- Types of chemist
- What do chemists do?
- Chemist career path
- Chemist salaries
- Qualifications and training
- Chemist skills
- Pros and cons of being a chemist
- Work-life balance of a chemist
- Typical employers hiring chemists
- Related jobs to chemist
- More information
Do you have a passion for science and an eye for detail? Are your analytical thinking skills strong and would you like the opportunity to contribute to some of the fastest growing industries in the world? If so, then a career as a chemist could be the path you’re looking for.
Do you think you’d be perfect for a career as a chemist? Explore the Science and Research graduate jobs available right now.
Chemists work with and test different chemicals and materials and analyse how they behave under various different conditions. Chemists fall into two areas of expertise:
An analytical chemist explores the chemical composition of substances and how they behave in a variety of different conditions. This knowledge is then applied to many processes we use in day to day life. An analytical chemist may be found working in environmental issues, forensics, product development, quality control or toxicology to name a few.
Medicinal chemists use chemistry techniques to design and test new molecules which can be developed into pharmaceuticals for the treatment and prevention of illnesses, as well as working to improve existing drug treatments. Sometimes, medicinal chemists are also referred to as ‘science and research chemists’ or ‘synthetic organic chemists’.
Chemists are usually found in a lab in either a research facility in a university or as part of a larger company or plant. Here are some examples of what working as a chemist day to day may look like, regardless of your specialism:
- Design and conduct laboratory experiments to analyse and develop target molecules.
- Use advanced chemistry techniques such as ion chromatography, spectroscopy, high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and electrochromatography.
- Interpret and write up results and develop predictions and theories.
- Use computer modelling to investigate if it will be possible to scale up production for the mass market.
- Collaborate with peers from other scientific disciplines and departments.
- If working in product development, liaise with customers and suppliers.
- If working in medicine, connect with doctors and patients.
- Report and present your results either through meetings with other professionals or writing articles to be published in scientific journals.
In the early stages of their careers, chemists usually find work within the NHS, research institutes or universities, public health laboratories, government agencies or under large manufacturing companies. Working in industry could offer roles in patent work, health and safety or forensic science. For all of these, most of the training you will need will be provided on the job and your skills will be developed as you learn from senior chemists.
As well as learning from your seniors, many chemists complete additional training courses offered by The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). For analytical chemists in particular, the RSC’s Analytical Division promotes progress in this area, and in large companies there may well be an opportunity to undertake even further academic study either through a PhD or Master’s degree.
As you gain experience, you’ll begin to have a role in the planning and execution of projects and research and may take on responsibility for a team of scientists and technicians. Usually, this development means you spend less time in the lab conducting testing and more time in offices or on site.
Development into senior roles as a chemist is usually achieved through gaining a PhD or chartered status, such as a Chartered Chemist (CChem) or Chartered Scientist (CSci). More information about becoming chartered can be found under the RSC’s Professional Recognition pathway.
At the peak of their careers, chemists can be found in a variety of different industries, holding senior positions in education, media regulatory affairs, patent work or executive roles in pharmaceutical manufacturing and product development.
- Starting salaries for graduates are between £18,000 and £25,000 per year, with starting salaries higher for those with a PhD.
- As your career develops and you gain experience and expertise, salaries can range between £25,000 and £40,000 per year.
- At the top level senior chemists with management roles or technical leadership positions can earn over £50,000 per year.
Reaching the right level of qualification and having great experience helps you secure a job on the career path you want. Here is an idea of the education and training that you need to succeed as a chemist:
To become a chemist, you usually need a 2:1 or higher degree in chemistry or a related subject, such as biochemistry, applied or analytical chemistry. It’s worth checking to see if the degree you’re looking at is accredited by the Royal Society of Chemistry. Competition for roles within major companies can be tough, but many employers offer training schemes and much of the techniques required are learnt on the job.
For medical chemist roles, it’s also important to demonstrate a good understanding of organic chemistry, specifically synthetic organic chemistry. For those wishing to pursue a career in medicinal chemistry, it is also important to note that many applicants for entry level roles have either an MChem (Master of Chemistry) or a MSci (Master in Science). Some employers do express a preference for a PhD in organic or medicinal chemistry if the level of research skills required are more demanding.
However, a degree is not always required for entry level roles in this sector, as you can complete an apprenticeship. You could complete an apprenticeship as a technician scientist, laboratory scientist or a research scientist and a useful guide to apprenticeships can be found on UK Gov.
For scientific careers, work experience can help provide essential technical and laboratory training to help you secure a full time position. It’s also worth noting that some employers actually favour recruiting applicants from their own work placement schemes. Some of the relevant degree courses that you can complete to become a scientist already include time in industry, which could be a few months or even a year during the third year of your course where you might work for an organisation.
Having some work experience in addition to time in industry is a good idea and that’s where internships can be really useful. Many top firms offer internships during the summer aimed at university students. Take a look at some of our summer placements and internships in Science and Research that are live.
Education is an important building block on the road to securing your career as a chemist, but it is also important to consider the skill set required for the job. Here are some of the hard and soft skills that you need to flourish in your career working as a chemist:
- Lab skills. Regardless of the area you specialise in as a chemist, you will likely need technical skills for the safe and efficient running of a lab. This is because testing and analysis underpin all careers as a chemist so it is essential you have at least some experience working in a lab and conducting scientific experiments.
- Specialist skills. Some roles will require specialised skills in the area you’re working in. For example, if you are looking to get into medicinal chemistry, it is important you have an aptitude for synthetic organic chemistry.
- Research skills. Chemists are required to design and conduct experiments safely and effectively, before compiling data in a methodical and meticulous manner.
- Analytical ability and problem solving. To be a successful chemist, you need to have the confidence to tackle and solve complex problems. This is so you can think of innovative ways of investigating materials and discovering the potential that can be unlocked. Take this Bright Network Academy creative problem solving module to improve your skills.
- Collaboration. Chemists must be able to liaise with scientists and experts from other research teams and departments. In addition, they may have to report their findings and expert opinion to patients or customers.
- Verbal and written communication. These skills are essential for working within a team on a project or for publishing scientific research.
A career as a chemist can be incredibly rewarding. However, it is hard work and not always suited to everyone. Here are some pros and cons to help you consider whether life as a chemist might be right for you:
- Because so many different industries need chemists, there is always a high demand and many different opportunities to get involved in and find an area you’re interested in.
- Chemists make discoveries about materials that can greatly advance technology and help to improve the quality of life for people living all around the world.
- Having scientific breakthroughs and developing new technologies or treatments is exciting and challenging work, with huge job satisfaction when you see a project through to completion.
- Chemists salaries can be very attractive, particularly if you become chartered or specialise further along in your career.
- Work can be pressurised if working to tight deadlines or required to meet the stipulations of the client or company you’re working for.
- Chemistry labs come with occupational hazards as you will be working with potentially harmful chemicals and substances, and therefore caution is required around the clock. You will also be required to wear protective equipment for long periods of time.
- The nature of this kind of scientific research and development means that failure will feature just as frequently as success. It can be very frustrating when a lengthy project comes to an end and you discover the results are unusable or not what you expected.
- Usually a chemist’s work is based inside the lab working indoors or behind a desk, without a huge opportunity to travel unless you’re high up in your specialism.
Chemists typically work between 39 to 41 hours a week, with some time spent working in the evenings if important deadlines are approaching. Hours will usually be in the usual 9-5 routine, with some variation if you’re working within the framework of a hospital or manufacturing plant and are required to collaborate with individuals working on a particular shift pattern.
The scope of companies hiring chemists is huge, from hospital laboratories to food and energy companies. Below are some of the employers that you could work for as a chemist:
- Chemical engineer
- Clinical scientist
- Crime scene investigator
- Pharmaceutical sales
- Biomedical engineer
Are you interested in becoming a chemist and would like to find out more about the different areas of chemistry? Take a look at our blog post on Click Chemistry.
Or why not hear about the first hand experiences of Charlotte a chemistry student on placement within the energy industry.