Science apprenticeships – your job options at 18

science student using a microscope at university
If you’re taking your A levels but you’re not sure that going to university full time is the best path for you, there are several apprenticeships to help you start your career in science.

If you’re looking for a job in science straight after your A levels, Highers or International Baccalaureate, you could embark on a higher apprenticeship or you could look into a degree apprenticeship. A higher apprenticeship will usually involve working towards a level four or five qualification, such as an HNC, an HND or a foundation degree. A degree apprenticeship will involve studying towards a bachelors degree (a level six qualification) or even a masters degree (a level seven qualification).

Note: always read the apprenticeship description carefully. Several employers call their programme a higher apprenticeship but their apprentices study towards a level six qualification, such as a bachelors degree.

You can complete lower levels of apprenticeships (intermediate and advanced) but the options outlined above are the most relevant next steps for you once you’ve completed your A levels. Alternatively, you could look for an entry-level job as a laboratory assistant or technician.

How do I know which science apprenticeship is the best one for me?

To know which apprenticeship is the best fit for you, you’ll need to look into what each has to offer and think about which one is the best match with your skills, interests and aspirations. For example, you might want to consider what qualification you’d like to work towards and whether you’re willing to relocate or if you need to find an apprenticeship closer to home. Most importantly, will that apprenticeship get you to where you want to go?

Read our article on choosing the right school leaver programme for you for help with this.

What science apprenticeships are out there?

Employers who run science apprenticeships include:

  • Actavis offers a higher apprenticeship in chemical science.
  • AstraZeneca has a north-west apprentice programme, which includes a pharmaceutical development apprenticeship. You need A levels to apply.
  • Cristal runs a science apprenticeship which includes rotations in its research and development lab and its quality and technical services.
  • GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) offers a higher apprenticeship as a laboratory apprentice. You can specify whether you’re interested in a biology- or chemistry-based apprenticeship and have the option to work in either a manufacturing or a research and development (R&D) setting. It also offers a manufacturing scientist apprenticeship.
  • Rolls-Royce runs a specialist science apprenticeship with two options – a non-destructive evaluation apprenticeship and a materials laboratory apprenticeship.
  • Unilever runs a higher apprenticeship in research and development. You can choose between two routes: chemistry and R&D refreshment (working on its food and drink products).

There are other science apprenticeships available too. Employers that have been known to offer science apprenticeships include Mondelez and the National Nuclear Laboratory and you can often find vacancies with smaller science companies. If you have a specific company in mind, visit its website to see what opportunities are available.

What qualifications do I need to get onto a science apprenticeship?

To get onto a science higher apprenticeship or degree apprenticeship you’ll typically need:

  • Five GCSEs or equivalent at grade C or above. Your employer might specify that your GCSEs need to include English language, maths and science.
  • Three A levels or equivalent. Your employer might specify the grades/UCAS points you need. GSK, for example asks for 96 UCAS points (equivalent to three Cs at A level).
  • It’s likely that you’ll need to have studied at least one relevant technical subject, such as biology, chemistry, maths or physics, depending on which area of science the apprenticeship is in.

Individual employers will decide on the exact qualifications they’re looking for and you might find that different programmes with the same employer require slightly different subjects or grades. You won’t usually need A levels for lower levels of apprenticeships.

Will I work towards any qualifications on a science apprenticeship?

The exact qualification you gain will depend on your employer, job role and the level of apprenticeship. At the end of a higher apprenticeship you are likely to hold either a higher national diploma, a foundation degree or a bachelors degree in a science or technology discipline.

You might also gain additional qualifications. Apprentices at Cristal work towards a lab technician qualification, for example.

How is a typical science apprenticeship structured?

Your science apprenticeship will typically focus on one area of science, whether that’s analytical science, chemical science, life sciences or research and development. However, it’s common to rotate between a few different departments in this area during your apprenticeship. Unilever’s packaging technology apprentices, for example, experience three key areas and Rolls-Royce’s apprenticeship is made up of several three-to six-month placements.

The length of apprenticeships vary. Generally speaking, the higher the level of qualification, the longer the apprenticeship is. Higher apprenticeships tend to last between two and three years, while degree apprenticeships can take up to five years to complete. Some employers will give you one day a week to study, whether that’s through a distance learning programme or day release to a local university or college, and other employers will require you to study in blocks of a week or two at a time.

You should also think about whether you want to move to a different area or stay close to home and commute to work. If you want to stay local, you’ll need to look for apprenticeships in your area. Some employers may only offer one location while others might have multiple locations. Some apprenticeships might also require you to be mobile so think about whether this would suit you. GSK’s manufacturing scientist apprenticeship, for example, is based in Ware in Hertfordshire but you may be required to work at Harlow in Essex as well.

Does a science apprenticeship allow me to progress as quickly as a graduate?

In some cases you can find yourself on a similar footing to recent science graduates once you’ve completed your higher or degree apprenticeship. However, some jobs in science require a bachelors degree and some specify that you’ll need to have a postgraduate degree as well. For this reason, it can be difficult for an apprentice to ultimately progress to the same level that a graduate can progress to without committing to further study.

To become a clinical scientist, for example, you’ll need a degree in life sciences. The fastest route is to gain an undergraduate degree and then complete the three-year NHS healthcare scientist training programme (STP). If you don’t go to university first, it is possible to get there but it will take a bit longer and you’ll still need to get a degree. You would need to gain some experience in an entry-level healthcare science role and then complete the three-year NHS practitioner training programme. This results in a bachelors degree in healthcare science and you can work as a healthcare science practitioner. To become a clinical scientist, you’ll then need to embark on the STP.

If you’ve got a specific science career in mind, look into what qualifications you’ll need and whether you can work towards these qualifications on an apprenticeship.

How do I find out more?

If you’re interested in a company’s apprenticeship, browse its website and social media channels to discover more about the company, such as its size, location, culture, structure and the projects it works on or the clients it works with. This will help you determine whether you would enjoy working at the company. You can also speak to family or friends who work in the sector and attend events, such as open days and careers fairs, to meet employers and find out more about opportunities in the science sector. Look on the employers’ websites to see if they have any events coming up and ask your school if it knows of any local events you could go to.

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