UCAS- Focus on Chemistry: Having the right chemistry

Chemists get good jobs when they leave college because they're team players with analytical minds.
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The Independent Culture
Rachel Butler is beaming. Outside, the temperature is climbing to 30 degrees, she is dressed in a heavy black academic gown, but she doesn't care. After four years, she's about to receive her hard-earned MChem degree from Liverpool University.

Originally, Rachel wanted to be a vet. "I tried twice, but I didn't get in. So, as I'd got an A in Chemistry, and I liked it, I decided to apply to Liverpool." She says it was the best thing she ever did, and having got a 2:1 is staying on to do a PhD. "I was disappointed at first, but as soon as I started the new course, it was fine. I've really enjoyed it, especially the physical aspect of chemistry. I like learning the principles behind the practical work. The area I'm interested in is very conceptual; you can't actually see what you're talking about because it's atom-sized."

Rachel is typical of the many sixth formers who don't at first consider Chemistry as a degree subject. Indeed, over the last four years, the number of UK applicants opting for Chemistry has dropped from 7883 in 1994, to 5599 in 1998. But Stephen Holloway, Professor of Surface Science at Liverpool University, says that a Chemistry degree has a lot to offer. "It does provide a lot of intellectual challenges for our students to grapple with, and at the end of it they are then prepared to go out and get jobs. Our success in getting people jobs is extremely good."

Maybe because of this, Liverpool has not had a problem with applications: "We also offer a wider range of courses than we used to. Traditionally you'd come to university to study straight Chemistry, but now you can do Chemistry with a foreign language, Chemistry with Physics, Chemistry with Pharmacology, there's all kinds of different options."

David Williams, the hot-but-happy recipient of a BSc, didn't get the grades at A-level to get into Liverpool. "But I still wanted to do Chemistry, so I went to Halton College, and did a two-year HND, which I passed. I was then able to come on to the course at Liverpool in the second year." Now, with a 2:1 Honours degree, he is going on to do a PhD at Sheffield University. "My parents are made up!"

Around half of all UK Chemistry students are women. Dalila Bensaddek, who has just finished her second year studying Chemistry and French at UMIST, says that there are no barriers to women doing well. "I think that women are often better in the experimental sciences. We are certainly more careful, and probably more devoted to what we do."

Although it is possible to do a Chemistry degree course without specialising, most students choose to follow a particular interest after a year or so. While `Physical Chemistry' suits students who are comfortable with mathematics and abstract thought, the most popular option is Organic Chemistry. At UMIST, Dalila has particularly enjoyed the lab work in this area. "It's much easier to understand and visualise than, say, maths and you're making things like drugs. In the first year, I made aspirin, and since then I have got really interested. This year we made some chalcones which are potential anti-cancer drugs."

Wendy Cross, who is now doing a PhD at UMIST was attracted to Inorganic Chemistry by its potential applications. She says: "I work with solid materials that could hopefully be used to retrieve sulphur dioxide from a flue gas stream in a power station, so there is an environmental application. I've also done a lot of computer work, and I've learnt to not just take research that you read at face value."

First year Amy Mercer, who is studying Chemistry and Pharmacology at Liverpool says, "there is quite a big difference in the style of teaching from sixth form, but they go over everything you've studied at A-level, and then gradually work up to totally new ideas and concepts, so it's not as scary as it seems."

Mark Smith is typical of the many Chemistry graduates who go on to do PhDs. Based at UMIST, Mark is coming to the end of his studies. "I've got a job lined up now in America doing post-doctoral research at the University of Illinois. I'm interested in drugs with a potential therapeutic interest - that's a real impetus for me, just to know there's some potential good coming from research."

Other common destinations for students include management and the city, teaching, and the pharmaceutical industry. Vicki Long, who has just graduated from Liverpool, is going to Canary Wharf to work as a Marketing Assistant for a firm of Chartered Accountants. She says: "Everyone was surprised I did Chemistry with French, but it's a really good degree to have. It proves you're numerate, scientific, and you've got a language."

Four years after graduation, John Beaumont works as a medical representative for the drug firm, Merck. "I look after all the doctors on the Lancashire and Fylde coast. I have a sales manager, but I very much run my own business on this patch. Obviously, I have to know a lot about the drugs I promote."

John disproves the old stereotype that Chemistry graduates are lab-bound and inarticulate. "The big firms are not just looking for someone with knowledge, they're going to look for someone who can transfer ideas to other people. It is an advantage if you are a team player." Which goes some way to explain why he is being rewarded with a pounds 25,000 wage.

Another recent graduate, Mark, who is currently working in research at Pfeizer on pounds 21,000pa, comments: "When I was at university there was a lot of solidarity among the students. At the end of a long afternoon in the lab, everyone was went down the pub to chat about things. Chemists do have lives you know!"