Research chemist: job description

Research chemists work in a range of industries on products including cosmetics, electronics and pharmaceuticals.

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What does a research chemist do? Typical employers | Qualifications and training | Key skills

Research chemists study chemical compounds and use this research to create and improve processes and products, from new drugs and medical treatments to manufactured goods such as cosmetics, electrical goods and food and drink. Research chemists will mainly be laboratory-based. Possible research themes include: chemical biology, computational chemistry, green chemistry, materials chemistry, medicinal chemistry and synthesis.

You can also be a research scientist in other areas, such as biology and physics. Take a look at our research scientist job description for more information.

A research chemist’s typical day-to-day tasks include:

  • working as part of a team in a research laboratory
  • setting up laboratory equipment and conducting tests and experiments
  • recording and analysing data
  • presenting results to senior research staff
  • researching and writing papers, reports and reviews
  • preparing funding applications
  • supervising junior staff, including laboratory technicians
  • keeping up to date with relevant scientific and technical developments

If you’re a research chemist in an academic setting, you can also expect to get involved in the teaching side, giving lectures to chemistry students at your university.

Typical employers of research chemists

  • Chemical companies
  • Government and private laboratories
  • Environmental agencies
  • Public funded research councils
  • Universities
  • Food and drink manufacturers
  • Materials companies
  • Consumer goods manufacturers
  • Pharmaceutical companies

Research posts, particularly those with permanent contracts, attract strong competition from job applicants. Vacancies are advertised online, by careers services, in national newspapers, in relevant scientific publications such as New Scientist , Science , and Chemistry World , and in journals published by professional institutions. Speculative applications are advisable, for which directories such as Current Research in Britain may be useful.

  • The recruitment process is likely to involve a technical interview. Read our article on technical interviews to find out what these involve and how you can tackle them.
  • If you'd like to find out what your salary might look like, take a look at our article on how much you might earn in science on our TARGETcareers website.

Qualifications and training required

You can only become a research chemist if you have a good degree (a 2.1 or above) in a relevant science subject such as chemistry or biochemistry.

A relevant postgraduate qualification such as a research-based masters or a PhD is also normally required, particularly for permanent positions or senior research positions. Read our article on scientific postgraduate study to explore your different options.

Postdoctoral research, practical research and laboratory work experience are all beneficial, and frequently required, for academic posts.

A school leaver could get into the science industry through an apprenticeship as a laboratory technician, which may involve being supervised by, and supporting the work of, a research chemist. However, it’s not possible to progress to a research chemist role without getting a degree. To find out more about getting into science via a school leaver route, visit the science section of TARGETcareers, our website aimed at school leavers.

Key skills for research chemists

  • Patience and determination
  • Flexibility
  • Scientific and numerical skills
  • A logical and independent mind
  • Excellent analytical skills
  • Meticulous attention to detail and accuracy
  • Teamwork and interpersonal skills
  • Written and oral communication skills
  • Excellent IT skills

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