Case study

Graduate chemist — Heather Gray

Two years into her role as a graduate chemist, Heather enjoys the lab work, teamwork and increasing independence of her job with a large pharmaceutical company

How did you get your job?

I received an email from my university careers team advertising a graduate position with GSK. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do at that point, but I thought it looked interesting so I decided to apply.

I was invited to an assessment day where I got to meet with current employees and find out more about the company as well as face HR and technical interviews. Although this process felt quite daunting initially, I actually quite enjoyed it and came out feeling I really wanted the job.

What's a typical working day like?

My desk is in the lab and I spend around 75% of my time doing practical synthetic chemistry - putting on reactions, working up and purifying compounds. I also spend a fair amount of time analysing existing compounds that have been created by the team to identify any problems and think about how these could be designed out. In addition to this, I attend regular meetings with my team to discuss and plan our work.

What do you enjoy most about being a medicinal chemist?

I really enjoy being in the lab and having the ability to make a real contribution to the decisions of the team. I feel like a trusted and valued member of the team.

What are the challenges?

It can be frustrating when the chemistry doesn't work although this is part of the nature of the role. The nice part about working in a supportive team is that there's always someone to talk to about difficult aspects of the job.

Is your degree relevant?

You couldn't do this job without a chemistry degree. I regularly use many of the chemistry skills and techniques I learnt during my degree on a day to day basis, although I have learnt a huge amount more since I joined.

How important is having a Masters qualification?

I did a five-year integrated MChem degree with a year in industry. The majority of chemists I work with in this job have at least a Masters qualification and some have a PhD. For me the benefit of my Masters year was that it involved working on my own project, which helped me develop independent thinking and working skills. It was a really useful stepping stone for my current role at GSK.

How has your role developed and what are your career ambitions?

I feel that I have developed a lot over the last two years. Initially I was given targets to work on and fairly straightforward tasks. Now I have a lot more independence and am more involved in designing and troubleshooting syntheses and compounds independently. In the future I plan to remain quite lab-focused and take on more leadership and responsibility within our scientific team.

What's your advice for others wanting to become a medicinal chemist?

  • It can be useful to do an industrial placement year as this gives you a great insight into the role and valuable skills. It can also help you decide if this is the right career path for you.
  • Prepare well for technical interviews - you need to make sure you can talk about and demonstrate the key chemistry concepts and techniques you have learnt at university.
  • Try to get as much lab experience as possible and think about the theoretical chemistry behind the experiments you carry out - this will help you to troubleshoot when things don't go to plan.