, but the skills required for the position are more hands on. The chemist roles that I have held required more problem solving and chemistry knowledge.

There is competition from foreign applicants that can lead to diminished pay, but I have been fortunate in career and welcome the competition. Overall, I certainly encourage anyone with a passion for knowledge and problem solving to study chemistry and choose it as a career. You likely will not get rich, but you can earn a nice living and have a good quality of life.
Missy (September 8, 2017 1:29 AM)
I graduated with a Bachelor's in chemistry in 2011, and I have to agree with the majority of comments above that this data is inflated. I've had many conversations with colleagues about how shocked we were by the low pay of the field, especially considering chemistry is often rated one of the hardest degrees to complete. What I've come to realize is that businesspeople are the ones who determine people's pay in the company, so of course they're going to value themselves higher and not give chemists what they deserve. Market saturation also influences this, the old rule of supply and demand. There are many with a Bachelor's in biology or even exercise science or marginally related degrees that are getting chemist jobs. The reality is that many chemist technician jobs out there can be taught to people who have a limited understanding of chemistry. They may not have the best understanding of what they're doing, but they can do it, and for less pay.

My colleagues and I have been looking for alternate career routes to take, preferably still using our chemistry degrees that we worked so hard to obtain, and which we are still passionate about. It seems like this takes some creativity, and being at the right place at the right time. Going back to school doesn't seem like the most cost-effective idea, as the cost of a Master's doesn't necessarily get counterbalanced with that much higher of a salary. I think there are a lot of chemists out there, especially those who graduated in the last 10 years, who are in need of some guidance and ideas for how to shape their careers in a way that will engage their passion for chemistry but provide a decent salary.

I know ACS has done some articles and webinars on nontraditional careers in chemistry, but the examples given are not accessible to the majority of chemists who just have a Bachelor's. If ACS were to do articles, especially regarding creative career options, catering more to the average chemist with a Bachelor's, that would be a great service to our field.
Tz (November 8, 2017 1:35 AM)
Academic programs churn out far too many graduates at every level. The problem is basically one of supply and demand in most stem fields. The universities and professors are very righteous and myopic in their views. Academia like any other industry needs labor and consumers and like most American industries treats them both very poorly. Let the buyer and the worker beware. Let’s face it guys and gals: considering how hard it is to get a PhD, these salaries are horrible.
I loved chemistry so much I got a PhD from caltech. Sadly a cpa credential from ANYWHERE is twice as valuable. From an economic standpoint my PhD is valueless for me now. It was over 25 years ago. Another factor is that chemistry and many other stem fields are over regulated which stifles r&d and therefore the need for researchers. Unfortunately h1b visas also is an issue depressing salaries. I did not realize how bad the economics were until I finished my PhD. My old friends who are still in research feel things are not going to get better. If I had a bit better understanding/education of economics and less idealism when I was young, it would have saved me some time and effort but it all worked out well for me in the end. Hope this helps. Sadly, please remember: your professors are not your friends.

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