What Degree Do I Need to Be an Organic Chemist?

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Organic chemist is a science career that offers plenty of opportunities to make an impact on the world. If you’re thinking of becoming an organic chemist, you will need an education that is heavy in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Not all schools offer a distinct organic chemistry major, especially at the undergraduate level, but many colleges and universities offer a general chemistry major.

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What Is Organic Chemistry?

Organic chemistry is one of the subdisciplines of chemistry, the natural science concerned with the properties and structure of matter and how material substances change and react when exposed to other substances and natural laws and forces. The American Chemical Society identifies organic chemistry as the scientific study of carbon-containing compounds. This emphasis on carbon is important, because this chemical is found in all living organisms on Earth – hence the term organic chemistry.

Originally, the carbon compounds studied in the field of organic chemistry were limited to those produced by living organisms. However, carbon may also be found in other matter besides living organisms, and today, the field has grown to include the scientific study of human-made substances, such as plastics.

The other main branches of chemistry are inorganic chemistry, analytical chemistry, physical chemistry and biochemistry. Whether you’re pursuing a degree in organic chemistry specifically or an education in chemistry more generally, you should develop a basic understanding of the concepts, techniques and technologies covered in these other subject areas within the field of chemistry.

Inorganic Chemistry

The chemical science branch of inorganic chemistry is, perhaps, the easiest to distinguish. While organic chemistry courses and applications focus on carbon-based compounds, inorganic chemistry generally refers to the scientific study of all chemical compounds that are not carbon-based.

Some examples of the kinds of compounds scientists may study in inorganic chemistry include metals, minerals and salts. Inorganic chemists may also study organometallic compounds, which are compounds consisting of one or more metal-to-carbon bonds, as well as molecules that are carbon-based but demonstrate properties similar to metals. Many fuels, pharmaceutical drugs, superconductors, coatings and other products are developed out of the field of inorganic chemistry, as are certain chemical reactions, such as acid-base reactions.

Analytical Chemistry

Analytical skills are valuable in every branch of chemistry, but, as the name suggests, the subdiscipline of analytical chemistry is particularly reliant upon them. The focus of analytical chemistry is identifying and quantifying the individual chemicals that make up a compound. To study the structure and composition of molecules, analytical chemists use certain procedures – or, when necessary, invent their own analytical procedures.

Physical Chemistry

In the study of physical chemistry, scientists are primarily interested in the physical properties of matter and how the principles of physics – the science concerned with the motion and behavior of matter – affect chemical interactions.


Biochemistry and biological chemistry combine the principles of both chemistry and biology to study the chemical principles behind biological systems. Through inquiry in biochemistry, scientists can better understand the function and structure of macromolecules, such as proteins and nucleic acids, that are used in making medical diagnoses, the treatment of infectious and genetic diseases, regenerative medicine and organ transplants.

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What Do Organic Chemists Do?

Organic chemists study and explore hydrocarbons and other carbon-based substances, but this field also encompasses more than basic research. In some careers in organic chemistry, scientists actually design and create new organic substances, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). These substances could be new chemicals, fuels, foods, medicines, materials or other useful organic compounds.

Research Roles in Organic Chemistry

Organic chemists pursue careers in many different areas and industries. Some organic chemists work for research facilities, where they may perform basic or applied research related to the properties and structure of hydrocarbons and other organic molecules. Like other scientists who focus on basic and applied research, organic chemists conduct experiments according to the scientific method and analyze the data produced by these experiments to draw evidence-based conclusions.

To share the findings of the research they perform, organic chemists write reports and submit them to peer-reviewed journals. Researchers in organic chemistry may also create presentations to share with other members of the scientific community at conferences.

Biotechnology Applications of Organic Chemistry

An organic chemist may also work for biotech, or biotechnology, companies in a variety of industries. In the industry of food biotechnology, the work of an organic chemist may encompass fertilizing and protecting crops, enhancing flavors and safely preserving food items.

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The biotechnology field also includes the pharmaceutical industry. Organic chemists working in the pharmaceutical industry develop organic compounds to help combat various illnesses. Many drugs we have today are based on organic structures, and organic chemists can study these structures to find ways to mass-produce pharmaceuticals that can be used by the general population.

An organic chemist may work in the energy industry. Some organic chemistry jobs in this field include investigating methods of generating and storing clean, renewable energy, such as the development of solar fuels and the engineering of electrical energy storage solutions like lithium-ion batteries.

University Roles for Organic Chemists

Many chemists work in college and university settings in roles that, most commonly, combine work in education and scientific inquiry. Besides teaching classes at the college level, professors working at a university typically undertake academic research and publish their findings in scholarly journals.

An organic chemistry professor helps spread their knowledge of organic chemistry to students. While much of their time is spent preparing for their classes and grading assignments and tests, organic chemistry professors will also give lectures to students about this fascinating subject.

Some organic chemistry professors work for community colleges, usually teaching basic general and organic chemistry courses. Many organic chemists find work at undergraduate and graduate schools, where they apply for grant funding, conduct research in their own laboratories and present their findings through conference presentations and published articles.

Levels of College Education in Organic Chemistry

General chemistry is a widely available major at the undergraduate level. The higher the level of study you are pursuing, the more specialized your coursework is able to become. Students may find that most associate’s level chemistry degrees cover general coursework in the subject of chemistry. At the bachelor’s degree level is where an undergraduate student may find more programs tailored to the organic chemistry major.

At the master’s degree level, again, universities are more likely to provide programs for organic chemistry majors. Doctoral degree programs, the highest level of study, tend to include the most specialized courses in organic chemistry.

Associate Degree Programs in Chemistry

The best organic chemistry degree options at the associate level are associate in chemistry programs. This course of study will help prepare you to go into a bachelor’s program in chemistry. Studying chemistry at the community college level will allow you to fulfill some of your general education requirements as well as some of the basic chemistry science courses.

A school that offers an associate degree program in chemistry may even offer organic chemistry courses specifically, so an aspiring organic chemist may still be able to start learning the concepts that are directly related to your desired field of study.

An Associate of Science degree program typically takes two years of full-time study to complete.

Organic Chemistry Bachelor’s Degree Programs

A bachelor’s degree is the minimum level of formal education required to begin working in a chemist role, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This undergraduate degree typically requires four years of full-time study and at least 120 college credits.

Not every school or university offers a distinct Bachelor of Science (BS) or Bachelor of Arts (BA) in organic chemistry. Most undergraduate chemistry programs today encompass studies in all of the major areas of chemistry to equip students with a comprehensive foundation in this field of natural science.

If an organic chemistry major is not an option at your school, a BS or BA in chemistry is a fine starting point for preparing for this career path. A sequence of organic chemistry courses is part of the core curricula of most bachelor’s degree programs with an organic chemistry major.

While working on your BS or BA as an organic chemistry major, you will be able to attend courses in a lab setting, which can help you develop the techniques used to conduct experiments and write research reports expressing your findings. Organic chemistry majors who are interested in research careers, however, are likely to need further educational preparation.

A bachelor’s degree can also help prepare you for entry-level positions, like process chemist or chemistry laboratory technician, in the field of organic chemistry.

Master’s Degree Programs in Organic Chemistry

After you have finished earning your undergraduate degree, you can move on to a graduate degree program. Again, a university may not offer a distinct Master of Science program in organic chemistry specifically. However, many chemistry majors in graduate school are able to pursue advanced studies in an area of specialization, such as organic chemistry. In addition to their specialized coursework, students in graduate school typically focus on research, including learning the methods for researching and conducting studies with organic chemistry.

A Master of Science in chemistry program will typically take between a year and a half and two years to complete, assuming you are studying full-time.

Organic Chemistry Doctoral Degree Programs

At the doctoral level, you may find that specialized organic chemistry degree programs are much more common. The highest level of formal degree available for the field of organic chemistry is an Organic Chemistry PhD program. This level of study is the best option for preparation to enter the academic and research fields of organic chemistry. Having a PhD can help boost your career opportunities in just about any area of work in this field of science.

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When students complete a Doctor of Philosophy degree program in organic chemistry, they have the opportunity to collaborate with faculty conducting current, cutting-edge research projects and work on their own research interests in service of writing a dissertation.

If you’re interested in going for your doctorate, you should know that this course of study isn’t quick. It typically takes four to six years, and sometimes even longer, to finish a PhD program if you enter with only a bachelor’s degree or at least three years if you have a master’s degree.

Coursework for an Organic Chemistry Degree

Organic chemistry majors take a lot of science courses. Besides taking classes in general chemistry and the other subdisciplines of chemistry, organic chemistry majors are likely to take at least a class or two in physics and a course in biology or biochemistry. Among your organic chemistry courses, you may find classes pertaining to the basic principles of the field as well as high-level courses that cover advanced and specialized topics.

The Basic Principles of Organic Chemistry

Your first college courses in organic chemistry should cover the basic principles of organic chemistry. A course in the foundations of organic chemistry will cover the molecular structure of carbon compounds and structural formulas, or the bonding between carbon and other chemicals in compounds. This bonding is what allows molecules to develop.

Other common topics of study in a course on organic chemistry principles include stereochemistry, which refers to the spatial arrangement of the atoms that make up molecules, and photochemistry, which refers to how light can produce chemical changes, such as photosynthesis occurring in plants.

Advanced Organic Chemistry Courses 

The advanced coursework for graduate-level degrees covers the different aspects of organic chemistry more thoroughly and with a more specialized focus. Organic chemistry courses at graduate schools will go into more depth covering the chemical structures that are commonly found in organic molecules. For example, students pursuing a Master of Science degree in chemistry with a concentration in organic chemistry will take graduate-level classes in topics like organic synthesis, organic spectroscopy and advanced organic chemistry.

The coursework you choose to take in an organic chemistry program, especially at the master’s or doctoral level, may depend on your area of interest. Chemists who want to work in pharmaceuticals may enroll in a specialized graduate course that focuses on the principles and techniques involved in creating new drugs to help people. For chemists interested in food biotechnology, schools may offer courses specific to food chemistry, or the chemical processes that occur in food through handling, heating, canning, freezing and other methods of processing.