How to Become a Chemist in the UK

Lucy Bell-Young

by Lucy Bell-Young

21st April 2021

To become a chemist in the UK, you’ll either need a university degree in chemistry or a related subject, or you’ll need to have undertaken a chemistry apprenticeship program that demonstrates your knowledge and skills. If you’re interested in a career as a chemist, continue reading to find out exactly how to start.

What Do You Have to Do to Become a Chemist?

Becoming a professional chemist is a rewarding yet challenging job, so if you want to pursue this career, you’ll first need the right aptitude, skills, and attitude. If you have a keen interest in science and relish its challenges, then you’re already in good stead. The next step is to apply this interest at school so that you can earn a good set of GCSEs and A Levels, which will pave the way to university. 

But earning a degree in chemistry isn’t a walk in the park. Even if you have a good understanding of the subject and its branches, you need the right attitude and discipline in order to succeed. You can always get better grades, but staying passionate about and focused on a career is the real test. 

Another way to pursue a career in chemistry in the UK is through an apprenticeship program. If you’ve been working for a chemical manufacturing company, for example, either as a technician, assistant, or an ordinary employee, you may be able to apply for a chemistry apprenticeship program. Apprenticeship programs are usually offered to deserving employees who are looking for career advancements.

You can even earn a university degree while working on an apprenticeship program. Instead of attending full-time, you can earn your qualification while you work. 

Here are some of the skills and knowledge you’ll need in order to become a successful chemist:

  • Technical aptitude (e.g. talent for computer programming)
  • Mathematical and analytical skills
  • Scientific orientation
  • Communication skills, written and verbal
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Teamwork or social skills
Woman analysing chemicals in a lab

University route

Before you can earn a university degree in chemistry, you first need to qualify for a chemistry degree program. Specific requirements vary from university to university, but here’s a typical example of the grades needed to pursue a chemistry degree:

  • 4 or 5 GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C), or equivalent, including English, maths, and science
  • 3 or 4 A levels, or equivalent, including chemistry – you’ll need to check the specific grades your desired university is looking for

If you want to pursue more advanced degrees, like an MSci, DSci or a PhD in chemistry, or if you want to focus on a specialisation in the field, then you need to have either a BSc in chemistry, or any equivalent science degree, like chemical engineering.

Higher degrees are focused on research in a specific area. On these courses, you’ll need to come up with and undertake original research projects. If you decide to go down this postgraduate route, you’ll have the option of pursuing a purely academic career in chemistry as part of the R&D department at a university, or even at a company. 

The apprenticeship route

If you’re already employed by a chemical manufacturing company or a pharmaceutical company, you might still be able to earn a degree if your company has an apprenticeship program. Many companies today partner with universities to provide on-the-job training for a specialised chemistry-related job. The university will give you coursework that you can integrate with your work, meaning that you can submit academic requirements without going into university on a daily basis. 

In general, you’ll need 4 or 5 GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) to qualify for a chemistry apprenticeship program. You’ll also need relevant A Levels – or equivalent – to pursue a degree apprenticeship. 

Apprenticeship programs are typically offered for the following levels:

  • Level 5 Technician scientist
  • Level 6 Laboratory scientist
  • Level 7 Research scientist

You might also be able to get a chemistry apprenticeship without having to study for a degree straightaway. This will depend on a company offering apprenticeships, and it’s a good idea to do some online research to look for opportunities like this.

Senior chemistry professor in a lectuee pointing to a screen
Studying chemistry at university is one of the ways to become a chemist

What Education is Needed to Become a Chemist?

To become a professional chemist, you need to at least have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or a related course. If you’re still in secondary school, it would be very useful for you to take STEM subjects and science-related courses. At GCSE, it’s also recommended that you take chemistry as a single science if you know for certain that you want to become a chemist. 

This will give you the chance to earn a deeper understanding on key chemistry topics. If you’re unsure, though, you can still pursue chemistry by studying a GCSE in combined sciences, which will give you a broader overview of each science branch.  

Once accepted to a university, you can then choose which modules you want to pursue. This will give you the chance to try out different courses and find the specialisation or field that you like most. Here are the top ten universities for studying chemistry in the UK based on the Guardian University Guide 2021:

  1. University of Oxford
  2. Durham University
  3. University of Lincoln
  4. University of St Andrews
  5. University of Bristol
  6. University of York
  7. Lancaster University
  8. University of Sussex
  9. Loughborough University
  10. University of Surrey

You may also take a degree course in related fields like chemical engineering, biochemistry or material science if you want to become a chemist. A chemical engineer, however, is more focused on designing machineries and instruments used in various chemical manufacturing processes.

The study of biochemistry, on the other hand, is more focused on the chemical processes in living organisms. Material science is concerned with developing new types of materials for a wide range of applications, such as nanotechnology. With all of that in mind, the type of science degree you choose should align with your interests and what you intend to pursue.

A degree in chemistry includes studying some of the following major subjects:

Woman in graduation gown holding degree in front of chemistry blackboard
To become a professional chemist, you need to at least have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or a related course

How Long Does it Take to Become a Chemist?

In the UK, students who are pursuing a bachelor’s degree in chemistry can expect to finish the course in three to four years full-time, depending on their specific university program. It usually takes around five years minimum if you’re a part-time student. 

After earning a BSc chemistry degree, a graduate can apply for entry jobs in chemistry, such as a lab technician or an environmental chemist. If you want a career in academia, you’ll need to earn at least an MSci chemistry degree, which will be an additional two years. Pursuing a doctoral degree, PhD or DSci, will take a minimum of another two years, plus two years for post-doctoral research.

How to Become a Chemist Without a Degree

For most jobs in chemistry, a degree is required. It would be very difficult to be employed in industries as a chemist without one. However, there are entry-level jobs and other opportunities in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries that may require only a diploma or associate certificate in chemistry.

As we mentioned earlier on, you may also become a chemist through apprenticeship programs. You can earn an equivalent university degree through these programs without necessarily undergoing the regular university process of earning a degree.

Popular Fields of Chemistry in the UK

Pursuing a career in chemistry has several options in terms of specialisation. Some specialisations are more lucrative than others – for example, pharmacologists, research scientists, and forensic scientists are some of the highest paid jobs in chemistry. But the field you choose also depends on the company or institution. Here are some of the most popular fields of chemistry that you can pursue as a career in the UK:

  • Pharmaceutical chemist: A pharmaceutical chemist is involved in designing, testing, and manufacturing medicines and other pharmaceutical products
  • Analytical chemist: Analytical chemists mainly work in the laboratory. They’re most sought-after in forensics, R&D, and academia
  • Cosmetic chemist: As the name implies, the focus here is developing cosmetic products. A cosmetic chemist is also responsible in quality assurance of makeup and skincare products
  • Environmental chemist: Companies need environmental chemists to ensure compliance with government regulations in terms of sustainable practices, such as ensuring safety when handling hazardous substances. The government also needs environmental chemists to assess pollution and environmental risks. This career also involves analysing how chemicals move through the environment and how this affects surrounding nature.


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