PhD Research in Chemistry
Written by Kirsty Smitten
Studying for a Chemistry PhD will not only make you a skilled independent researcher but will open up opportunities in a wide range of careers. Known as the ‘central science’ Chemistry connects all the sciences together, making it a brilliant choice for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary PhD research.
Applying for a PhD in Chemistry
If you are thinking of doing a PhD, you should have an idea of the field you want to work in and can search for vacancies in that field or related.
When should I start my application?
When you start your application will depend upon whether you are applying for an advertised project, or to a university departments graduate school. Advertised projects are typically funded and will have a specific deadline on the application information; however, sometimes they can be open ended. Graduate schools will usually set a deadline for applications each year.
Will I need a Masters?
Having a Masters qualification (MSc/MChem/MRes) may help support your application for a Chemistry PhD, but it may be possible to apply without one if you have a relevant undergraduate degree and experience in the necessary methodologies and techniques required by your research project.
Some funded PhD projects in Chemistry include a foundation year that provides core subject knowledge and technical training before a student begins their research. These programmes may sometimes award an integrated MSc degree at the end of this initial year.
How do I find a supervisor?
To find the right supervisor you need to be aware of the field of Chemistry you want to work in and universities you want to study at.
From this you can research specific academics at those institutions. Making a list of pros and cons of the academic and university may help your final decision.
Academics generally welcome contact from students who are genuinely interested in their work; therefore, emailing a potential supervisor is usually a good idea. As you will be working with your supervisor for the next 3-4 years you need to be able to see yourself getting along with them.
What questions will I be asked in my interview?
This will vary depending on the institution and programme you have applied for. You may experience either a formal or informal interview, with the supervisor or an academic panel.
Interview questions will usually start with an opportunity for you to introduce yourself and then move on to asking what you enjoyed in your undergraduate or Masters degree. They will also want to know why you want to do a Chemistry PhD, specifically that project and what skills you can bring to it.
It is advisable to do some reading on the supervisor’s research, then you can link your answers to it. Also, the likelihood is they may ask you a question on it. At the end there will be a period for you to ask questions, think of a lot of questions in advance. Asking questions shows genuine interest; plus, it’s a good way of finding out exactly what you would be doing.
How do I find a PhD project in Chemistry?
PhD projects in Chemistry and Chemical Sciences take various forms:
- Traditional PhD projects – traditional Chemistry PhD projects take three years (full-time) and are usually advertised with specific research areas and objectives planned in advance
- CDT and DTP programmes – projects funded by the UK Research Councils (particularly the EPSRC or STFC) usually take place within structured Doctoral Training Parternships or Centres for Doctoral Training associated with one or more universities. These are usually advertised as four-year PhD programmes with generous funding attached.
- Industrial projects – it's common for PhDs in Chemistry to be carried out in partnership with industry, or to take place within external organisations. These tend to involve additional practical and professional training alongside core academic research.
International PhD programmes
Chemistry is a priority research area in countries around the world, with some countries such as Germany, China, the USA and Japan excelling in this branch of the sciences. The best place to start looking for more information is our set of guides to PhD study abroad.
How are Chemistry PhDs funded?
Chemistry PhDs can either be funded by an internal/external source, or you may have to self-fund; advertised projects will typically say whether they have funding attached (you can view this information in the listings for Chemistry PhDs here on FindAPhD.
Research Council funding
The largest funder for Chemistry PhDs in the UK is the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Their studentships provide full payment for your fees (along with any consumable costs or bench fees) as well as a generous tax-free living allowance and money towards research expenses for fieldwork, conference travel and similar.
Other councils such as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Science and Technology Facilities Council also fund some UK PhD research in Chemistry, sometimes in partnership with the EPSRC or each other.
Universities often fund Chemistry PhD students out of their own research budgets. It's often the case that a lab or research group with ongoing research funding will use some of this to support a number of doctoral students (as well as PostDocs and sometimes research Masters students) whose work contributes to the department's broader goals.
The value of this kind of funding varies. It may provide a full studentship, covering all of your main expenses, or it may be limited to partial funding (such as a fee waiver).
It's difficult to completely self-fund a PhD in a STEM subject such as Chemistry, as this kind of work incurs substantial additional expenses for consumables and equipment, alongside your PhD fees. Studentships and other funding packages typically account for these supplementary costs, but fully independent students may need to pay them themselves.
When students do self fund, they usually make use of student finance, such as the UK doctoral loan, or draw on savings. Working part-time during a Chemistry is possible, but difficult, making it unadvisable to rely substantially on earned income as a source of funding.
Graduate teaching assistantships (GTAs)
Some Chemistry PhDs are offered as Graduate Teaching Assistantship contracts. These provide a salary during your PhD in exchange for work as a tutor, mentor and / or demonstrator for undergraduate students. This is broadly similar to the teaching you may do anyway during a PhD, but the responsibilities for GTAs are usually greater.
One advantage of this kind of funding is that it provides additional professional experience alongside income. This can be very valuable if you plan on pursuing an academic career with your PhD.
Researching a PhD in Chemistry
Your main focus as a Chemistry PhD student will be designing and running experiments to collect data for analysis and evaluation. Once you have sufficient results you will be ready to write up your conclusions and present them for examination as a PhD thesis that proves or disproves your initial hypothesis.
Regardless of your actual results, you will need to provide a worthwhile original contribution to knowledge in order for your work to qualify for the award of a doctoral degree.
You will have at least one primary supervisor assigned to you. Their job is to guide your research and provide feedback on your work in progress. A good supervisory relationship in Chemistry usually involves the following:
- Induction – At the start of your PhD, your supervisor will show you the lab and group, as well as detailing any safety protocols and waste regimes adhered to within the lab.
- Routine working arrangements – You will be included in the group meeting timetables, as well as waste rotas and ordering (provided you have a consumables grant).
- Regular supervision meetings – Depending upon your institution you will probably meet with your supervisor once a weekor once a month to discuss your research.
- Training – Your supervisor will provide or arrange any training you need in the use of lab equipment and facilities as well as general research techniques. These needs will usually be identified and the training planned at the outset of your project.,
- Attendance monitoring – Your supervisor will ensure you do the required work for your PhD (according to your registration status) and fulfill any other responsibilities you have around the lab or research group.
- Assessments – Your supervisor will not examine or assess your PhD themselves (aside from providing formative feedback on your work in progress) but they will oversee the arrangements for your MPhil upgrade (if required) as well as the final viva voce at the end of your doctorate.
Your supervisor will also help if there are any problems during your PhD.
You may also have a second supervisor assigned to your PhD. They will usually be a more junior academic from within your research group, responsible for admin and pastoral support, as well as assistance with specific activities or techniques.
Industrial PhDs may have a second supervisor or independent advisor from outside your university. This person probably won't be an academic and will instead focus on the wider implications or applications of your research.
Training and development
"Safety" is one of the words you'll hear most often in a Chemistry department. The equipment and materials you'll use on a daily basis will be potentially dangerous (as well as expensive) and you'll need proper training to work with them correctly.
This usually takes the following forms:
- Lab induction – Conducted by your supervisor, showing emergency exits, procedure and waste protocols. Showing in detail different bins and waste solvent bottles to use.
- Fire and safety training – Fire extinguisher and exit training. General lab safety such as lab coats, safety goggles and gloves. Information on the nearest first aid kits, emergency showers and eye wash stations.
- Gas cylinder training – When nitrogen or argon in your fume cupboard runs out the cylinder must be changed. These are heavy, dangerous and require handling training.
- Cryogenics and dry solvent training – Experiments may need liquid nitrogen, or dry solvents, these are dangerous to handle and therefore require specific training.
- Out of hours training – Experiments over run and you may need to work outside of the departments opening hours (8-6). Training is inclusive of first-aid unless there are no first aiders in the building in an emergency.
The course structure for a Chemistry PhD will vary depending upon institution, but many will require you to not only do the research but attend a certain number of non-examined departmental lectures and seminars.
The assessment criteria and timing will vary depending upon institution, but you must usually complete the following before you can graduate:
- MPhil upgrade review – PhD students in the UK are typically registered onto an MPhil and will have to submit an upgrade report and defend this in short oral exam (usually at the end of the first year). You must pass to be upgraded to PhD.
- Faculty poster session – This usually takes place in the second year: it is an informal presentation of your work with researchers from all disciplines within your faculty.
- Presentations – Usually you will do a short presentation in your first year, and a slightly longer one in your third year. You may present this research to members of your own department, or at a wider academic conference.
- Writing up – At the end of your research period you will write up your results as a PhD thesis, offering an in-depth account of your findings and conclusions.
- Viva voce – The final step in a PhD is to defend your work in an oral examination, in front of at least two expert examiners (including one from outside your university).
Career prospects with a Chemistry PhD
There are many jobs, both within and outside of academia, that having a PhD in Chemistry allows you to do.
The first step on an academic career in Chemistry, following a PhD, is usually a PostDoctoral position. This is a fixed-term research project that provides a platform from which to apply for permanent academic jobs.
An academic career in Chemistry usually progresses from Assistant Lecturer through to Senior Lecturer. Very successful and renowned researchers then move on to Reader and Professor positions, at which point they are likely to be leading their own research groups.
University departments may also offer non-lecturing roles such as research assistantships or laboratory assistant positions.
Outside of academia
Some people think that with a PhD academia is the only career course you can follow but this isn’t the case. A wide variety of non-academic roles also exist.
Opportunities also exist to work as an industrial chemist, developing new products or applications. Some Chemistry graduates go on to use their skills in more diverse fields that use their research skillset, but aren't directly related to science.
Last updated - 04/02/2021