Graduates: Great scope to be anything but a chemist - Chemistry and chemical engineering are a solid basis for a wide variety of jobs, explains Philip Schofield

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The Independent Online
EACH YEAR universities and polytechnics produce more than 2,500 graduate chemists, and another 900 chemical engineers. Where do they all go?

Curiously, not all continue being chemists. The year before last, nearly one out of five went into financial work. Although the range of work open to chemists is wide, university careers officers say that they are often hard to place in suitable jobs.

In 1990 more than a third of chemistry graduates continued academic studies and a similar proportion entered permanent UK employment. Of those going into permanent employment, fewer than half took up science-related work such as research and development, or scientific and engineering support. About one in ten entered sales, marketing and buying, some of whom were probably dealing with chemical products.

There are some interesting differences between chemists graduating from universities and from polytechnics. About 31 per cent of chemists from university and almost 44 per cent of those from polytechnic entered the chemical industry. On the other hand, slightly more than 31 per cent of university chemists entered commerce, compared with about 12 per cent of those from polytechnic.

Eric Williams, a careers adviser at Aston University, says that vacancies for chemical engineers are well down at present: 'Those with good degrees are going to get jobs while those with less good degrees are going to struggle.'

Having talked to colleagues in other careers services, he says there is 'a great deal of gloom and doom about', and that he has 'the gut feeling that we've never seen a middle management and 'middle skills' recession this deep before.'

Rod Oakland, deputy director of the Birmingham University careers service has the impression that there are far fewer vacancies for chemical engineers and chemists than last year: 'The chemical industry is feeling the effects of the recession - except for those recession-proof areas like water.'

It has, he says been a year of tremendous uncertainty, although vacancies are still appearing and graduates should still keep in touch with their careers services. 'We produce a vacancy list every fortnight and every issue has vacancies for chemists and chemical engineers. However, the competition is intense. Students should keep looking and be very efficient in applying for those vacancies they do see. If they see one they should apply straight away and not sit on it to think about it.'

He notes that some graduates, deciding they are unlikely to find relevant work and wanting to maintain their skills until the market gets better, are now looking to postgraduate studies - particularly Masters degrees.

Looking ahead, he views the chemical industry with optimism: 'The chemical industry has been one of our most successful and has consistently made a very positive contribution to our balance of payments. The chemical industry world-wide has been hit by recession, but when we emerge from it the British chemical industry will retain its place in the world league. . . . Research has been hit and those companies that cut back will come to realise it was a wrong move. I think there will be quite a lot of 'catching-up' recruiting in the early to mid-Nineties.'

Without an understanding of the composition of matter and its reactions under various conditions, our culture would still depend on stone, wood, herbs and natural fibres. We would have no metals, plastics, glass or paper, let alone pharmaceuticals or semiconductors.

Chemists also test the quality and purity of raw materials and finished products, develop new materials with specific qualities, tackle public health issues such as drinking water purity and the safe disposal of toxic waste. They work in fields as diverse as forensic science, art restoration, food preservation and nuclear energy. Chemical engineers are concerned with the design, installation and maintenance of plant for large-scale processes in the oil, chemical, pharmaceutical and related industries.

In the long term, the emphasis of the chemical industry is likely to shift. It will become even more involved in helping to solve world problems relating to malnutrition, disease, the loss of non-renewable resources, and pollution and other forms of environmental damage.

Chemical engineers necessarily work alongside other disciplines. When a new chemical process is under development, scientists create the product and process at the laboratory scale. Chemical engineers then work with the scientists and mechanical, electrical, instrumentation and control engineers, and others, to transfer the process up to manufacturing scale.

It is often overlooked that few chemists have jobs that are 100 per cent chemistry. Their work tends to involve other disciplines. In pharmaceutical research and development, chemists work alongside biologists, biochemists, physiologists, pharmacologists, pharmacists and chemical engineers. Similarly, working on the synthesis and characterisation of superconducting materials, they are likely to team up with physicists, materials scientists, and electrical and electronics engineers.

The interdisciplinary nature of chemists' work is reflected in the subject combinations available. The biological subjects with which chemistry is combined include biology, microbiology, wood science, soil science, food science and marine biology. In the physical sciences it may be combined with materials science, physics, astronomy, geology, oceanography, environmental science and computer studies; and in engineering and technology with engineering science, biotechnology, electronics and metallurgy.

Much of the long-term research supported by the Science and Engineering Research Council is also interdisciplinary: the synthesis of new materials, protein engineering, surface science, superconductivity, molecular recognition and molecular electronics, and so on.

The blurring of subject boundaries means that chemists must be able to work effectively in teams and discuss their work lucidly with people in other fields.

Chemists can use their specialist knowledge in a variety of other work: teaching, scientific publishing, patenting, and the marketing and sales of related products. Their discipline is also seen as a 'rigorous' one, so they are among the lucky group regarded by employers as suitable for jobs that accept applicants from any subject.