Doing a PhD in Chemistry

A PhD in Chemistry aims to prepare highly qualified researchers who are able to bring about new advances in the chemistry fields, including Chemical Engineering, Materials Science and Nanoscience etc. In other words, the core objective of a Chemistry PhD is to train researchers to join or lead research groups in universities, independent R&D departments other public or private organisations to meet the growing demands of society.

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What does a PhD in Chemistry Involve?

As a research student, your daily activities will largely depend on two factors: what your specific research project is and what training objectives your department sets.

In short, your daily activities will focus on advancing your project, such as designing and conducting experiments, preparing your thesis and attending conferences etc., all while achieving your training objectives. Although training objectives vary from department to department, you can expect them to include outcomes such as:

  • Ability to independently devise, plan and carry out scientific research projects.
  • Acquire the skills to integrate effectively into any R&D team in the chemical sciences and technologies fields.
  • The ability to advise public and private institutions from a scientific and technical perspective.
  • To contribute to the development of knowledge, the latest techniques and instrumentation in relation to your specific field of specialisation.
  • Ability to update their scientific and technical expertise autonomously and continuously.

Since almost all doctoral degrees in chemistry are highly laboratory-based, your research will likely see you using advanced and innovative equipment. Depending on your research topic and your universities facilities, you may have to opportunity to use, for example, a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer (NMR), Electron Spin Resonance Spectrometer (EPR), Infrared-Raman Fourier Spectrophotometer (FT-IR), Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) and Inductively Coupled Plasma Spectrometer (ICP) as part of your research.

Read our interview with a current Chemistry PhD student, Henry Powell-Davies, about his experiences and advice about PhD life.

Lines of Research

As with most STEM subject PhDs, the potential research themes encompassing Chemistry PhDs are numerous; a School of Chemistry may traditionally base their research around the areas of Physical and Theoretical, Organic and Biological and Materials and Inorganic Chemistry.

Academic staff at your particular institution will also have a broad range of research interests they want to pursue, and it’s common to find postgraduate research students involved in a range of projects that overlap with the other sciences.

The following list, whilst not exhaustive, should give you an idea of how many topics you could choose from as part of your doctorate:

  • Physical Chemistry,
  • Medicinal Chemistry,
  • Theoretical Chemistry,
  • Materials Chemistry,
  • Environmental Chemistry,
  • Structural Chemistry,
  • Biological Chemistry,
  • Computational Chemistry,
  • Supramolecular Chemistry,
  • Organometallic Chemistry,
  • Atmospheric Chemistry.

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Within these topics, there will be numerous specialist areas, one of which will form the central focus of your original research project. Examples of these specialist areas are:

  • Electrochemical Sensors and Biosensors,
  • Liquid chromatography and electrophoresis,
  • Basic and technological aspects of ceramic materials,
  • Organometallic chemistry and catalysis,
  • Asymmetric catalysis with metal complexes and organocatalysis,
  • Organic chemistry of metal compounds,
  • Synthesis of pharmacologically interesting compounds from chiral precursors,
  • Distereo- and enantioselective synthesis of biologically active natural products,
  • Photoactive molecules, macromolecules and nanoparticles.

How long does it take to get a PhD in Chemistry?

In the UK, a full-time doctoral student usually takes 3 years to complete their postgraduate study, while part-time study will usually take closer to 6 years.

Most Chemistry PhD students will first register as MPhil students, after which they will complete an upgrade viva after 18 months before they are officially registered as a PhD student. While your supervisor will provide mentorship, it’s ultimately the responsibility of postgraduate students to ensure their project and studies run on time and that they meet their agreed deadlines.

What are the typical entry requirements for a Chemistry PhD Programme?

Most UK universities require at least a 2:1 undergraduate masters degree or the equivalent grade from a university outside the UK. The degree must be in a field that is directly relevant or that can demonstrate your understanding of chemistry as a graduate student to the level expected of your prospective supervisor.

If English is not your first language, you will be expected to meet the English language requirements of the university where you applied to prove your proficiency. This usually means obtaining formal English language qualifications such as an IELTS, which, for research programmes, typically requires a minimum test score of 6.5 as part of your application.

How much does a Chemistry PhD cost?

As a postgraduate researcher in the UK, you should expect annual tuition fees of around £4,500 per academic year. Part-time students should expect approximately half this fee at £2,250 per academic year.

For international students, including now-EU students, the annual tuition fee is considerably higher; for example, the School of Chemistry at the University of Birmingham sets international fees at £23,580/year, equating to over £70,500 assuming your PhD project takes three years to complete.

As with every PhD degree, potential students will need to consider additional costs such as living costs and any bench fees that may be expected from their respective project or graduate school. It’s a good idea to discuss these with your potential supervisors before starting your postgraduate degree.

Funding opportunities

Several funding opportunities are available for a Chemistry PhD research project. The opportunities include:

  • Government funding eg. UKRI BBSRC, EPSRC, ESRC, GATEway for research degrees.
  • Industry funding eg. AstraZeneca, BP, NC3D, (UK) DSTL (USA), assuming the topic of your PhD study aligns with their research interests.
  • Independent funding eg. Grants or Specialist Institutes for research projects in Chemistry or other scientific fields supporting the PhD programme.
  • Research charities eg. Cancer Research, MacMillan.
  • University funding eg. Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) funding in the form of scholarships/studentships which cover tuition fees and, in some cases, also provide a living allowance.

Thesis grants may also be available to assist with the costs of writing and presenting your thesis at an overseas conference or workshop. These can be awarded directly by institutions or even employers as part of a career development scheme.

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What can you do with a PhD in Chemistry?

A PhD degree in Chemistry opens up a wide range of career opportunities, both within academia and industry.

Many graduates follow a career path of becoming postdoctoral researchers, then lecturers and possibly a professor of Chemistry too. Others may see their PhD projects linking with industry partners of the university, naturally leading to opportunities there. This may see graduates going on to work within the chemical engineering field, becoming materials scientists or working within environmental sciences.

With this in mind, the most common career paths after a PhD in Chemistry are:

  1. University Lecturer
    A university lecturer may teach and run courses but may also advise on undergraduate study or research, supervise students, and be involved in developing education programs.
  2. Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship
    Most chemistry PhDs go on to secure a post-doctoral position within an institution such as a university, governmental department, research charity or a Commercial Research Organisation (CRO).
  3. Environmental Scientist
    An Environmental Scientist conducts research to assess and control the impact of human activity on the environment.
  4. Patent Attorney
    A patent attorney is often employed by organisations that develop new technology. They are responsible for drafting the application for patents to protect a client’s intellectual property rights, focusing on chemical compounds, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology products.
  5. Pharmaceutical Researcher
    A research scientist could work in the pharmaceutical industry, looking at developing new pharmaceutical compounds. This can be a career path for PhD chemists who have a strong biochemistry background and a passion for drug discovery and want to take their career into this area.
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  6. Cosmetic Chemist
    The Personal Care industry employs over 500,000 people in the UK alone and is an expanding market in the UK and global economy. The ingredients used in these products are often chemical compounds with large molecular structure, which is why they are typically developed by a chemist or chemist-biologist.
  7. Process Engineer (Chemical Industry)
    A Process Engineer works on designing chemical processes and equipment to increase efficiency and profitability for an organisation. The role requires extensive knowledge of chemical engineering practices, operating conditions, instrumentation and mathematical techniques.

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