Careers and Jobs in Chemistry: College Professors, Chemistry

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  • School Subjects: Chemistry, English, Speech
  • Personal Skills: Communication/ideas Helping/teaching
  • Work Environment: Primarily indoors Primarily one location
  • Minimum Education Level: Master’s degree
  • Salary Range: $36,160 to $61,220 to $116 910+
  • Certification or Licensing: None available
  • Outlook: Much faster than the average
  • DOT: 090
  • GOE: 12.03 02
  • NOC: 4121
  • O*NET-SOC: 25-1052.00


College chemistry professors instruct undergraduate and graduate students in chemistry and related subjects at colleges and universities.They are responsible for lecturing classes, supervising labs, and creating and grading examinations. They also may conduct research, write for publication, and aid in administration. Approximately 19,560 postsecondary chemistry teachers are employed in the United States.


The concept of colleges and universities goes back many centuries. These institutions evolved slowly from monastery schools, which trained a select few for certain professions, notably theology. The terms college and university have become virtually interchangeable in America outside the walls of academia, although originally they designated two very different kinds of institutions.

Two of the most notable early European universities were the University of Bologna in Italy and the University of Paris. The University of Bologna was thought to have been established in the 12th century and the University of Paris was chartered in 1201.

These universities were considered to be models after which other European universities were patterned. Oxford University in England was probably established during the 12th century. Oxford served as a model for early American colleges and universities and today is still considered one of the world’s leading institutions.

Harvard, the first U.S. college, was established in 1636. Its stated purpose was to train men for the ministry. All of the early colleges were established for religious training. With the growth of state-supported institutions in the early 18th century, the process of freeing the curriculum from ties with the church began. The University of Virginia established the first liberal arts curriculum in 1825, and these innovations were later adopted by many other colleges and universities.

Although the original colleges in the United States were patterned after Oxford University, they later came under the influence of German universities. During the 19th century, more than 9,000 Americans went to Germany to study. The emphasis in German universities was on the scientific method. Most of the people who had studied in Germany returned to the United States to teach in universities, bringing this objective, factual approach to education, the sciences (including chemistry, biology, and mathematics), and other fields of learning. Benjamin Rush, a physician and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, is considered to be the first appointed professor of chemistry in the United States. In 1769, Rush began teaching at the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), and published the first American textbook on chemistry.

Today, the American Chemical Society has approved more than 630 bachelor’s, 300 master’s, and 190 doctoral degree programs in chemistry. Some of the top chemistry programs in the United States can be found at the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and the University of California—Berkeley.


College and university faculty members teach chemistry or related subjects at junior colleges or at four-year colleges and universities. At four-year institutions, most faculty members are assistant professors, associate professors, or full professors. These three types of professorships differ in regards to status, job responsibilities, and salary. Assistant professors are new faculty members who are working to get tenure (status as a permanent professor); they seek to advance to associate and then to full professorships.

College chemistry professors perform three main functions: teaching, advising, and research. Their most important responsibility is to teach students. Their role within a chemistry department will determine the level of courses they teach and the number of courses per semester. Most professors work with students at all levels, from college freshmen to graduate students. They may head several classes a semester or only a few a year. Some of their classes will have large enrollment, while graduate seminars may consist of only 12 or fewer students. Though college chemistry professors may spend fewer than 10 hours a week in the actual classroom, they spend many hours preparing lectures and lesson plans, grading papers and exams, and preparing grade reports. They also schedule office hours during the week to be available to students outside of the lecture hall, and they meet with students individually throughout the semester. Many professors teaching this discipline also work in the field as practicing chemists or chemical engineers.

In the classroom, chemistry professors teach classes on such topics as analytical chemistry, atmospheric chemistry, biochemistry, bioinorganic chemistry, biophysical chemistry, chemical biology, chemical engineering, chemical research, electrochemistry, environmental chemistry, inorganic chemistry, materials science, nuclear chemistry, organic chemistry, organometallic chemistry, pharmacology, physical chemistry, and polymer chemistry. They also administer exams and assign textbook reading and other research. In some courses, professors rely heavily on laboratories to transmit course material.

Another important responsibility is advising students. Not all chemistry professors serve as advisers, but those who do must set aside large blocks of time to guide students through the program. College chemistry professors who serve as advisers may have any number of students assigned to them, from fewer than 10 to more than 100, depending on the administrative policies of the college. Their responsibility may involve looking over a planned program of studies to make sure the students meet requirements for graduation, or it may involve working intensively with each student on many aspects of college life.

The third responsibility of chemistry professors is research and publication. Faculty members who are heavily involved in research programs sometimes are assigned a smaller teaching load. College chemistry professors publish their research findings in various scholarly journals, such as Analytical Chemistry, the Journal of Physical Chemistry, and the Journal of Organic Chemistry. They also write books based on their research or on their own knowledge and experience in the field. Most textbooks are written by college and university teachers.

Publishing a significant amount of work has been the traditional standard by which assistant chemistry professors prove themselves worthy of becoming permanent, tenured faculty. Typically, pressure to publish is greatest for assistant professors. Pressure to publish increases again if an associate professor wishes to be considered for a promotion to full professorship. Professors in junior colleges face less pressure to publish than those in four-year institutions.

Some faculty members eventually rise to the position of chemistry department chair, where they govern the affairs of the entire department. Department chairs, faculty, and other professional staff members are aided in their myriad duties by graduate assistants, who may help develop teaching materials, conduct research, give examinations, teach lower-level courses, and carry out other activities.

Some college chemistry professors may also conduct classes in an extension program. In such a program, they teach evening and week end courses for the benefit of people who otherwise would not be able to take advantage of the institution’s resources. They may travel away from the campus and meet with a group of students at another location. They may work full time for the extension division or may divide their time between on-campus and off-campus teaching.

Distance learning programs, an increasingly popular option for students, give chemistry professors the opportunity to use today’s technologies to remain in one place while teaching students who are at a variety of locations simultaneously. The chemistry professor’s duties, like those when teaching correspondence courses conducted by mail, include grading work that students send in at periodic intervals and advising students of their progress. Computers, the Internet, email, and video conferencing, however, are some of the technology tools that allow professors and students to communicate in “real time” in a virtual classroom setting. Meetings may be scheduled during the same time as traditional classes or during evenings and weekends. Professors who do this work are sometimes known as extension work, correspondence, or distance learning instructors. They may teach online courses in addition to other classes or may have distance learning as their major teaching responsibility.

The junior college chemistry instructor has many of the same kinds of responsibilities as does the chemistry professor in a four- year college or university. Because junior colleges offer only a two- year program, they teach only undergraduates.


High School

Your high school’s college preparatory program likely includes courses in English, science (especially chemistry), foreign language, history, math, and government. In addition, you should take courses in speech to get a sense of what it will be like to lecture to a group of students. Your school’s debate team can also help you develop public speaking skills, along with research skills.

Postsecondary Training

At least one advanced degree in chemistry or a related field is required to be a professor in a college or university. The master’s degree is considered the minimum standard, and graduate work beyond the master’s is usually desirable. If you hope to advance in academic rank above instructor, most institutions require a doctorate.

In the last year of your undergraduate program, you’ll apply to graduate programs in chemistry. Standards for admission to a graduate program can be high and the competition heavy, depending on the school. Once accepted into a program, your responsibilities will be similar to those of your professors—in addition to attending seminars, you’ll research, prepare articles for publication, and teach some undergraduate courses.

You may find employment in a junior college with only a master’s degree. Advancement in responsibility and in salary, however, is more likely to come if you have earned a doctorate.

Other Requirements

You should enjoy reading, writing, and researching. Not only will you spend many years studying in school; your whole career will be based on communicating your ideas. People skills are important because you’ll be dealing directly with students, administrators, and other faculty members on a daily basis. You should feel comfortable in a role of authority and possess self-confidence.


Your high school chemistry teachers use many of the same skills as college chemistry professors, so talk to your teachers about their careers and their college experiences. You can develop your own teaching experience by volunteering at a community center, working at a day care center, or working at a summer camp (especially one that focuses on science). Also, spend some time on a college campus to get a sense of the environment. Write to colleges for their admissions brochures and course catalogs (or check them out online); read about the faculty members in chemistry departments and the courses they teach. Before visiting college campuses, make arrangements to speak to professors who teach courses that interest you. These professors may allow you to sit in on their classes and observe. Also, make appointments with college advisers and with people in the admissions and recruitment offices. If your grades are good enough, you might be able to serve as a teaching assistant during your undergraduate years, which can give you experience leading discussions and grading papers.


Approximately 19,560 postsecondary chemistry teachers are employed in the United States. Employment opportunities vary based on area of study and education. With a doctorate, a number of publications, and a record of good teaching, professors should find opportunities in universities all across the country. Chemistry professors teach in undergraduate and graduate programs. The teaching jobs at doctoral institutions are usually better paying and more prestigious. The most sought-after positions are those that offer tenure. Teachers that have only a master’s degree will be limited to opportunities with junior colleges, community colleges, and some small private institutions.


You should start the process of finding a teaching position while you are in graduate school. The process includes developing a curriculum vitae (a detailed, academic resume), writing for publication, assisting with research, attending conferences, and gaining teaching experience and recommendations. Many students begin applying for teaching positions while finishing their graduate program. For most positions at four-year institutions, you must travel to large conferences where interviews can be arranged with representatives from the universities to which you have applied.

Because of the competition for tenure-track positions, you may have to work for a few years in temporary positions, visiting various schools as an adjunct professor. Some professional associations maintain lists of teaching opportunities in their areas. They may also make lists of applicants available to college administrators looking to fill an available position.


The normal pattern of advancement is from instructor to assistant professor, to associate professor, to full professor. All four academic ranks are concerned primarily with teaching and research. College faculty members who have an interest in and a talent for administration may be advanced to chair of a department or to dean of their college. A few become college or university presidents or other types of administrators.

The instructor is usually an inexperienced college teacher. He or she may hold a doctorate or may have completed all the Ph.D. requirements except for the dissertation. Most colleges look upon the rank of instructor as the period during which the college is trying out the teacher. Instructors usually are advanced to the position of assistant professors within three to four years. Assistant professors are given up to about six years to prove themselves worthy of tenure, and if they do so, they become associate professors. Some professors choose to remain at the associate level. Others strive to become full professors and receive greater status, salary, and responsibilities.

Most colleges have clearly defined promotion policies from rank to rank for faculty members, and many have written statements about the number of years in which instructors and assistant professors may remain in grade. Administrators in many colleges hope to encourage younger faculty members to increase their skills and competencies and thus to qualify for the more responsible positions of associate professor and full professor.


Earnings vary by the departments professors work in, by the size of the school, by the type of school (public, private, women’s only, for example), and by the level of position the professor holds.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2006, the median salary for postsecondary chemistry teachers was $61,220, with 10 percent earning $116,910 or more and 10 percent earning $36,160 or less. Chemistry teachers employed at junior colleges had mean annual earnings of $59,070. Those with the highest earnings tend to be senior tenured faculty; those with the lowest, graduate assistants. Professors working on the West Coast and the East Coast and those working at doctorate-granting institutions also tend to have the highest salaries. Many professors try to increase their earnings by completing research, publishing in their field, or teaching additional courses.

Benefits for full-time faculty typically include health insurance and retirement funds and, in some cases, stipends for travel related to research, housing allowances, and tuition waivers for dependents.


A college or university is usually a pleasant place in which to work. Campuses bustle with all types of activities and events, stimulating ideas, and a young, energetic population. Much prestige comes with success as a professor and scholar; professors have the respect of students, colleagues, and others in their community.

Depending on the size of the department, college chemistry professors may have their own office, or they may have to share an office with one or more colleagues. Their department may provide them with a computer, Internet access, and research assistants. College professors are also able to do much of their office work at home. They can arrange their schedule around class hours, academic meetings, and the established office hours when they meet with students. Most college teachers work more than 40 hours each week. Although college professors may teach only two or three classes a semester, they spend many hours preparing for lectures, examining student work, and conducting research.


The U.S. Department of Labor predicts much faster than average employment growth for college and university professors through 2014. College enrollment is projected to grow due to an increased number of 18- to 24-year-olds, an increased number of adults returning to college, and an increased number of foreign-born students. Retirement of current faculty members will also provide job openings. However, competition for full-time, tenure-track positions at four-year schools will be very strong.

A number of factors threaten to change the way colleges and universities hire faculty. Some university leaders are developing more business-based methods of running their schools, focusing on profits and budgets. This can affect college professors in a number of ways. One of the biggest effects is in the replacement of tenure- track faculty positions with part-time instructors. These part-time instructors include adjunct faculty, visiting professors, and graduate students. Organizations such as the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers are working to prevent the loss of these full-time jobs, as well as to help part- time instructors receive better pay and benefits. Other issues involve the development of long-distance education departments in many schools. Though these correspondence courses have become very popular in recent years, many professionals believe that students in long-distance education programs receive only a second-rate education. A related concern is about the proliferation of computers in the classroom. Some courses consist only of instruction by computer software and the Internet. The effects of these alternative methods on the teaching profession will be offset somewhat by the expected increases in college enrollment in coming years.


To read about the issues affecting college professors, contact: the following organizations:

American Association of University Professors

1012 14th Street, NW, Suite 500

Washington, DC 20 005-3406

Tel: 202-737-5900


American Federation of Teachers

555 New Jersey Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20001-2029

Tel: 202-879-4400


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