What is a chemistry degree?

A chemistry degree leads to careers in science, medicine, and education. But what is a chemistry degree like, and how hard is it?
Written by Genevieve Carlton, Contributor

Chemistry majors build strong research and laboratory skills during their program. A bachelor's degree in chemistry explores chemical structures, the composition of organic compounds, and the biomedical applications of chemistry. 

Degree-seekers study materials science, organic chemistry, and chemistry education. They also gain analytical and interpersonal skills. After earning a degree in chemistry, graduates work as laboratory technicians, chemists, chemistry teachers, researchers, and scientists. 

But is a chemistry degree right for you? Our guide walks through the skills you'll gain in a chemistry program and the career paths for chemistry graduates.

What skills do chemistry programs teach students?

A chemistry degree builds strong people or "soft" skills, including interpersonal, analytical, and research abilities. 

At the undergraduate level, chemistry majors strengthen hard skills in the laboratory science field. Graduate programs build on these abilities with specific chemical and materials analysis training. 

Key hard skills with a chemistry degree:

  • Chemical analysis
  • Laboratory science
  • Data analysis
  • Materials science

Key soft skills with a chemistry degree:

  • Teamwork
  • Research
  • Critical thinking
  • Organization

These skills prepare graduates for careers in chemistry, laboratory science, medicine, and many other fields.

What kinds of chemistry degrees are there?

Colleges offer chemistry degrees at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Each degree prepares graduates for different career paths and opportunities. 

For example, lab technician jobs generally require an associate degree, while chemists need at least a bachelor's degree. 

This section introduces the types of chemistry degrees and the career paths for each option.

Certificate program in chemistry

A certificate program introduces learners to chemistry through college-level coursework. Students may take inorganic and organic chemistry, biochemistry, and other chemistry classes. 

Certificates require less time than a degree-granting program — many less than one year. Certificates also do not require general education courses. Instead, learners only take chemistry classes.

After completing a chemistry certificate, students can transfer the credits into a degree-granting program. A certificate may also meet requirements for chemical technician or laboratory technician jobs. However, many chemistry jobs require a degree.

Associate degree in chemistry

An associate degree in chemistry provides foundational training in chemistry. Degree-seekers complete inorganic and organic chemistry courses while taking general education classes in biology, physics, math, and the social sciences. The curriculum emphasizes analytical and critical thinking skills. 

Earning an associate degree generally takes two years for full-time students.

With an associate degree, graduates qualify for chemistry technician, clinical laboratory technician, or environmental science technician positions. The degree also prepares learners for a bachelor's program. Transfer students with an associate degree typically earn a bachelor's with an additional two years of study. 

Bachelor's degree in chemistry

A bachelor's degree in chemistry meets the requirements for most chemist jobs. During a bachelor's program, chemistry majors take natural science classes alongside courses within their major. In addition to lecture-based classes, the major incorporates hands-on laboratory requirements.

Earring a bachelor's degree typically takes four years for full-time learners. Students can earn their degree in less time with transfer credits or accelerated programs. 

Graduates pursue careers as chemists and materials scientists. The degree also leads to opportunities as a clinical laboratory technologist or a forensic science technician. 

BA vs. BS in chemistry

Some colleges offer both a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of science in chemistry. While both degrees often use the same core curriculum, learners complete different general education requirements. A BA generally requires one year of foreign language, while a BS includes more math and science courses. 

Both degrees prepare graduates for careers in chemistry, laboratory science, medicine, and related fields. Some chemistry graduate programs recommend completing a BS, which includes more technical coursework.

Master's degree in chemistry

A master's degree in chemistry involves advanced, graduate-level coursework. Master's students take analytical chemistry, physical chemistry, and research methods courses. Depending on the program, learners may complete a research-based thesis or project. 

Many programs offer specializations in biochemistry, organic chemistry, and chemistry education. These specializations prepare graduates for specific career paths.

Earning a master's in chemistry often requires two years of study. After completing the degree, graduates work as biochemists, medicinal chemists, physical chemists, and materials scientists. A master's in chemistry also prepares graduates for doctoral programs or medical school.

Doctoral degree in chemistry

A doctoral degree in chemistry trains learners for the most advanced roles in the field. With a doctorate, professionals typically work in research or academia. They may run labs, work as research scientists, or hold positions as a chemistry professor.

Earning a doctorate in chemistry requires a significant time commitment. Most doctoral students spend three to six years earning their degree, typically after completing a master's degree. 

During a doctorate, graduate students take specialized classes, work under a faculty advisor, and complete a dissertation. After defending the dissertation before a faculty committee, the doctoral candidate earns their degree.

Accreditation for chemistry programs

Prospective chemistry students should always choose an accredited college. Degree-seekers may also benefit from researching accredited programs. Accredited programs meet high standards for academic excellence and student learning outcomes.

The American Chemistry Society accredits chemistry programs, as does the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

How hard is a chemistry degree?

What is a chemistry degree like in terms of difficulty? Chemistry majors need strong analytical, problem-solving, and research skills. Like most science degrees, chemistry incorporates math and laboratory requirements students may find challenging.

Successful chemistry majors also need critical thinking, organization, and communication abilities. For example, working with classmates on laboratory assignments requires teamwork. 

Learners without a strong background in science can prepare for a chemistry degree by taking college-level courses. A certificate or associate degree builds foundational knowledge and skills.

In conclusion

A chemistry degree helps professionals move into laboratory, medical, technical, and scientific roles. The degree also leads to opportunities in education, public health, and other fields. 

Prospective students can reach out to chemistry programs to learn more about the application process, cost, and time commitment for earning a chemistry degree.

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