How to Become a Pharmaceutical Chemist

Lucy Bell-Young

by Lucy Bell-Young

19th May 2021

A pharmaceutical chemist is a professional scientist who works on developing various types of medicines. As the name implies, pharmaceutical chemists are typically employed by pharmaceutical companies. Their role is different from that of chemists, who dispense medicines in a pharmacy. Pharmaceutical chemists are researchers who are independent from pharmacies.

What Do Pharmaceutical Chemists Do?

Pharmaceutical chemists synthesise, develop, test, and classify drugs or pharmaceuticals. They shouldn’t be confused with pharmacists, also called chemists here in the UK. The latter is concerned with classifying and dispensing medicines in a pharmacy or drugstore, while the former is focused on developing drugs and testing their medical effects and side-effects.

Pharmaceutical chemist in laboratory

Pharmaceutical drugs can be synthesised and classified based on the following criteria:

  • Mechanism of action, or the biochemical reaction within the body
  • The physiological effects, or how the body reacts to the drug
  • Chemical or molecular structure of the drug

Pharmaceutical chemistry is an application of biochemistry and molecular biology. Pharmaceutical chemists must be highly knowledgeable about human physiological functions down to the cellular and biomolecular level. 

Many of the drugs developed by pharmaceutical chemists address physiological problems brought about by metabolic or genetic abnormalities. Some drugs are maintenance drugs, meant to be taken for a patient’s entire lifetime. Examples of these include cardiovascular medicines and hormone replacement drugs.

A pharmaceutical chemistry job is mostly done in a laboratory. However, it may also involve field work and clinical trials. Stages of drug development generally include the following:

  • Identifying the mechanism of a medical condition, such as a disease or disorder
  • Creating chemical and molecular models in response to the disease or disorder
  • Finding the correct combinations of chemicals that will lead to the synthesis of the medicine
  • Designing procedures or methods of creating the medicine, which include equipment design
  • Testing the medicine in a laboratory setting among volunteers
  • Conducting large-scale clinical trials to check the efficacy of the medicine

A pharmaceutical scientist isn’t only responsible for the development of cures or remedies for a disease, but might also be concerned with finding ways to improve people’s general wellbeing. They may develop products that have preventive value, like vaccines and gene therapeutic drugs, and prevent the onset of symptoms of genetic diseases. Additionally, pharmaceutical chemists are responsible for the quality assurance of medicines during mass production.

Aside from pharmaceutical companies, some pharmaceutical chemists work in academia, research institutions, government agencies, and in non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Biotechnology is one area of growth in the field of pharmaceutical chemistry and has a wide range of applications, not only in medicine but also in agriculture, environmental protection, and genetic manipulations.

Chemists who specialise in pharmaceutical chemistry help save lives and improve the wellbeing of humanity. They may not directly cure or treat patients, but their contribution to medicine cannot be understated. For instance, physicians would be virtually pointless if they weren’t able to prescribe effective medicine.

Biotechnology, genetic testing and gene therapy vector illustration
Pharmaceutical chemists can specialise in a number of fields

The Process of Becoming a Pharmaceutical Chemist

Becoming a pharmaceutical chemist is similar to pursuing other careers in chemistry. You first need to have the right aptitude and attitude. Key to this is your basic education, particularly your further education, i.e. A Levels, and your higher education at university. If you want to pursue pharmaceutical chemistry, you need to ensure that both your A Levels and university course are geared towards earning you a degree in chemistry, or other related science disciplines. 

Here’s a general overview of the process of becoming a pharmaceutical chemist:

  • Step 1: Find out if you have the passion and aptitude for science. If you already have an interest in chemistry, you’ll probably have the drive yourself to study it well, which will give you the aptitude to pursue it. If you have both the passion and the skills for chemistry, you’re already halfway there.
  • Step 2: Pursue STEM education in secondary school so you can then go on to pursue science and maths in further and higher education. Studying STEM subjects will equip you with greater skills and give you a deeper understanding of complex topics so that you’re more prepared when you go on to study science and maths at university. 
  • Step 3: Apply for admission to a good university, ideally one that offers pharmaceutical chemistry as a degree. An excellent academic record in maths and science will give you the competitive edge when applying.
  • Step 4: Complete a course in pharmaceutical chemistry. If a specialised course in this field isn’t available at your university, take a closely related course like biochemistry or general chemistry. While these may not provide you with the comprehensive knowledge and skills necessary for pharmaceutical chemistry, such as chemical analytical skills, they will give you the credentials to start as a chemist in a pharmaceutical company where you can work your way up. 
  • Step 5: Gain experience and skills. You could apply for an internship or chemistry apprenticeship program after graduation in order to do this. You could also work at an entry level job in a pharmaceutical company, where you may start as a lab technician or a lab assistant.
  • Step 6: Earn a higher degree in chemistry or pharmaceutical chemistry. If you want to have a greater competitive edge, you can pursue further education and earn a master’s degree or PhD in chemistry. If you’re already employed by a pharmaceutical company, you’re more likely to be promoted and have a salary raise if you have an advanced degree.

What Can Chemists Do in the Pharmaceutical Industry?

Pharmaceutical chemists are highly specialised in the chemistry of medicines. However, even if you don’t specialise in pharmaceutical chemistry, you can easily learn the knowledge and skills necessary for the job in the pharmaceutical industry.

As a pharmaceutical chemist, you need to study natural sources of medicines and synthesise a wide range of medicines based on organic compounds that have either specific or generic effects on the body and on the causes of diseases.

For instance, antibiotics or antimicrobial drugs cure infections by killing or weakening germs that infect the body. In this way, they help the natural immune system to combat the infection. Antibiotics are virtually ineffective in patients who have highly compromised immune systems, like those suffering from end-stage AIDS.

Pharmaceutical chemists synthesise drugs based on the target system or physiological effects. For example, beta blockers are meant to prevent epinephrine or adrenaline from binding with the Beta-1 receptors of the heart. This has the effect of slowing down the heart rate, thereby lowering the blood pressure of hypertensive individuals.

As a chemist, you will do a lot of laboratory testing tasks. You will spend most of your time in the laboratory but you will also need to spend some time on the manufacturing floor to check processes and machines. This is part of quality control.

Woman scientist conducting research using microscope

How Much Does a Pharmaceutical Chemist Make a Year?

Your salary as a pharmaceutical chemist will depend on several factors, such as your education level, experience, location, and the company you work for. 

If you’re hired for an entry level position by a pharmaceutical company, you could earn around £31,000 per year. On the other hand, you may earn as much as £54,000+ per year if you’re at a senior level position. The average salary for pharmaceutical chemists in London is currently £44,168.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Pharmaceutical Scientist?

The number of years it takes to become a pharmaceutical scientist greatly depends on what university degrees you decide to pursue and how quickly you can climb the ladder at your place of work.

If you’re a full-time student, it generally takes between three to four years to earn a BSc degree in pharmaceutical chemistry, or other related courses. If you pursue more advanced degrees, such as a master’s and a PhD, it may take an extra four years to graduate. If you start an entry level job, you may be promoted to a more senior position in a couple of years depending on the available opportunities.


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