Environmental Chemistry: Academic Requirements, Professional Outlook

Environmental Chemistry: Academic Requirements, Professional Outlook

Environmental Chemistry

Environmental chemistry is a very focused branch of chemistry, containing aspects of organic chemistry, analytical chemistry, physical chemistry and inorganic chemistry, as well as more diverse areas, such as biology, toxicology, biochemistry, public health and epidemiology. Environmental chemists work in a variety of public, private and government laboratories.

Environmental chemistry is socially important because it deals with the environmental impact of pollutants, the reduction of contamination and management of the environment. Environmental chemistists study the behavior of pollutants and their environmental effects on the air, water and soil environments, as well as their effects on human health and the natural environment.

The Academic Requirements

Environmental chemistry is a challenging major. The undergraduate curriculum is demanding both intellectually and in terms of time. There are no "easy courses" to be found in it. One studies inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, and analytical chemistry, examining the most basic qualities of matter, mastering strategies of chemical synthesis, solving chemical mysteries in the laboratory, and learning to communicate facts and theories about chemistry to others. Elective courses may include biochemistry and chemical oceanography, or one may choose to delve more deeply into one of the other subdisciplines of chemistry and environmental studies. Research with a member of the chemistry faculty in the junior or senior year can provide valuable experience at the frontiers of the science.

According to the Chemistry.org website; "Because environmental chemistry is so interdisciplinary, excellent communication skills, teamwork, the ability to associate with people and express ideas efficiently to a nonscientific audience are all important. This last challenge will become apparent when dealing with regulations or with sales and marketing individuals in your own company." To develop these skills, take some writing (scientific and journalistic) classes, some communications classes, and maybe a few business relations courses. Chemists with a proficiency in foreign language can work overseas in areas of exciting developments.

Here are some courses that we've seen:

  • Nuclear and Radiochemistry
  • Environmental Biogeochemistry
  • Petroleum and Organic Geochemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Analytical Chemistry
  • Principles of Environmental Science
  • Technical Writing & Information Retrieval
  • Intermediate Inorganic Chemistry
  • Computer Applications in Chemistry
  • Advanced Spectroscopy
  • Global Chemical Cycles
  • Environmental Fate & Transport
  • Atmospheric Chemistry

Professional Outlook

Environmental chemistry is a rather broad field, with many different kinds of work within it. For example, an environmental chemist may collect and analyze samples for identification of a contaminator, or help develop remediation programs. He or she may be involved in changing industrial practices so that the end result is a more environmentally-sound product. Some environmental chemists who work for industrial companies may advise employees on safety and emergency response, or on how to deal with government regulations and compliance issues.

The Chemistry.org website states, "Workplaces for environmental chemists are as varied as their job descriptions. Often their work is done in an indoor lab environment. However, when studying the fate and effects of chemicals in the environment, a river bed or stream may become their lab. Some companies have sophisticated indoor ecosystems in which they test their products. Others collect data outside and miles away from their own production sites." So, whatever path you choose to pursue within the environmental chemistry field will affect where and how you work. If you want to work outside, maybe you should do field research. If you want to be the one running the research, you'll need a Ph.D. and lots of lab experience, but you'll get to work inside most of the time and you could make some socially-important discoveries.

Here are some job titles that we've seen, including some of the organizations that offer them, all of which included a requirement for experience in Environmental Chemistry:

Salary Forecast

According the Bureau of Labor; "Median annual earnings of chemists in 2000 were $50,080. The middle 50 percent earned between $37,480 and $68,240. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $29,620, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $88,030. A survey by the American Chemical Society reports that the median salary of all their members with a bachelor's degree was $55,000 a year in 2000; with a master's degree, $65,000; and with a Ph.D., $82,200. Median salaries were highest for those working in private industry; those in academia earned the least. According to an ACS survey of recent graduates, inexperienced chemistry graduates with a bachelor's degree earned a median starting salary of $33,500 in 2000; with a master's degree, $44,100; and with a Ph.D., $64,500. Among bachelor's degree graduates, those who had completed internships or had other work experience while in school commanded the highest starting salaries. In 2001, chemists in non-supervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions in the Federal Government averaged $70,435 a year."


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