Should I do a degree in chemistry?

Illustration of chemistry set
Chemistry at degree level is likely to be much more laboratory-based than at A level, and opens up a range of career options, including business as well as science.

If you’re fascinated by the synthesis of chemical compounds found in medicines, cosmetics, soaps, plastics, metals and just about anything else you can think of, chemistry may be the subject for you. Chemistry at degree level is likely to be much more laboratory-based than at A level, so be prepared to apply your theoretical knowledge to practical scenarios.

Which A levels or Highers do I need to get onto a chemistry degree?

You need A level chemistry or equivalent to get on to a chemistry degree. Those studying in Scotland will need at least a Higher in chemistry. Some universities also require an Advanced Higher in chemistry. Additionally, students applying to the University of Oxford will need to take the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA), and those applying to the University of Cambridge will need to take the Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment (NSAA).

Some universities don’t mind which other subjects you studied in addition to chemistry. However, others call for at least one other science subject, such as maths, physics or biology.

What will I study on a chemistry degree?

Typical modules include:

  • Inorganic chemistry, including atomic structure, main group chemistry and transition metals.
  • Organic chemistry, including the chemistry of alkanes, alkenes, alkynes, haloalkanes, alcohols, amines, carbonyls, carboxyls and aromatic compounds.
  • Physical chemistry, including chemical kinetics, chemical bonding, solvents, thermodynamics and quantum chemistry.
  • Analytical methods, including mass spectrometry, NMR spectroscopy, infrared spectroscopy and gas chromatography.
  • Maths in chemistry, which involves learning how to use relevant equations and units.

Optional modules vary from course to course. However, they can include biochemistry, medicinal chemistry, environmental chemistry, atmospheric chemistry, polymer chemistry and chemical engineering.

What teaching methods are used on a chemistry degree?

On a chemistry degree, teaching is delivered through a mixture of lectures, practical laboratory sessions and tutorials (calculation practice and problem-solving activities in small groups led by a tutor). Laboratory sessions can involve organic and inorganic synthesis (constructing compounds via appropriate reaction pathways) and using analytical techniques to find out the concentration of a particular element or compound.

How many contact hours will I have on a chemistry degree?

Contact time varies from university to university, but 20 to 25 hours per week is typical. Outside of class, you are expected to read around your modules, go over what you have been taught (some concepts can be difficult to grasp, so it’s important to make sure you understand the basics before moving on) and complete tasks in preparation for tutorials.

What types of chemistry degree are there?

At most universities, you can either choose to do a three-year BSc (bachelor of science) degree or a four-year MChem/MSci degree (master of chemistry/science). The first two or three years of BSc and MChem/MSci degrees are often the same. The fourth year of MChem/MSci courses generally consists of a large quantity of more advanced material that isn’t studied in a BSc course. For this reason, entry requirements for MChem/MSci courses are usually higher.

Some courses include a year spent working in a certain industry, which often involves an independent research project. This can help you to decide which area to pursue after graduation.

If you’re planning to apply to the University of Cambridge, be aware that it doesn't offer chemistry as a single honours course. Instead, it offers natural sciences, a four-year degree that covers chemistry, biology, physics and optional modules in a range of other sciences. However, you can choose to specialise in chemistry after your first year.

What careers could a chemistry degree lead to?

If you wish to pursue a career in chemistry, be prepared to undertake further study; many roles require you to have a masters degree or a PhD in a particular field. For example, if you wish to become a medicinal chemist, you are likely to need an MSc or MChem in medicinal chemistry. Some universities offer scholarships, but many postgraduate students either self-fund or take out a government loan.

Careers directly related to chemistry include:

  • Analytical chemist – assess the chemical structure and nature of substances. Analytical chemists may work in areas such as pharmaceuticals or quality control.
  • Medicinal chemist – work in the early stages of drug discovery.
  • Environmental chemist – examine the presence and effects of certain chemicals in soil and water.
  • Research chemist – can research almost any branch of chemistry.
  • Forensic scientist – examine traces of substances such as blood, hairs, fibres, paint and drugs.
  • Scientific journalism or publishing.
  • Teaching or lecturing.

Some areas are open to graduates with a degree in any subject. These include:

  • Finance and accountancy
  • Law
  • The media
  • Business (eg sales, marketing and PR)
  • IT
  • The public sector.

What skills will I gain on a chemistry degree? Will employers like them?

You will gain a range of chemistry-specific and transferable skills, all of which are valued by employers. These include:

  • The ability to learn, understand and apply complex scientific concepts.
  • An analytical and evaluative way of thinking.
  • Numerical and computational skills, gained from using relevant mathematical equations and specialist equipment.
  • The ability to handle and store hazardous chemicals and to conduct experiments safely and accurately.
  • Creativity, gained from designing experiments and finding solutions to problems.
  • Research skills, gained from working on original projects.
  • Strong oral and written communication skills, gained from writing reports and giving presentations.

What other degrees could I consider?

  • Chemical engineering – an area that involves designing chemical processes to create a range of products.
  • Natural sciences – this course gives you the opportunity to study a range of sciences before deciding what to specialise in.
  • Biochemistry – the study of chemical processes within and relating to living organisms.
  • Pharmacology – this area focuses on developing and testing new medicines.
  • Forensic science – this involves analysing scientific evidence (eg blood, hairs, and fibres) used in court cases.
  • Materials science – this involves studying the chemistry and physical properties of matter to discover and design new materials.

What happens to chemistry graduates after they leave university?

The Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey revealed the following about chemistry graduates six months after graduation*:

  • 31.1% of all chemistry graduates were undertaking further study, training or research, compared with 12.1% of graduates from all subjects. This is unsurprising, as many chemistry-related careers require candidates to have a postgraduate qualification.
  • 7.4% of were unemployed – slightly higher than the unemployment rate of graduates from all subjects (6.3%).

Among chemistry graduates who were in employment, the most popular job categories were:

  • other professionals, associate professionals and technicians (19%, compared with 5.4% of graduates from all subjects who were in employment). This is a broad category covering areas from librarianship to fitness, but includes a number of science jobs such as quality control, regulatory compliance, environmental protection and lab technician roles.
  • science professionals (18.4%, compared with 1.1% of graduates from all subjects who were in employment).
  • business HR and finance professionals (14.6% compared with 9.8% of graduates from all subjects who were in employment).

*Those who graduated in 2013/14 from UK universities.

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