Chemists use expert knowledge of the properties of matter to produce and improve products and analyse chemicals. While it’s not all white lab coats and bubbling test tubes, chemists will use a lot of specialist equipment and conduct scientific experiments regularly. Becoming a chemist is an exciting and rewarding career with a lot of jobs available for those with a relevant degree.
Below, we’ll discuss what sort of roles chemists work, how to become a chemist, and what a career as a chemist may look like.
What do chemists do?
As the name suggests, chemists are experts in the study of chemistry which helps them understand the properties and behaviour of materials, drugs, food production, and other purposes.
Chemistry is a far-ranging field of expertise with a lot of subdivisions within the field. Some chemists specialise in the formulation of pharmaceuticals, while others may focus solely on food chemistry in the pursuit of ever more improved flavours, textures, and nutrition. Another chemist may, for example, be involved in the development of household cleaning products, or the creation of new and improved plastics.
Common tasks and duties of a chemist include:
● Experiments and tests on the composition and reactions of substances in controlled laboratory conditions
● Analysing and researching results, developing theories, improving techniques, and retesting
● Considering practical and commercial applications for research
● Testing food, packaging, products and materials meet government guidelines and comply with relevant standards
A lot of the world’s largest companies rely on chemists with the field featuring a lot of different roles. Some of the most notable include:
● Chemical engineer: a professional chemist who uses their knowledge to convert raw materials into everyday products and necessities in a cost-effective manner. For example, turning oil into petrol.
● Analytical chemist: assesses the chemical structure and properties of substances for a variety of purposes, including drugs, household products, and material design.
● Environmental chemist: applies their training in chemistry to assess the risk of contaminants in soil, water, and land sites to human health, animals and the environment at large.
● Forensic chemist: analyses crime scene evidence, using chemistry to run tests and develop conclusions that are then used by law enforcement.
● Toxicologist: conducts research and experiments to explore whether chemical agents are harmful to humans, other creatures, or the environment.
Becoming a chemist
In order to become a chemist, you’ll need a degree in chemistry and for some roles, a post-graduate course is also necessary. Requirements for a BSc in chemistry vary somewhat from university to university but typically require 3-4 good A-level grades including chemistry and either maths or science, preferably both.
Earning a chemistry degree is not easy and will challenge even the best of students. It requires a good attitude toward learning and a determination to succeed as there will be times when the course material will often feel overwhelming and difficult to master. Most courses will offer work and research placements for technical and practical experience.
With a lot of chemistry roles requiring or greatly preferring those with hands-on lab experience, many now choose, instead, to enter into an apprenticeship. Chemistry apprenticeships offer the same skills and knowledge as a degree but also the experience of working as a chemist too.
Some choose to first work as a lab technician or assistant before moving into roles as a chemist themselves through apprenticeships. Graduates with a chemistry degree can find success in this route, but so can those without degrees.
That said, there are plenty of entry-level roles for those with a Chemistry BSc, meaning experience is not always necessary.
Amongst other things, the skills you will need to become a chemist include
● Critical thinking
● Good problem-solving abilities
● Computer skills(programming skills especially useful)
● Mathematical, and scientific orientation
● Clear and concise written and verbal skills
● Fine attention to detail
● Ability to work as part of a larger team
How much do chemists earn?
Chemistry graduates can expect to earn between £20,000 - £28,000 a year from their first role with a median career salary of £34,000 - £46,000. Commercial enterprises may pay much higher with pharmaceutical, fuel, and energy companies paying a lot more on average.
There are an estimated 270,000 to 300,000 chemistry roles in the UK with a further 420,000+ jobs tangentially related to the field. These roles contribute an estimated £87+ billion to the UK economy meaning the average salary of chemists can be expected to rise over the coming years as the relevance of the field grows.
Further career prospects
Chemists can look forward to a lot of career progression, with good prospects both in terms of position within companies and pay.
For chemists with a lot of experience, heading up teams of others, supervising their daily activities, findings, and ensuring scientific rigour is maintained is a rewarding goal. Career advancement for chemists, then, tends to move towards management of other chemists and this can often mean changing industry multiple times.
The exact career paths of a chemist will depend on their chosen niche. The career goals of a forensic chemist, for example, will not necessarily be the same as that of an environmental chemist.
A career in chemistry is not for everyone. For those with an eye for detail, a scientific bent, and a natural ability to solve problems, however, chemistry offers both a rewarding and lasting career, with plenty of job prospects.
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