What Can You Do With A PhD In Chemistry?

Lucy Bell-Young

by Lucy Bell-Young

14th August 2020

If you’re wondering what you can do with a PhD in chemistry, this article will help you identify some of the possible career paths that will be open to you. 

What Is A Chemistry PhD?

A chemistry PhD is a postgraduate degree that is usually focussed on a specific subject in chemistry. At this level of education, you are able to conduct advanced independent research into an area of chemistry that you are passionate about. 

Just like in any field, a PhD is the highest academic degree that can be earned in chemistry. Also known as a doctoral degree, having a doctorate in chemistry can lead to a wide range of high-paying and prestigious positions, either in government or the private and public sectors. 

Graphic showing things you get with a PhD

Having a doctorate in chemistry can lead to a wide range of high-paying careers

How To Get A PhD In Chemistry

A PhD in chemistry is one of the more difficult postgraduate courses to be accepted onto. This is not only because of its highly technical subject matter, but also because it is highly competitive. Indeed, the requirements and screening process for a chemistry PhD are often tougher than for other PhD courses:

  • Chemistry usually requires higher grades and a competency within a specialised area
  • Some universities require PhD applicants to pass an entrance exam before being considered
  • These entrance exams usually cover subjects related to science and mathematics, as well as IQ tests

Aside from having the minimum grade requirements and prerequisites, an applicant for a PhD programme in chemistry must also have good aptitude in mathematics. An analytical, logical mind is also very important if you want to thrive in this academic setting.

That said, the requirements for a chemistry PhD will vary depending on the institution you apply to. While some universities require PhD applicants to have a master’s degree in a related course, others may only require a bachelor’s degree, as long as it is above the required grade. Applicants who have significant industry experience, on the other hand, can be accepted for a PhD in chemistry even if they have none of the above.

Moreover, international applicants will be asked to adhere to an additional set of requirements, including:

  • The online TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam
  • An English proficiency test, such as the Pearson Test of English (PTE) 
  • An IELTS exam, otherwise known as the International English Language Testing System
  • Other standard documentary requirements, like a passport, visa and birth certificate

Earning a PhD in chemistry is no easy feat, and will require at least two years of research work. You will also need to attend lectures and conferences. After completing your research, you’ll typically then go on to present and defend your dissertation before a panel of professors in your field. Oftentimes, passing a comprehensive examination is also required for PhD candidates to graduate.

Chalkboard drawing of the progression from a Bachelor degree to a Master's to a PhD

The requirements for a chemistry PhD will vary depending on the institution you apply to

How Long Does It Take To Get A PhD In Chemistry?

In the UK, a PhD in chemistry is normally finished within three to five years for those who study full-time. For part-time students, however, it could take up to seven or even eight years to complete a PhD in chemistry. 

How long it takes someone to complete their chemistry PhD ultimately depends on their field of study. The main aspects of a PhD that might lengthen its completion time are:

  • Lab work and experiments
  • What is being researched and how
  • The nature of the dissertation
  • How long it takes to complete the dissertation 

While earning a PhD takes significantly longer than completing a bachelor’s or master’s degree, the benefit is that you gain a lot of experience. This will position you as an expert in your field and ultimately open up prestigious job opportunities.

What Jobs Can You Get With A PhD In Chemistry?

A PhD in any field can provide you with better career opportunities in terms of position, salary, authority and prestige. But those with a PhD in chemistry are particularly desirable because of the specialised knowledge they gain, as well as the fact that they are becoming difficult to find. 

For the past several years, there has been a significant decline in the number of experts in chemistry who hold a PhD. In fact, in the UK, those with PhDs constitute only 1.4% of the total population; and those with a doctorate specifically in chemistry constitute less than 1% of that. This is in line with the general STEM skills shortage, which is a concern for the government and many in the various STEM-related industries.

The subsequent demand for chemistry experts in private sectors, public sectors, academic professions and government positions has skyrocketed, meaning that graduates of chemistry PhDs are highly valuable. Here are five of the most common career paths for those with a PhD degree in chemistry:

  1. Lecturer, Researcher or Professor

Those who hold a chemistry PhD are qualified to become a lecturer, researcher or professor in a range of postsecondary education settings. This includes institutions like colleges, universities and vocational schools. As a researcher, you will continue to conduct independent research for the institution you’re working for. Your expertise may also lead you on to publish academic journals based on this research.

As a lecturer or professor, you’ll be able to apply the knowledge gained through your PhD to teaching students about specific topics in chemistry. Based on your experience, you may even be offered a tenured position as a professor of chemistry.

Becoming a Lecturer in Chemistry

With a PhD in chemistry, you can become a lecturer, professor, or even a research scientist for your university

      2. Environmental Science Specialist

As an expert in chemistry, you can pursue a career in environmental science. This is an exciting area because it involves a lot of fieldwork, which might be attractive to PhD graduates after completing several years of intensive study. 

Environmental scientists are often consulted by businesses to help ensure environmental compliance. In this career, you may also lead teams that identify environmental hazards. You can then provide recommendations or design systems that will eliminate, or at least mitigate, the impact of these hazards. As such, environmental scientists have particular influence in policymaking because their research often serves as the basis for implementing government regulations. 

      3. Chemical Engineer

With a PhD under your belt, you can also apply your knowledge in chemistry to designing scientific instruments and industrial machines that process chemicals. A career in chemical engineering can be a very lucrative path, and places you at the centre of many chemical manufacturing processes. 

While this career can be obtained without a PhD, and even without any formal education, a specialised understanding of chemistry, biology and physics gained from a PhD will improve your skills and set you apart from competitors. 

      4. Materials Scientist

As a materials scientist, you can work with government institutions like the Defence Department. You can also work with private corporations that research cutting edge technology. Material scientists can even do private research at their chosen university by securing grants from funding agencies. 

If this is your chosen career, you’ll also be responsible for overseeing other scientists’ research work. You will be expected to use your expertise to improve the testing methods that are currently being used by your employer or client. Research projects for material scientists can range from testing pre-existing materials, to developing new types of materials, such as those used in nanotechnology and 3D-printing.

Careers with a PhD in Chemistry

You can use your PhD in chemistry to become a materials scientist, a chemical engineer, or even a laboratory technician

      5. Medicinal Chemist

Another common career path for those with PhDs in chemistry is as a medicinal chemist. This role usually requires a PhD in medicinal, synthetic, or organic chemistry, as well as some form of experience in the biopharma industry. 

As a medicinal chemist, you’ll be involved in evaluating and developing chemical compounds into pharmaceutical drugs. Typically a lab-based job, this career is well-suited to those with a keen interest in medicinal chemistry and drug discovery.

Though the process may take a number of years, a range of career opportunities await you when you obtain a PhD in chemistry. Whether you’re already passionate about a particular area of study and would like to pursue it, or whether you’re unsure about what area of chemistry to specialise in, a chemistry PhD is a great way to develop your skills and experience so that you can secure a promising career.

Find out more in our careers in chemistry resources hub.


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