Career Paths

The Best Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: Popular, Unusual, or Growing Fields

Lisa M. Balbes

The best career for you is the one that matches your skills, knowledge, and values at this particular point in your professional life. Your definition of “best” is different from mine—in fact, the best job for you might be pure torture for me. But no matter what you are looking for in a career, the more you know about your options, the more likely you are to find what is best for you. Below is a short list of “hot” career areas for chemists that are popular, unusual, or growing.

Contract Agencies and Organizations

There has been tremendous growth in contract work for chemists in recent years. Rather than seeking to be hired permanently, an increasing number of chemists are choosing temporary work that is either time- or project-based. Some­times a chemist works as an employee of an agency, which may or may not find another contract for him or her when the current one ends. Individuals working through an agency may encounter a “right-to-hire” clause, in which case the tempo­rary assignment essentially acts as a very long interview. Some agencies that specialize in scientific positions are Aerotek Staffing Agency, Kelly Scientific Resources, Yoh Scientific, and Your Encore. Many candidates register with several agencies.

Contract positions offer flexibility, and they can be a good way for recent graduates to get started, since professional recruiters have the large network of contacts and insight into employment trends that many new graduates lack. Those who choose to work on short-term assignments can build a profes­sional network and acquire new skills to prepare for the next position. 

However, such a contractor may only see his or her small piece of the project, and not how it fits into the bigger picture. Benefits (paid time off, health insurance, retirement, relocation, etc.) may be limited or nonexistent for contract positions, so it is important to understand the terms before signing. Contractors must also remember that a recruiter’s job is to find someone to fill a particular position, not to find an individual an ideal job.

In addition to the option of working as a contract em­ployee, there are growing opportunities in contract research organizations (CROs), which are taking over work that was formerly done in-house. Synthesis, analytical testing, clinical trials, and even basic research are increasingly being done by small, independent companies on behalf of large, traditional organizations, on a project basis.

Generic Pharmaceuticals 

In the pharmaceutical industry, many opportunities are now available with generic manufacturers (as opposed to the name brand, or innovator, companies). Generic pharmaceutical manufacturers start working on a product years in advance, so it is ready to sell the day the patent expires on the innova­tor product. They use the same active ingredient, but in their own formulation, and they verify that their product works the same way as the innovator product. 

Advocacy Groups 

As research funding from the federal government has de­creased, patient advocacy organizations are increasing their support for scientific research. These organizations tend to work more closely with patients, so although salaries may be slightly lower than those in industry, there is the added re­ward of seeing the patients that are being helped. Scientists are hired to review grant applications, oversee research projects, and disseminate results. 

Intellectual Property 

Intellectual property provides another large field among non­traditional careers, mainly in the area of patents. The need for trained scientists in this field has increased, but so has the number of people seeking employment. A patent gives an in­ventor the right to keep others from using his or her invention for a specified period of time, in a particular country. Patent searchers and patent agents can start straight out of graduate or even undergraduate school, conducting prior art searches and exploring the patent landscape in a particular field. They can assist patent agents and patent attorneys who draft patent applications and submit them to the U.S. Patent and Trade­mark Office (USPTO). There, a patent examiner will review the submitted patent application and any prior art, and allow or reject the patent application. Although chemists fill all of these roles and can obtain any of these jobs, note that only a patent attorney (who has been to law school and passed the bar exam) can give legal advice and litigate patent infringe­ment cases.

Data Science

Organizations are collecting more and more data, but they need to turn it into useful information, so opportunities in data science (or data analytics) are growing. Data scientists ask the right questions to extract information and insights— they identify trends, predict the future, and advise about which data to collect next. They explain their analyses to man­agers and high-level decision makers, so good communication skills are essential. The field often requires proven expertise in data analysis, databases, statistics, computer programming or scripting, or all of them, along with knowledge of the specific field of interest.

One subset of data science is molecular diagnostics (personal­ized medicine), or the science of using an individual’s genetic code to predict, diagnose, and monitor diseases, in addition to predicting which therapies will work best for a particular person. Scientists develop data by studying the human body’s reaction to drugs and the role individual genetics plays in it (pharmacogenomics). Often, this involves sequencing the genomes of many individuals with a particular disease to identify specific genetic variations, then statistically analyzing very large datasets.

Your definition of “best” is different from mine -- in fact, the best job for you might be pure torture for me.


Another type of data scientists would be management con­sultants. They help organizations improve their performance by conducting business analyses using both quantitative and qualitative methods. Many firms in this field (for instance, McKinsey, Bain & Company, Boston Consulting, Accenture) conduct on-campus recruiting events to hire Ph.D.’s and train them in their companies’ specific methods. The application process is extremely competitive, and the work is strenu­ous, but it provides an excellent introduction to the business world. 


Biotechnology includes developing biologics (drugs made using living systems), agricultural products (crops featuring enhanced yield, or resistance to drought or pests), and envi­ronmental applications (pesticides targeted to kill bugs with­out harming animals). Selective breeding has taken care of the latter two activities for thousands of years, but new techniques make the process much faster in the laboratory. Employment opportunities are growing in all areas of biotechnology, from laboratory research to large-scale manufacturing to product sales and public education.

Sales and Service

A large percentage of scien­tists have always gone into technical sales and service po­sitions, and that number may be increasing. Many types of sales positions exist, including those involving pharmaceu­ticals, lab services, and both business to consumer (B2C) and business to business (B2B) representation. The field also includes technical service for instruments and client-facing technical liaisons known as application engineers. Selling technical products is about developing relationships with po­tential customers and solving their problems.

Forensic Toxicology

A growing niche field is forensic toxicology, which uses both analytical chemistry and pharmacology to investigate both how the body processes various compounds (through adsorp­tion, distribution, metabolism and excretion, known collec­tively as ADME) and the effects these compounds, in turn, have on the body. Forensic toxicology also looks at deaths, poisonings, and other adverse effects to determine which compounds caused them. For example, a significant number of deaths result from overuse of painkillers, so forensic toxi­cologists are developing methods to more closely monitor the use of such drugs to allow pain relief without the risk of death. Another area of forensic toxicology involves the race between criminals and law enforcement, developing methods to detect very low concentrations of synthetic marijuana, fake cocaine, synthetic hormones in food, and illegal dietary supplements.

Medical Science Liaison

While some jobs have disappeared, others have appeared—including the role of medical science liaison (MSL). MSLs are hired by pharmaceutical, medical device, biotechnology, and managed care companies, as well as by CROs. They serve as experts in a particular disease or therapeutic state for colleagues within their companies, and they build relationships between their companies and key opin­ion leaders (KOLs) in their particular fields. They are prohibited from selling any product and serve in a purely educational role. These posi­tions require an advanced scientific degree (Ph.D., M.D., or Pharm.D.) as well as significant expertise in a particular dis­ease or therapeutic state (

Although almost every field offers at least a few opportu­nities, there is no single industry or sector that is THE place for chemists to go. The wide variety of options means that everyone who is so inclined ought to be able find a position. However, it will take some work, since the openings are not all conveniently listed in one place.