The Job and What's Involved

Chemists study the make-up of materials and chemicals and how they interact and behave under different physical conditions. Chemistry has aspects in common with both biology and physics, and chemists can work in areas closely related to these fields.

Chemists are involved in many areas of work. These may include:

  • Working in healthcare (as biochemists, for example) to help diagnose, treat and prevent illness and disease.
  • Working in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, researching the causes of disease and helping to discover new medicines and treatment.
  • Working in the food industry to ensure the safety and quality of foodstuffs, and to develop preservatives and new foods.
  • Chemical analysis, which is central to organisations protecting public safety by monitoring the quality of food, drugs, water, air, sea, sewage or recycling processes.
  • Developing new materials, such as plastics, glass, metals, polymers, artificial fibres and dyes, as well as a huge range of other everyday products.
  • Improving crop production.
  • Measuring the environmental impact of industrial processes or accidents on behalf of government agencies, industry and environmental consultancies.
  • Working in the Forensic Science Service to examine evidence associated with crime.

Chemists often use complex and sensitive equipment and procedures. They design and conduct experiments, take measurements and make observations. They also write up their work in reports and scientific papers, presenting their results at scientific meetings or conferences.

They may work in many different specialist roles. Some common roles for chemists include research and development, production and quality control, the marketing and sales of chemical products, as well as providing technical support for customers.

Chemists often work in teams with other scientists and technicians.

Chemists usually work 37 hours a week, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. There may be additional evening and weekend work. Chemists in hospitals, industry and some public services may undertake on-call or shift work.

They often work in laboratories, and in a wide range of environments outside the laboratory in specialist jobs.

Modern laboratories are clean, often separated into practical and office areas. They may be full of technologically advanced equipment. Some work may require sterile conditions and it might be necessary to work with hazardous substances.

Most chemists travel occasionally to attend scientific meetings and conferences. They might also visit customers or research partners.

Chemists wear some form of protective clothing, either to protect themselves or to prevent contamination of samples or equipment.

Starting salaries may be in the region of £20,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are large numbers of chemists working throughout the UK. Job opportunities are good and are growing in certain areas, for example in pharmaceutical research or work for environmental agencies. Chemists work for a wide range of employers.

In industry, most chemists work in research and development. Employers include the chemical, pharmaceutical, agrochemical, food, drink and consumer goods, oil, water, paper, electrical equipment, metals and nuclear industries, as well as contract research organisations, food research associations and the whole spectrum of biotechnology industries.

Chemists also work in the public sector, where employers include universities and government research establishments.

In the National Health Service (NHS), chemists work in hospitals, the Health Protection Agency and the Public Analytical Laboratory Service.

Many chemists teach in schools, colleges or universities, or use their scientific knowledge in the media, broadcasting or journalism.

Vacancies may be advertised in the local and national press, on company websites, or in trade sector publications.

Education and Training

Most chemists are graduates. In addition to a relevant degree, a postgraduate qualification may be required for some jobs. Increasingly, graduates need relevant work experience before applying for their first job, perhaps through an industrial placement as part of their course.

For a degree course in chemistry, the requirements are usually at least two A levels/three or four H grades, including chemistry and usually maths and another science, or equivalent qualifications. Applicants also need five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), including two sciences, maths and English, or equivalent qualifications. The requirements for related courses such as pharmacy and biochemistry may be similar, but it is essential to check with each university.

It is also possible to work in a chemistry laboratory as a technician or in a pharmacy as a pharmacy technician. Applicants usually need at least four GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), including two sciences, maths and English, or equivalent qualifications. With further training and qualifications they may be able to progress to the job of a chemist.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

All chemists and technicians receive on-the-job training. They learn new laboratory techniques and new developments in technology. They must keep up to date in their specialist area. Employers may also provide training for personal development, management or supervisory responsibilities.

Chemists may study for postgraduate qualifications or higher degrees, and might become members or fellows of a professional body. The professional body for chemists is the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).

Technicians may have the opportunity to study for NVQ's/SVQ's at Levels 2, 3 or 4 in Laboratory Skills, or NVQ/SVQ Level 5 in Analytical Chemistry, BTEC nationals, HNC's/HND's or part-time degrees in their subject.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Chemists should:

  • Have strong scientific ability.
  • Have an enquiring mind.
  • Be able to think clearly and logically.
  • Be good at problem solving.
  • Have a methodical, analytical approach to their work.
  • Be able to work accurately and pay great attention to detail.
  • Be able to work in and lead a team of professionals.
  • Have good computer skills.
  • Have excellent communication skills.
  • Be able to keep up with advances in their field.
  • Understand statistics, computer packages and sophisticated computer-controlled equipment.
  • Be aware of health and safety regulations.

Your Long Term Prospects

Opportunities for career progression are good. Experienced chemists may supervise and lead a team of scientists. Career prospects may be improved by a higher qualification, such as a PhD.

There are opportunities for chemists to move away from practical work into management, or more commercially related work, such as sales, marketing, drug registration or patent work.

Get Further Information

Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI),
12 Whitehall, London SW1A 2DY
Tel: 0870 890 4333

Forensic Science Service

Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST),
5 Cambridge Court, 210 Shepherd's Bush Road, London W6 7NJ
Tel: 020 7603 6316

Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, Education Department,
1 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5DB
Tel: 020 7451 7300

NHS Careers, PO Box 2311, Bristol BS2 2ZX
Tel: 0845 6060 655

Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA),
Market Towers, 1 Nine Elms Lane, London SW8 5NQ
Tel: 020 7084 2000

Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BA
Tel: 020 7437 8656

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