A chemist is a scientist specializing in the field of chemistry. To be a chemist you require a bachelor's degree in science or in chemical engineering, with a specialization in analytical chemistry, polymer chemistry (for the plastics industry), inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, or physical chemistry (mostly used for the BCE program).
In forensic chemistry, you'll be working in the field of direct investigations, whether it's running clinical trials or working for the Department of Justice as a crime scene investigator. When in this field you need to be able to use laboratory equipment competently, you should be meticulous about recording results, and you should also have a clear understanding of the basic processes involved. A good chemist will come up with new tests and chemical processes, make recommendations for advanced procedures, and will look for new avenues of research.
Chemistry is a multidisciplinary field; it branches into materials science with nanomaterials research and engineering, into biotechnology and medicine with clinical studies, and also into the latest generation of chemical sensors and detectors.
Chemistry degrees are highly sought after in the field of law enforcement and court procedures. These are public sector jobs with salaries that are very competitive. Typical law enforcement chemists tend to be fingerprint experts, DNA testing experts, and other forensic experts. Getting into law enforcement with a chemistry background means that you will be working for the justice department; you won't get in if you have a suspicious background, and you'll have to pass certain other requirements as well.
The highest paying chemist jobs are in the pharmaceutical industry, and pharmaceutical companies are generally looking for new talents. The usual tasks involved in chemistry jobs in pharmaceutical companies are taking new drugs from the initial Phase I and Phase II trials and husbanding them through the extensive human trials of Phase III. (This last set of drug trials is the one that drives the costs of drug development through the roof.)
Working for the justice department as a forensic scientist, you can expect a starting salary of about $35,000 per year, with regular pay increase of about 2-3% per year; Federal positions are more competitive, and with more regular pay raises. State positions are easier to get, will have comparable initial salaries, but promotions will be somewhat more difficult to come by.
Pharmaceutical positions, because there are more of them, and a good chunk of the work is very routine and tedious, have the lowest median pay, as compared to any other chemist position, with median salary of about $55,000 per year. This contrasts with the median salary of researchers at about $63,000 per year, and oil and gas chemists at $91,000 per year.
Like most science positions, the salaries rise dramatically once you get the chemist out of the lab, and into administration, sales, or product promotion. If you're already a senior chemist and are looking to break into forensic chemistry, keep this in mind. Decide if you want to go after the salary, or if you're looking to remain 'hands on' doing work you enjoy.
There are several professional routes to chemistry careers, often with stints in research and manufacturing. While there are several jobs available, only half of chemist positions are in direct research; most chemists with graduate degrees work as analytical chemists. Some of the other positions that a chemistry degree applies to include a perfumer, food and drug inspector, patent attorney, patent consultant, food technologist, industrial hygienist, quality control supervisor, spectroscopist, soil scientist, or teacher at the high school or secondary education level. Technical sales and communications jobs are also open to chemists. And most lab technician positions are geared for people with chemistry backgrounds, particularly those with forensic chemistry experience.
For those going directly into forensic chemistry, there are six general fields of practice; this is predominantly about working for police departments. They include medical examiner, crime laboratory analyst, crime scene examiner, and forensic engineer. Related fields that don't need a chemistry degree, but which are enhanced by a sound chemistry background, include psychological profiling (knowing the biochemical triggers for some behaviors is important), and technical assistants — people who do computer analysis and data management work, or manage polygraph sessions.
Of the first four positions, the one that requires the most extensive educational background is that of medical examiner, which requires a degree in medicine; an undergraduate major of chemistry is excellent, along with a degree program that's heavily into forensic science. This is a fairly highly paid position, and the general ingenuity with which people commit murder means it never gets stale. On the other hand, you're likely to be on call at all hours, and have a day-to-day job of cutting up corpses.
Crime lab analysts are paid reasonably well, and get to work stable hours and indoors, with clean samples. The drawback is that the work can be as routine and boring as any other office job. Also, if you come in with a mere chemistry background, you'll find that there isn't enough work in your specialty; a forensic sciences degree is often helpful in getting this type of position. Related to this field is the position of a crime scene investigator, which, while being popular due to the television franchise, combines many of the aspects of medical examiner with analyst positions. However you need go out in the field and deal with dead bodies.
Regardless of what your chemistry specialization is, the intersection of chemistry and the human body is a fascinating field with a lot of career potential and decent salaries.