Careers in Organic Chemistry
The Nature of Organic Chemistry
Organic chemistry is the study of carbon compounds, which are also known as organic compounds. These chemicals are found in our bodies and in the bodies of other living things, where they have a myriad of functions. In addition, they are made by chemists in the laboratory.
Millions of organic compounds exist and more are being created every day. They’re present in foods, food additives, medicines, cosmetics, fuels, plastics, agricultural chemicals, paper, fabrics, rubber, and many other substances.
Organic chemistry is the largest subdivision of chemistry and offers an exciting range of careers. Organic chemists work both inside and outside the laboratory. Many are involved in research. Others work in an interdisciplinary career, combining organic chemistry with another science or with technology. Some people with a chemistry degree become administrators or choose to work as educators. Others use their degree to help them in a career that is only distantly related to chemistry.
What Are Organic Compounds?
Originally the term “organic compounds” referred to carbon-containing chemicals that could only be obtained from organisms, or living things. This definition is inadequate now that we can make the chemicals in the lab. Today the definition of “organic compound” is a little fuzzy. It refers to both natural and synthetic carbon compounds. Not every compound that contains carbon is considered to be organic, however. For example, carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) are classified as inorganic.
Sometimes organic compounds are said to be those that contain carbon atoms joined to other carbon atoms, or that have carbon atoms joined to hydrogen atoms, but these definitions eliminate urea. Urea is famous for being the first organic compound synthesized in the laboratory. Our bodies produce urea from the breakdown of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. The urea is excreted in our urine. In practice, a chemical is considered to be organic by the general consensus of chemists.
The Life of a Chemist
Research chemists discover new carbon compounds in nature, create new ones in the lab, and study the properties and behaviour of the chemicals. They often modify natural chemicals to improve their characteristics or to make them safer.
Organic chemists frequently work in the area of research and development. They discover new information about chemicals and their behaviour and sometimes use this information to develop a new product. Discovering an unknown fact about the natural world or creating a chemical that improves human lives is often very satisfying for scientists. Their work can be creative, challenging, and highly rewarding.
Research chemists do laboratory work, but they also do library or Internet research, discuss their work with other scientists, and write reports. They often use sophisticated lab equipment and computer software in their work. Computers are used to store and analyze data. In addition, computer-aided design software (CAD software) is used to help chemists create molecular models of organic compounds and modify the structure of the molecules.
Many chemists collaborate with other researchers, so the ability to work with others is essential for an organic chemistry graduate. Research chemists often work in teams under a project leader. They may be employed by government agencies, pharmaceutical, agricultural, or petrochemical companies, environmental organizations, processed food manufacturers, or industries that manufacture other useful products. Industrial chemists may be involved in creating, analyzing, and testing products. Research chemists are also employed by universities, where they both perform research and teach.
Organic Chemistry Lab Equipment
Most medicinal chemists are involved in finding, producing, and analyzing new pharmaceutical drugs in the laboratory. Sometimes a medicinal chemist performs a desk job, such as reviewing drug applications, and doesn't actually work in a laboratory.
Medicinal chemistry is sometimes known as pharmaceutical chemistry. Some organizations consider the subjects to be the same discipline while others consider them to be different, although the stated differences vary. They are at least very closely related. A student interested in training for one—or both—of these careers should check the description of a relevant university or college program carefully.
An organic chemistry degree is excellent preparation for becoming a medicinal chemist, since most medicines are organic compounds. A knowledge of biology is helpful, too. A medicinal chemist will probably be working with biologists or with people trained in pharmaceutical science.
A Career in Medicinal Chemistry
Biochemistry is an interdisciplinary area that involves both chemistry and biology. A career as a biochemist could be a fascinating choice for someone who is interested in the chemical reactions that take place in living things.
Organisms are made of chemicals, so understanding the behaviour of these chemicals inside their body is a vital activity. Research performed by biochemists may not only help us to understand life better but may also have practical importance in areas such as medicine, veterinary medicine, agriculture, and toxicology.
The Importance of Biochemistry
Forensic chemistry requires a knowledge of organic compounds. In this career scientists identify substances found in material collected at a crime scene to help solve the crime. Many of these substances are organic, including chemicals from body fluids or tissues and chemicals from clothing, but inorganic compounds are present as well. A forensic investigator therefore needs a good knowledge of both organic and inorganic chemistry.
Some universities offer special courses or programs in forensic chemistry. These should be investigated if you want to work as a forensic chemist, since you will need to learn specialized techniques as well as chemistry.
A Forensic Chemist Describes a Typical Work Day
Chemical Informatics or Cheminformatics
Chemical informatics, also known as cheminformatics, could be an interesting career for someone who is interested in computers as well as chemistry. It involves the storage, retrieval, manipulation, and application of data about chemicals. Since organic compounds are so important to humans, a knowledge of organic chemistry is important in informatics. A student aiming for this career needs to learn about all types of chemicals, however.
Cheminformatics deals with both real molecules and hypothetical ones. A particular database may include the predicted properties of a virtual compound that is related to a real one. It may also help researchers to discover how to synthesize the virtual molecule.
Some organic chemists work in the field of biotechnology, which is the use of microorganisms or of chemicals made by living things to perform a manufacturing or industrial process. The microorganisms may be genetically altered to make them more useful. The goal is to make a product that is useful for humans,. Although microbes are most often used for genetic manipulation, other organisms are used as well. The methods used to change the genes of an organism are part of biotechnology.
Biotechnology is an interdisciplinary science involving both biology and chemistry. Many of the useful chemicals made by microorganisms, such as DNA and enzymes, are organic. An organic chemist can be a valuable member of a team that is working on a biotechnology project. It's helpful if the chemist knows some biology as well.
DNA and Biotechnology
Some organic chemists combine teaching and research at a university. Others teach at the college level or in a high school. A high school teacher usually teaches several related subjects instead of just one subject, unless they're teaching in a large school with a high student enrollment. If you plan on a career as a high school chemistry teacher, make sure that you study other science subjects as well. You will also need a knowledge of both organic and inorganic chemistry.
A Chemistry Career Poll
Which career interests you the most?
Other Possible Careers
Chemistry graduates have skills that are valuable in any career. They are trained to think logically, to solve problems, to perform experiments in an organized fashion, to record data clearly, to analyze data, to do math calculations, and to use computers.
Organic chemists may get further training and work as lawyers, specializing in cases involving chemicals and chemistry. They may also work in marketing and sales departments for chemical companies. Excellent oral and written communication skills are necessary in a sales career. The chemist may be required to promote chemicals or the equipment used in chemistry laboratories. Another less traditional career for organic chemists is scientific or technical publishing (provided the student has taken English courses and has studied other sciences in addition to taking organic chemistry courses).
How Can I Become an Organic Chemist?
Organic chemists need a university degree in chemistry and must make sure that they take lots of organic chemistry courses in their studies. Computer science courses are important too, since the computer is often an important tool for chemists.
Chemists with all types of chemistry degrees can find a job in a research lab, but generally those with a PhD lead a project and direct people with other degrees. Someone with a bachelor's degree can advance in their career as they gain experience, but the advancement will almost certainly go much further if the person has a PhD.
University teachers require a PhD. College teachers need a PhD or a master's degree. High school teachers require a bachelor's degree followed by extra training to qualify for a teacher's certificate. Some other careers, such as forensic chemistry, also require specialized training in addition to a knowledge of chemistry.
A career in organic chemistry is a very worthwhile goal. Chemists have the opportunity to make a useful contribution to humanity, since organic compounds are so important in our lives. Chemistry can also be very rewarding for someone who is curious about the physical or biological world and how it operates.
© 2012 Linda Crampton