The sheer diversity of options for chemistry graduates can take many by surprise

There was a time when those studying for a chemistry degree eventually had to choose between just two or three career paths. They could stay in academia, at least for the foreseeable future. Others would leave university to work for the chemical or pharmaceutical industry. Finally, there was always the option to train to become a teacher. 

Fortunately, things have changed. The sheer diversity of options for chemistry graduates can take many by surprise, because they stretch so much further than the three paths outlined above. Over the next two pages, Chemistry World  highlights just a few of the jobs that a chemistry degree can lead to, from science attach? to ice cream inventor.  

But the more traditional career options are also thriving. The demand for chemistry teachers has never been greater, and the profession promises the opportunity to communicate a subject that you love to the next generation of scientists.  

Working for industry can mean much more than producing pharmaceuticals or feedstock chemicals. Companies that make food, nanomaterials, glass, and even medical devices, all need chemists. The burgeoning science of nanotechnology, which promises to revolutionise fields as diverse as electronics and energy production, is fundamentally a molecular science which cannot progress without chemistry. 

And while an academic career has often relied on a fair bit of good luck to make it through the ticklish postdoctoral stage, a new network to support postdocs and lobby on their behalf could persuade you that it’s worth keeping those dreams of a professorship alive. 

Many of these paths require a research degree - either masters or doctorate - which provides a tremendous chance to develop both technical skills and the tenacity to finish a project. Universities increasingly team up with industry to include valuable work experience placements into those degrees, boosting your chances of finding a job at the end. 

In fact, any training in a science that is based on mathematics and reasoned argument is highly valued by employers. The numerical and problem-solving skills that you’ve developed while stitching molecules together are also sought out in banking, law, and accountancy.  

Your keen analytical sense and numeracy can be invaluable in information technology, where companies are desperate to recruit science graduates. Former chemists are often found spearheading innovative new businesses, or making a mint by selling other people’s chemistry as sales representatives. And analytical chemists could find themselves working as forensic scientists, or ensuring that the food on our plates is safe to eat. 

Of course, you could even become a science journalist ... 

Mark Peplow, editor

Food scientist 

Andrew Cox

Andrew Cox got into ice cream development almost by chance. 

Having done a chemistry degree and a PhD in the field of colloids, Andrew knew that he wanted to do something in physical chemistry and colloid science. ’But I wasn’t looking specifically at ice cream. I was looking for something that’s interesting and challenging, and I felt that ice cream research fell into those categories.’  

He likes the technical challenges that his job as lead scientist at Unilever’s Colworth House site in Bedfordshire, UK, throws at him. ’I can use some of my colloid science background, which I enjoy,’ he says. He also relishes ’working with people from many different backgrounds, from colloid scientists to consumer scientists’.  

Andrew’s work is largely managerial, but in an area where there are real scientific challenges. ’The interesting thing about ice cream is that you’re challenged to think outside of what you know,’ he says. ’There are real problems to be solved and if you can get over them you can really come up with something new.’ 

Science attach? 

Helen Dickinson

’It’s probably the nicest place I’ll ever live for the rest of my life,’ says Helen Dickinson of her diplomatic service accommodation in Paris, France, where she is First secretary for science and innovation at the British Embassy.  

Helen left the University of Oxford, UK, in 2000 with a PhD in physical chemistry, and although it’s not directly helpful in her day-to-day job it was a necessary step along the way, she says.  

Helen networks with scientists and industrialists in France, fulfilling the Foreign Office remit to influence science policy and promote UK science and innovation (Chemistry World, February 2005, p40).  

’Having a PhD gives me credibility with my contacts in the French science establishment,’ says Helen. Although she spends some of her time planning glitzy receptions, it’s hard work: ’Diplomacy has this reputation for being terribly glamorous, but most of the time it isn’t glamorous at all,’ she says. 

Starting salary £35,000–45,000 

Pharmaceutical researcher 

Tom Smith

Even before his undergraduate degree, Tom Smith decided that he wanted a career in scientific research. Meeting scientists during work experience placements convinced him that his best starting point was a chemistry degree. He is now a principal scientist at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), where he manages his own research group. ’It’s exciting to be doing innovative work and to be at the cutting edge of science,’ he says.  

Tom started out by studying chemistry at Imperial College London, UK, which allowed him to spend a year doing research at the University of Florence, Italy.  

After his degree, Tom was offered a job at GSK, then SmithKline Beecham, where he has been for 10 years. ’The resources that we have mean that I get the chance to work in a variety of disciplines outside of chemistry, including computer modelling applications and robotics,’ he says. ’Plus I work with a very good team.’ 

Starting salary £24,000 

Patent lawyer 

Tom Brand

’As an undergraduate, it struck me that I wasn’t a desperately good chemist, but I could string a decent sentence together,’ says Tom Brand, who works for UK patent attorneys W P Thompson. 

Tom hoped to become a scientific journalist when he started his PhD in environmental radiochemistry. But when his supervisor was called as an expert witness at the High Court in London, he invited Tom to join him. ’So I spent my first term at the High Court and found it fascinating,’ he said.  

After starting as a trainee in a patent attorney’s office it takes around four to five years to qualify, says Tom, with exams that are regarded as some of the toughest in the world. But it was worth the effort.’It is a long battle to qualify but, once you have the experience, it’s easy to find new, interesting opportunities,’ says Tom. 

’Chemical knowledge and experience is essential when it comes to patenting new pharmaceutical products, but I have also had the chance to broaden my experience outside of chemistry,’ Tom explains.  

’I tend to think that a chemistry degree is a good starting point from which to absorb other scientific concepts.’ 

Journal editor 

Niamh O’Connor

If you’re bored of publishing your own work, how about publishing someone else’s? Niamh O’Connor is deputy editor of two RSC publications - the inorganic chemistry journal Dalton Transactions and the crystal engineering journal CrystEngComm. ’I always wanted to do something with chemistry that wasn’t lab research, and this is a great way to do that,’ says Niamh. She commissions articles, sees papers through from submission to publication, and promotes the journals at conferences around the world.  

It was a natural progression from her PhD in organometallic chemistry at University College Cork, Ireland. After graduating in 2002 she spent a short spell at pharmaceutical giant Novartis in Cork before joining the RSC in Cambridge, UK. Sometimes it’s useful to try things out before you decide what you don’t want to do, she laughs. 

Starting salary £28,000 

Forensic scientist 

Karen Rose

Karen Rose, who works on firearms discharge residues at the Forensic Science Service, London, regularly appears in court to give evidence. ’Court appearances are very exciting,’ she says. ’You’ve got the jury looking at you, wanting the information, and you’ve got to think on the spot.’ Fortunately, Karen had intensive training before she made her first court appearance, including an expert witness course.  

Karen went straight to the job after a PhD on fibre-optic spectroscopy, which followed a chemistry degree at the University of Leeds, UK. Much of the job is lab-based and her PhD put her on a good footing: ’It’s all very much spectroscopy and analysis of particles’.  

Karen always wanted to work in forensics. ’It’s quite a crucial job,’ she says. ’People’s lives can depend on the outcome of what we say. If we’ve got the key evidence, it could mean the difference between an innocent and guilty verdict.’ 

Trainee starting salary £25,000 (with London weighting)