Organic chemistry is that branch of chemistry that deals with the structure, properties, and reactions of compounds that contain carbon. It is a highly creative science. Chemists in general and organic chemists in particular can create new molecules never before proposed which, if carefully designed, may have important properties for the betterment of the human experience. In terms of Ph.D. population, organic chemistry is the largest chemistry discipline, in both total numbers, annual Ph.D. graduates, and in annual production.
Beyond our bodies' DNA, peptides, proteins, and enzymes, organic compounds are all around us. They are central to the economic growth of the U.S., in industries such as the rubber, plastics, fuel, pharmaceutical, cosmetics, detergent, coatings, dyestuffs, and agrichemicals industries. The very foundations of biochemistry, biotechnology, and medicine are built on organic compounds and their role in life processes. Most all of the modern, high tech materials are composed, at least in part, of organic compounds. Clearly, organic chemistry is critically important to our high standard of living.
Organic chemists at all degree levels are found in all those industries that depend on R&D, working on projects from fundamental discovery to highly applied product development. The foundation of the pharmaceutical industry is the large pool of highly skilled organic chemists. For example, nature may provide a molecule such as a complex antibiotic, an antitumor agent, or a replacement for a hormone such as insulin; organic chemists determine the structure of this newly discovered molecule and then modify it to enhance the desired activity and specificity of action, while decreasing undesired side effects. Indeed, organic chemists have produced a wonderful myriad of highly successful products to fight human diseases.
There is tremendous excitement and challenge in synthesizing a molecule never before made synthetically or found in nature. Tailoring the properties of that molecule via chemical synthesis to produce beneficial effects to meet the needs of the present and future human existence is both challenging and rewarding.
When asked to comment about his work, John Hyatt, senior research associate at Eastman Chemical Company said, "I think of new ways to solve old problems." Hyatt specializes in organic chemistry research and the development of naturally-occurring compounds. He looks for methods to synthesize organic compounds which will prove useful in medicine, nutrition, and materials science. Often these compounds already are known to be of significant commercial value; Hyatt's job is to develop new and improved synthetic routes and to find more efficient methods for the isolation and purification of naturally occurring substances of commercial value. Hyatt also designs and carries out synthesis of isotopically-tagged versions of reasonably complex target molecules. His work is just one example of the wide variety of exciting opportunities inherent in organic chemistry.
As a senior research associate at Procter & Gamble, Kelly McDow-Dunham has applied her background in organic chemistry to the synthesis of drugs that act against osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease in which enzymes attack and break down the bone cartilage. McDow- Dunham's work has involved synthesizing enzyme inhibitors, small organic molecules that deactivate the enzymes and prevent them from attacking the cartilage. In this type of work, once the synthesis is accomplished, a molecule is given to biochemists, pharmacologists, and toxicologists to test for activity, mode of biologic action, and safety. Often, a drug candidate is not usable for one reason or another?for example, it could turn out to be toxic?and chemists have to work to modify the structure, hoping to improve the biological properties. "Characteristics of these compounds have to be right," says McDow-Dunham. "Each compound may have some properties that are right, and other characteristics that are not suitable. So, organic chemists have to make modifications in the structure of the molecule to optimize them. It's very challenging and difficult, but that's what makes the work interesting," says McDow-Dunham.
Organic chemists often say that in addition to making the work interesting, the challenge of finding a process or product that works in the midst of numerous ideas that do not pan out is often a learning experience. Kenetha Stanton, associate research scientist at Procter & Gamble says, "Often, we either can't make the compound we want, or a compound that we do make doesn't have the activity that we had envisioned. When this occurs, we've at least discovered that a certain class of compounds won't work for us. We can move on and know that we don't need to look at that particular group any more. That allows us to focus our time and energy elsewhere. In that sense, what seems like a failure is really a kind of success in disguise."
Organic chemists spend time in the lab but also work outside the lab studying scientific literature, doing library research, collaborating with colleagues, writing reports, preparing publications, and peer-reviewing research manuscripts. Computers are playing an ever-increasing role in simplifying these tasks. Depending on education, skills, employer, specific projects, and career track, organic chemists may be involved in a variety of tasks including carrying out procedures at the bench, designing and directing the research efforts of a group of scientists, and managing research facilities.
Senior principal scientist Joel Barrish at Bristol-Myers Squibb does some of his own laboratory work in cardiovascular and immunology research when possible. However, most of his day is spent carrying out those duties associated with his role as group/project leader in drug discovery research. These responsibilities include coordinating the synthetic chemistry efforts of chemists in his group and collaborating with professionals working on the project in areas outside of his group such as computer-aided design, X-ray crystallography, biochemistry, metabolism and pharmacokinetics, process research chemistry, and regulatory affairs. Barrish says that his Ph.D. in chemistry and seven years of work experience in this field prepared him for his current position. He comments, "I would like to continue on the managerial/scientific track in industry, leading drug discovery programs."
Many organic chemists, such as Hyatt and Barrish, choose to remain active in the technical end of chemistry. Others apply their knowledge and skills outside the laboratory holding positions that include those in sales, marketing, and law. Many organic chemists work in academia, holding positions that include undergraduate and graduate teaching and research. The academic area provides the opportunity for the very best to explore new areas of organic research.
McDow-Dunham attended law school while working as a scientist at P&G and is now pursuing her interests in patent law with the company. "I like the idea of being an advocate for scientists." Her goal as a patent attorney is to work with scientists to obtain proprietary protection for the compounds that they design. She adds, "My background in organic chemistry will help me work with other scientists in my new role because I know how to talk their language." This is an important aspect of organic chemistry; its central nature can open many alternative career paths.
Whether working inside or outside the laboratory, organic chemists compare their work in the field to solving puzzles. Stanton suggests, "You keep getting little bits of information here and there from the different tests and experiments that you run. You find out what works and what doesn't work along the way and you learn how to fit all the pieces together to get the target you're looking for."
David Eickhoff, associate scientist at Procter & Gamble, makes this analogy of his work: It is wanting to get from New York to Los Angeles. "There are an infinite number of routes. Some are better than others because of things out of your control, such as an inaccessible bridge along the way. So you back up and find another route in order to complete the journey."
Eickhoff continues, "Everyday is a new experience working in organic chemistry. There are well-defined rules, and there's just enough information that you're not just spinning your wheels. But it's not completely mapped out. There's always something new. Organic chemistry is a wonderful blend of what's known, what's not yet known, and how to apply this information to discover new knowledge. There's enough not yet known to keep it interesting and full of opportunity."
Organic chemistry is the science of designing, synthesizing, characterizing, and developing applications for molecules that contain carbon. Organic chemists create and study organic compounds, the reactions that produce them, and their chemical and physical properties. They create and explore new uses for new or existing organic materials. They carry out synthesis reactions and isolations in a laboratory environment using sophisticated instruments such as nuclear magnetic resonance; gas and liquid chromatography; and infrared, ultraviolet, and visible spectroscopy. Most of the instruments are computer driven and controlled, so computer literacy is required. Complex molecules may require 3D computer modeling capability to aid in visualizing the domains of complex molecules that require synthetic modification.
Most organic chemists will find themselves working in modern, clean, well-lighted, and safe research/development facilities equipped with up-to-date equipment and instrumentation designed to facilitate efficient project goal achievement. Individuals work on a team, and interactions with its members provide a valuable learning opportunity. Although the Ph.D. chemist will usually have over-all responsibility for the project, everyone's ideas and input will be valued and utilized.
Bachelor's degree chemists will spend most of their time working at the bench. However, time will also be spent with data recording, report writing, interactions with people and disciplines outside your team. Computers greatly aid the collection, recording, managing, and analyzing of data, and even report writing. More and more, computers bring the outside world's technical literature right into the laboratory, and they also are invaluable in providing computer aided design techniques for constructing new molecules and modifying existing ones. There will be no shortage of the latest in instrumentation to facilitate the work, both in industry and in academia.
Organic chemists at all levels are employed by pharmaceutical, biotech, chemical, consumer product, petroleum, and other industries from small to very large. Research and development is the primary opportunity in industry. Research universities that grant Ph.D.s have excellent teaching and research opportunities for Ph.D. chemists, many of whom will have post-doctoral training. Liberal arts colleges and universities also employ mostly Ph.D. chemists where excellent teaching and research are encouraged and rewarded. Government labs also employ organic chemists.
Like any other discipline, organic chemistry requires that the practitioner possess and cultivate a set of desired personal characteristics often called "What Counts" factors. These include creativity and innovation, technical mastery, problem solving ability, initiative and follow-through, leadership, ability to work with others (teamwork), and good oral and written communication skills. Developing and constantly strengthening these abilities will help you get a job, keep a job, and lead to a successful and satisfying career anywhere you are employed.
In R&D, most bachelor-level organic chemists work "at the bench" in a laboratory setting, often working as part of a team with masters and doctoral scientists or engineers. The higher the degree, the greater the responsibility, so the Ph.D scientist will usually have over-all responsibility for the project's content and direction. But many bachelor's chemists work independently and all can advance in responsibility and pay commensurate with acquired experience.
A benefit provided by most companies is paid tuition for the bachelor's or master's chemist who wishes to obtain a higher degree while working full-time. What is learned while pursuing that higher degree, coupled with the practical job experience, can be the key to more rapid advancement in responsibility and pay.
Most companies develop products that solve consumer or customer problems and many of the solutions are based on organic molecules. This is especially true in pharmaceutical and consumer products, but also in all the other industrial areas mentioned earlier. Since new sets of problems and opportunities constantly arise, organic chemists are in demand to synthesize and produce the molecules that solve those problems. Consequently, the job market for organic chemists is usually strong, again reflecting that organic compounds and chemists are a critical factor in so many varied industries.
Teaching opportunities for Ph.D. chemists each year are available, but the competition is quite stiff. Most research universities and liberal arts colleges require the Ph.D. degree. However, some four- and two-year colleges hire master's level chemists for teaching and limited research opportunities.
There are more than 1300 biotechnology firms and they, along with large companies, are hiring all degree levels of organic chemists. Government laboratories also present opportunity for all levels of organic chemists.
To find out what a person in this type of position earns in your area of the country, please refer to the ACS Salary Comparator. Use of the ACS Salary Comparator is a member-only benefit. General information about salaries in chemical professions can be obtained through published survey results.
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It is important that you compile a solid record of achievement in undergraduate school, focused on activities that build and demonstrate that you possess the "What Counts" factors covered under Personal Characteristics. Participate in an undergraduate research project to begin the process of developing meaningful laboratory skills. And, very importantly, secure a co-op or summer intern position. In a short summer you can decide whether you like industrial R&D or not, and the company can decide whether they see a future for you as a permanent employee. More and more, internships are becoming the preferred route into the company of your choice. The internship puts you ahead of those without one because you have started the "on-boarding" process that is the first step in a career with a company.