Everything You Need to Know About Being a Chemist So You Don’t Confuse It With Being a Pharmacist

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Man and woman wearing white lab coat doing laboratory analysis

Not entirely sure what a Chemist does for work? Is there a difference between a Chemist and a Pharmacist?

We’ve got your answers right here! Let’s hear it from a real chemist who is keen to share what they do at work, including their roles and responsibilities, opinions and advice for all you aspiring students out there. 

Let’s get started!

Meet Simon
What is a Chemist?
Steps to Becoming a Chemist
Future Outlook
Best Thing & Worst Thing
Advice for Aspiring Chemists

Meet Simon

Simon is a research and development (R&D) chemist at Callington, an aircraft company that manufactures products for a number of airlines across the globe! 

What Does a Chemist Do - Quote

Studies and Experience

Simon studied a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) at UNSW, completing his Honours thesis on the synthesis of micro-particles using suspension polymerisation. Impressively, he also completed a PhD in polymer chemistry and biochemical polymers in UNSW too! 

Then, Simon worked as a chief lecturer in chemistry at UTS before working at the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHRMC) for 4 years as a research group leader.

He then worked in different chemist roles in multiple industries. With over 10 years of experience, that’s when you know that Simon really knows his work! 

What made you want to work in this industry? 

For Simon, it was his training at UNSW where he truly found his strength in the field of surfactants and emulsions. During his Honours year, he discovered he was interested in how different chemicals such as surfactants and stabilisers work.

Then, during his PhD, he found his passion in emulsions as he did emulsion polymerisation training in university. 

“It’s the training from the university,” Simon said. “In my Honours year, I was working on suspension polymerisation and that’s when I started understanding how surfactants and emulsions work and then I went on to do a PhD on polymer science.

“I guess it’s the training that a person would get in a university that helps you see where you fit in, or which area you’d like to work in.”

What is a Chemist?

To put it simply, a chemist performs research and experiments to understand elements, atoms and molecules in terms of their properties and how they react with one another. They also explore a variety of practical techniques to analyse, quantify or even create new compounds for a certain purpose!

Roles and Responsibilities 

In general, a chemist carries out experiments to investigate chemical properties and reactions of natural and man-made materials. This also means they have to be able to gather data and figure out ways to apply what they’ve learnt to real life purposes in a safe and efficient manner.

In terms of a chemist’s specific roles and responsibilities, it really depends on the aims of the project, company or industry that they work in. 

Research and Development Chemist 

For Simon, being a research and development chemist in an aviation industry means that his  “main task is to be the brain of the project. If there are any customer complaints about the product or if there are any issues, we should be able to dissect formulas and provide recommendations and solutions that would allow us to improve the manufacturing of the products“.

A typical day for Simon is “never boring because you are filled with a lot of work to do because you are desk based and also working in a laboratory. So, your time is being split in half, though it’s quite flexible and doesn’t have to be 50:50 of your time”.

Simon adds, “You would have to have a desk job where you write reports and do research. The research part takes up a lot of time — facing computers and trying to solve or form your chemicals.

“For the development part, you really have to check if the theories in the research you’ve found can be translatable into the product. So, you would need to be in the lab with your lab coats, gloves and safety glasses to formulate products.” 

Which Industries can this career be found in? 

We all use things that are made out of atoms, chemicals and materials so a job as a chemist can be found in almost every industry. According to JobOutlook, the four main industries include: 

  • Manufacturing 
  • Professional, Scientific and Technical Services 
  • Retail Trade 
  • Education and Training 

Manufacturing takes the lead as the first main industry that chemists work in, with 34% of chemists working in the field! If the manufacturing industry isn’t your thing, you may find yourself working in all sorts of areas such as medicine, environmental science, manufacturing, education and even forensic science! 

Chemist or Pharmacist? 

A lot of chemists get asked, “Do you work at Chemist Warehouse?” The answer is no. 

This is because a lot of chemists get confused with pharmacists. Don’t worry, it’s a common misconception.

The main differences between a chemist and a pharmacist lie within their education, roles and work environment. Here are the main differences between the two:

Chemists 

A chemist is someone who has studied chemistry, carries out experiments involving chemicals and synthesises new products using their knowledge.

To become a chemist, you’d need to complete a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry. A Masters degree or a PhD is not mandatory but recommended if you’re looking to upgrade your position. 

As for the work environment, chemists can work in multiple industries including medicine, food production, cosmetics, paint formulas and more as long as it involves chemicals. 

Pharmacist 

Unlike a chemist, a pharmacist is a healthcare worker who studies the science of pharmacy.

Pharmacists must complete a Bachelor’s degree and a Master of Pharmacy to be able to work. However, they do share some of the same knowledge as chemists in subjects such as inorganic chemistry and organic chemistry. 

Pharmacist jobs are also quite narrowed down to one industry — medicine.

So, unlike chemists who work in all types of areas, pharmacists work in pharmacies to administer drugs, prescriptions and even vaccinations. They also ensure that they are delivering drugs safely as they account for drug interactions and side effects. 

In a way, chemists and pharmacists do work together as chemists develop the drugs and pharmacists provide the drugs to the general population.

Pharmacists do mix chemicals together in the pharmacy, but it’s customised by strength and dosages according to the individual customer’s needs, unlike chemist products which are cued for large scale production. 

Characteristics and Qualities 

What Does a Chemist Do - Characteristics

As JobOutlook presents, the main skills that chemists develop are: 

  • Application of theory
  • Reading and comprehension 
  • Writing 
  • Mathematics 
  • Critical thinking 

To be a chemist, it’s not enough just to understand theory — you need to know how to apply it to real life too! A lot of jobs in the manufacturing industry value chemists who know how to use their knowledge to create and improve products for their customers. 

Reading and comprehension is another key skill chemists develop as they perform literature reviews and research to get on top of the latest discoveries that would keep their project updated. Once the research is done, good communication in writing comes into play as chemists would need to write reports in a way that is well understood by people outside of science, such as business people, stakeholders and more. 

Mathematics, more specifically using maths to solve problems is also another well sought out skill by employers.

As a chemist, you would need to be able to solve issues regarding your research and project to continually maintain and improve standards. As such, critical thinking is highly essential to enable chemists to pick the most effective and safe solution to complex problems in their everyday routine.

Above all, the perseverance to keep your passion for science striving is key to becoming a fulfilled chemist! 

Steps to Becoming a Physicist

What should you study? 

The road to becoming a chemist is pretty straight forward. You can choose how long you want to study for to build your qualifications and knowledge which can also improve your employability. 

Building your knowledge and experience can be summarised in 4 steps:

Step #1: Study Chemistry for your HSC

Sounds obvious but yes!  It is highly recommended that you do Chemistry as one of your HSC subjects because this can be a prerequisite to get into a university degree that focusses on chemistry.

It can also help you stay ahead of class during your first year at university, as lecturers do expect you to know the basics before studying chemistry at a university level. 

Other recommended HSC subjects that may be prerequisites for undergraduate degrees include Mathematics, Physics, Biology and also English

#2: Do a Bachelor of Science (major in Chemistry) or Bachelor of Chemical Engineering

Level up with a Bachelor of Science or Applied Science with a major in Chemistry. Alternatively, you can study a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering. 

Here are some degrees you may want to consider:

After your studies, you should be eligible to become a member of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI), which provides networking events, news updates, volunteering and job opportunities in the Australian world of chemistry. 

#3: Do a postgraduate degree

If you’re looking to upskill and boost your employability, you might consider completing a postgraduate Masters or even a PhD in a specialised area of chemistry. A masters degree typically takes around 2 years to complete, and a PhD usually takes longer.

Depending on your thesis and how complex it is, it can take up to 4 to 6 years to finish up your PhD thesis and get that Doctor title!

It is not necessary for you to do a postgraduate degree to get a job, though it can definitely help you get a job more easily. It is important to note that a postgraduate degree is absolutely mandatory if you’re looking to pursue a career in education or research. 

#4: Start your internships early

Now this isn’t necessarily done towards the end of your studies. You can absolutely start looking to do internships even during your undergrad degree! 

Internships are highly valuable as they help get your foot in the door for future jobs. By putting yourself out there, you can gain early industry experience, form meaningful connections and upgrade your skills from the classroom environment to a real world setting. 

University career centres are a great place to start looking for internships, so make full use of the resources you have! 

How long does it take to become a chemist? 

Generally, it’d take around 4 to 10 years of study to become a chemist. It really depends on the scope of academic qualifications you want to pursue. 

Don’t fret though! You can still work on the side while studying your postgraduate degrees to gain as much experience as you can in the industry. 

Industry Knowledge

The software and programs that you’ll use as a chemist depend on your tasks and the company you work for. So, you have to be open-minded and flexible to use all sorts of software programs for different purposes. 

To give you an idea, Simon says that for more analytical roles like his previous job, he used the Empower Chromatography Data System by Waters, an instrumental tool which allowed him to run samples and perform analysis on his polymers. 

On the other hand, Simon says, “[There are also] business management and project management softwares. Another software I use is Microsoft AX. I also used SEP which is a business software to enter formulas.” 

“Each has its own intricacies,” Simon notes. “So, in the companies I worked in in the past, they have all used different softwares. You have to be flexible depending on the industry.

“As a chemist, training in university is knowledge based and as you step into industry, you learn more about how different types of chemistry are involved and you get the chance to adjust yourself to these tools that are important for the company.”

What will this career look like in the future?

Chemists in the future are most likely to continue building innovative products to solve emerging real world issues revolving around chemistry. But some of the big changes that chemists are looking at are shifts to manufacturing sustainable and environmentally friendly products. 

How in-demand is this career? 

Simon says, “Chemist and materials scientist positions are fairly in demand due to the government’s promotion to grow the manufacturing and research sectors.

“Particularly in Australia, the manufacturing history has a good history of success for the past 50 to 60 years and though it’s gone down a bit now, the government is trying to pick this up again and try to increase manufacturing in Australia.”

Are there opportunities to grow or specialise?

“Yes, there are definitely growth opportunities!” Simon says.

“You can always develop a career starting as a junior or associate chemist and you can develop further into senior roles and go into technical or management or director roles. For that, you would need to have a thorough knowledge of chemistry but also look after your team members.”

In terms of specialising in an area, Simon explains, “It comes with more experience, really. The more you do in a certain area, the more you gain experience and that is where you specialise into that area.” 

There are multiple specialisations of chemistry that you can pursue. Here are the top 4 popular sub-disciplines of chemistry that would be chosen the most:

  • Biochemistry 
  • Neurochemistry 
  • Nuclear chemistry 
  • Theoretical chemistry 

Salary 

According to JobOutlook, the annual salary for an average chemist is $102,908 with a stable future growth rate and a very high skill level rating. 

Annual Salary Future Growth Skill Level Rating
$102,000+ Stable over the next 5 years Very high skill

The Future of this Industry

If you remember the 1st law of thermodynamics, it says that matter cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another. 

This is very true for a chemist because chemists can’t produce materials from thin air — they have to use available resources to make products. And what happens when they run out of resources? 

That’s where sustainability comes in. Sustainability helps keep the supplies coming in for many days ahead, so chemists don’t run out of chemicals, materials and more to work with. 

“Sustainability is a big topic nowadays,” Simon says. “Chemicals that we use can be from petrochemical based sources that are limited in supply, so sustainability is very important.

“As such, we really have to gain raw materials from a sustainable source so we can continuously produce materials that continue to help ease people’s lifestyles.”

Best Thing & Worst Thing

What do you enjoy the most about this job?

Simon says that his favourite thing about being a chemist is the life-long learning that comes with research and working in industry. 

“What I enjoy most is to be able to continue my knowledge in chemistry because I think there’s so much to learn in this job,” Simon explains.

“If you want to understand chemical products on a molecular level, I think there’s so much to learn given that there are many jobs to juggle around during the day but if you can always give it your hardest to study more chemistry and help develop a better product for the industry, that’s the rewarding bit.”

What do you feel is the worst part of this job?

This was a pretty hard question for Simon to answer as he really loves his job. 

If Simon has to pick something, he says, “Maybe it’s the handling multiple tasks at a time, which is required by the company so you need to be quite flexible and it’s something that isn’t necessarily the worst part but it’s more of a challenging aspect of the role.”  

To clarify, Simon sees this as more of a stepping stone to improve his skills, rather than a barrier in his job. Now, that’s the kind of attitude you need to be a self-motivated chemist!

Advice for Aspiring Chemists

What do you wish you had known before you started working in this career?

#1: Early experience is highly valuable

Industry experience is key to setting up your career and there’s no time better to start than sooner. 

“Some experience comes a long way,” Simon advises. “Working in the laboratory for a couple of months will allow you to see what the role entails and that is something that is quite useful before you start working outside.”

Lucky for you, most universities will provide opportunities for you to do internships or placement programs for you to gain some practical experience before letting you run free in the work world.

As Simon says, “For university students, you’ll get a chance to do hands-on experiments in the industry and experience how an industry works on a day-to-day basis and how the different hierarchy and organisation or structure works during internships, which will all be very insightful for students.” 

#2: Get familiar with the sub-specialisations 

The amount of fields you get to specialise in chemistry are very broad, yet each are unique in their own way. This is why Simon advises future students to really understand which sub-specialisation of chemistry entails, before you commit to it. 

“As a university student who just left their university, it’s good to talk to someone to understand the different types of chemistry fields that are in the industry. There are analytical chemists, research and development chemists, quality control chemists — so there are different types of chemists!”

And that’s not all, Simon also says that within these sub-specialisations, you have even more branches you can specialise further into. “Within quality control chemists and research and development chemists, there are different areas such as polymer chemistry, surfactant science, adhesion based products.” 

Ultimately, Simon says it’s important to distinguish between each of the sub-branches because “while they are intertwined in knowledge, there are subtle differences between them. So, knowing your strengths and what you want to do is important”.  

Why should people consider taking on this career?

If you’re someone who loves to learn new things that have got to do with chemistry, this is a calling for you! 

Being a chemist is a role that is always interesting for students!” Simon says. “If they’re passionate about furthering their career in science, chemistry is definitely something that can be considered for future students.”

“This career is very fulfilling if you are someone who likes to be organised and someone who likes to use chemistry knowledge to develop it,” Simon says.

“To be able to contribute your knowledge and know that what you have learnt and studied can be applied to real life and be used to provide for the organisation you’re working for, it can be highly rewarding.” 

Job Flexibility 

Work as a chemist can be really hands-on, so oftentimes you’ll be required to go into the workplace more than you can sit at home to be productive.

“There are opportunities to work from home but as you start working in a company as a chemist, you’ll need to come into the lab because it’s hard to make chemicals at home like in your garage,” Simon joked. 

“If you’re able to plan your time,” Simon explains, “within a week, you may be in the lab for four days and one day at home. But generally, your presence is required in the company because it is quite a dynamic role.” 

As Simon elaborates, this is because “you’ve got production happening on one side to make chemicals on large scale and on another you have to answer different questions and discuss different issues with your colleagues so it’s more of onsite work”.  

What’s the workplace culture like?

Simon says it really varies between companies, “Everyone has got different characters and different personalities and if you spend the majority of your time in the office like 8 hours a day, you’re having to meet your colleagues a lot more than your friends and family. That can be quite important to some people but it really varies from company to company.” 

But to put it generally, Simon says that there is a difference in the workplace culture between large and smaller corporations, “Larger corporations have more structured protocols that you can follow whereas smaller corporations have less structured and can be quite flexible and safe in terms of discussing issues and bringing up problems that you might face.” 

In terms of working with people, a chemist job is very group-based. “The nature of being a chemist is that you are the heartbeat of the technical area because you are the know-how of the company.

“So, if there are any issues filed by the customer, it is the chemist’s job to solve the problem and give appropriate advice to others to resolve issues, so it’s really about working in teams as a chemist,” Simon shares.


Kate Lynn Law graduated in 2017 with an all rounders HSC award and an ATAR of 97.65. Passionate about mentoring, she enjoys working with high school students to improve their academic, work and life skills in preparation for the HSC and what comes next. An avid blogger, Kate had administered a creative writing page for over 2000 people since 2013, writing to an international audience since her early teenage years. 



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