If you enjoy team work in a laboratory environment and want to use your chemistry skills to contribute to the design and discovery of new medicines, then a career in medicinal chemistry could be for you

As a medicinal chemist you'll play a vital role in the process of drug discovery, helping to create new and more effective medicines. Using a range of chemistry techniques, primarily synthetic organic chemistry and data analysis tools, you'll design and create new pharmaceutically active molecules to combat a particular disease or condition.

You'll work closely with other scientists within a project team to understand and interpret biological testing of the compounds that you've created to see if they're effective. You'll then analyse the results of these tests to identify how the molecule could be improved until there's sufficient evidence that it works and is safe for testing in people.

While some organisations will advertise for a medicinal chemist, there are also a range of other job titles by which this role may be known - such as synthetic organic chemist, (graduate) scientist and research chemist. It's important to look beyond job titles to the job description, to ensure you're finding roles in medicinal chemistry.

Responsibilities

As a medicinal chemist, you'll need to:

  • plan and conduct scientific experiments in the lab to create and refine target molecules
  • follow health and safety guidelines and safe working practices
  • undertake data analysis to assess the results of experiments and the characteristics of the molecules produced
  • ensure the structure and purity of compounds are correct
  • write up experiments accurately
  • work closely with other scientific colleagues across different disciplines
  • use computational techniques to model the properties of new molecules
  • explore how it may be possible to 'scale up' production of useful compounds that are created
  • generate reports and deliver presentations about your work for colleagues, partners and clients
  • attend and contribute to internal and external project meetings
  • liaise with partners and clients and respond to queries about the progress of your research
  • keep up to date with scientific literature
  • undertake ongoing professional development by attending training and conferences.

Salary

Starting salaries for graduate medicinal chemists can range from £18,000 and £28,000, depending on the size and nature of the employer. For those with a PhD, starting salaries could be between £28,000 and £32,000.

Experienced/senior medicinal chemists can earn between £35,000 and £40,000.

Medicinal chemists who progress into scientific or technical leadership roles could earn between £45,000 and £50,000, while those moving into management positions could earn £50,000 to £55,000 or more.

Some employers will also offer additional benefits such as pension schemes, healthcare plans, share ownership schemes and other employee lifestyle benefits.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are typically 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, often with an element of flexibility. Weekend or evening work is rare, but may occasionally be required at busy times or when undertaking independent study or research.

Part-time work is possible. Short-term contracts are also available, sometimes through recruitment agencies.

What to expect

  • You'll be primarily lab based. This means that you need to be happy working at the bench for long periods of time, as well as having the ability to follow health and safety processes. The rest of your time will be spent at a desk or in meetings - you may have a work station based in the lab or in a separate work area.
  • This kind of scientific research and development can be a frustrating process, as often your experiments will not produce the results you're hoping for. Therefore, it's critical to have patience and resilience.
  • You'll be working a collaborative environment, usually within a small multi-disciplinary project team.
  • Travel within the working day is unusual, although you may travel to meet clients or to attend conferences.
  • Dress code is typically fairly informal, although what you wear will be dictated by the safety requirements of working in a lab. For instance, open-toed shoes or clothes which expose a lot of skin aren't safe to wear. You'll need to wear a lab coat, safety glasses and other protective clothing as appropriate. Outside of the lab, you may be expected to dress more formally if meeting with clients.

Qualifications

To do this job you'll need a degree-level chemistry qualification and to have a good grasp of synthetic and organic chemistry. The majority of entrants have as a minimum a BSc in a chemistry subject, with many listing Masters qualifications such as an MChem, MSci or MSc. You may find it useful to look for degrees which are accredited by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).

Although it's not a requirement, a PhD in chemistry can be an advantage, with some employers specifying a preference for a PhD due to the advanced level of scientific research skills that this can demonstrate. In some organisations, a PhD can enable you to progress more quickly into senior and higher paid roles.

Some employers offer an apprenticeship route into their business which can be built on with a part-time degree to obtain the necessary qualifications for a role in medicinal chemistry.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • an aptitude for synthetic organic chemistry
  • an interest in and motivation for the drug discovery process
  • the ability to design and carry out scientific experiments safely and accurately
  • analytical skills and the ability to interpret data relating to your experiments
  • the ability to work collaboratively within a multi-disciplinary team
  • excellent written communication and report writing skills
  • effective verbal communication skills to present information clearly to colleagues and clients
  • a willingness to keep up to date with scientific research and literature
  • attention to detail and the ability to analyse scientific and technical data
  • the ability to plan and manage your own work effectively
  • patience and resilience to cope with a scientific process that can involve considerable trial and error
  • problem solving skills to develop new and improved scientific solutions
  • computational skills to manage data and potentially to create scientific models and simulations
  • effective project management skills.

Work experience

Relevant work experience can be a significant advantage and many employers will actively seek students with experience in addition to their academic qualifications. A number of companies offer year in industry placements which can be an excellent way of getting some really in-depth training, experience and skills.

Summer placements, internships and informal work experience or shadowing are other good ways of gaining experience. Some larger companies offer structured summer placement or insight programmes, while others can be contacted directly to enquire about informal opportunities.

You can also gain valuable experience through summer research placements in universities and even doing specialist undergraduate modules or research projects can help to develop and demonstrate a relevant skillset.

Any experience which develops your lab skills, gives you an insight into the pharmaceutical industry, improves your knowledge and understanding of synthetic organic chemistry, or helps develop your broader transferable skills is valuable.

Employers

Typical employers in this sector include:

  • pharmaceutical companies - usually larger organisations who produce, manufacture and sell pharmaceutical products
  • contract research organisations (CROs) - usually smaller companies who carry out research on behalf of the pharmaceutical companies. These account for an increasing proportion of employment of medicinal chemists
  • biotech companies - usually smaller organisations, often focused on a specific or niche product or development
  • medical charities and research institutes
  • universities provide opportunities to carry out medicinal chemistry research at PhD and postdoctoral level and beyond, often in collaboration with or funding from industry or charity partners.

Many of the opportunities in this sector are located in geographical clusters based around universities, large employers and science parks in the UK, including but not limited to the 'golden triangle' between Cambridge, Oxford and London. Internationally, there are areas of drug discovery activity in parts of Switzerland, Germany, Japan and the US, while India and China are growth areas for contract research organisations.

In addition to university job portals, graduate careers websites and employer websites, you can also look for job vacancies on industry recruitment sites such as:

You can find temporary and permanent roles through scientific recruitment agencies, such as SRG and Hyper Recruitment Solutions.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) has a useful employer directory on its website to help identify potential recruiters, while the UK Science Park Association (UKSPA) membership list is a good source of information about science parks which often host smaller employers in this sector.

The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) member directory provides information about a number of medical research charities. You can look on their websites to find out which universities, institutes and companies they work with or fund to do research.

Professional development

You should expect to receive training on the job to help you develop the specific skills and knowledge required to undertake medicinal chemistry research. You'll usually be working in a team including more experienced scientists and will have the ability to learn from them through team meetings and project discussions.

You should keep up to date with new developments and research by reading scientific journals and attending conferences or training events. Some companies offer in-house training and development programmes. In some cases, you may have the opportunity to undertake independent research and even complete a PhD on a part-time basis.

You may wish to join the RSC, as it's the professional body for chemists. Gain chartered status through the RSC, to become a chartered chemist (CChem) or a chartered scientist (CSci), by providing evidence of your scientific skills, impact and professionalism. These accreditations generally aren't viewed as an essential requirement for progression in this sector.

Career prospects

As your career progresses, you're likely initially to move into more senior scientific roles, leading a team or a project and making key decisions about the direction of research. You may take on more client-facing roles in some organisations.

With further experience, you may start to oversee the work of a wider multi-disciplinary team and become more involved in the strategic direction and planning of projects and research. At this stage, you will be spending significantly less time in the lab and more time in the office and in internal and external meetings.

Your pathway into more senior leadership positions may be either to lead the scientific work of a department or company or to move into organisational management and leadership roles.

The pace and opportunities for career progression will depend upon the size and nature of the organisation you work for as well as the personal skills and aptitude you are able to demonstrate for more senior positions. Within some organisations, having a PhD can lead to accelerated promotion and recognition.

Medicinal chemists also often move into regulatory affairs or other roles in pharmaceutical manufacturing and development as they gain more industry experience.