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What is a Chemistry/pharmacy Degree like?

Hey! For anyone studying or considering a chemistry degree, how is it? Can you cope with the number of hours you spend in the lab? How much work do you complete in your free time? How much do your professors assist you with work/ how much independent learning? I would love insight on which University you go to, as well as any future career prospects you have in mind! From - a nervous Year 12 student
Original post by mitostudent
Hey! For anyone studying or considering a chemistry degree, how is it? Can you cope with the number of hours you spend in the lab? How much work do you complete in your free time? How much do your professors assist you with work/ how much independent learning? I would love insight on which University you go to, as well as any future career prospects you have in mind! From - a nervous Year 12 student

I went to Cambridge so not all of this will be typical to a normal Chemistry degree;

1st year is a lot of work, to be honest it is too much. But this is a consequence of the Cambridge Natural Sciences course. The workload in the Chemistry module was fine, it was 3 lectures, 1 supervision and 1 lab per week. On its own that would have been fine.

2nd and 3rd year the workload is much more manageable. You can expect 2-3 lab sessions a week and these will typically be around 4-5 hours although this is reasonably chill. The work gets harder but also more interesting.

There is quite a lot of choice in 3rd year - certainly a lot more than in other Physical sciences. You can basically choose a specialty under the umbrella of Organic/ Inorganic/ Physical/ Theoretical or stay reasonably general if you want to.

Chemistry (and I'm sure this applies to most Universities) is a very largely taught undergraduate course. You will be expected to design your own experiments and do a lot of independent work on preparations, executions, writeups, but this is still with a "safety net" of oversight. You will also be expected to push into further detail for a better grade, but this is the equivalent of studying a book in class at school, and then going and reading something related to it in your own time - i.e. it's still guided independent study. The majority of what you learn will be taught to you through more traditional lectures, problem sheets, etc and (at least until 3rd year organic) there is pretty much a "correct answer" or at least a "correct set of answers".


My guidance for an A-Level student; Chemistry may not be exactly what you think it is. Chemistry at A-Level (from what I remember) is quite basic, a strong emphasis is put on "learn this rule/ this trend, and how to apply it, but not how it works", not a lot of maths, and quite a lot of memorisation and kind of "wordy" answers like "how does X promote sustainability". At University:

There is a lot more Maths involved. The maths is not super difficult - if you are doing A-Level Maths/ Physics, then you can expect more of the same. But Calculus, more involved algebra, waves/ basic quantum mechanics and also a lot of "new" areas of Maths (particularly Group Theory) are large parts of a Chemistry degree. This falls short of the much heavier maths workload that you'd get in a Maths or Physics degree though; you wouldn't be expected to do very heavy maths modules (unless you chose them) or go through rigorous training for formal proofs.

You'll probably dip into more Physics than you might expect. Entropy, Thermodynamics, Quantum Mechanics are all core parts of Chemistry and things you will learn not in great detail but enough to fully appreciate "what's actually going on".

Reactions pathways, NMR/IR/ Mass spec, etc are even bigger than they are at A-Level. The fun kind of "figure out or prove what this molecule is from limited evidence" (bit like a puzzle or murder mystery) is a significant part of the course.

Organic (and to a lesser extent Inorganic) is a lot more creative than I think people assume. You will go far beyond just learning reaction mechanisms and tbh you should reach a level of understanding where you arent really "remembering" anymore but just directly applying. I'd almost call the sharp end of this towards 3rd/4th year as more like learning a language or an art.

You study a very wide set of modules in Chemistry. This is true of A-Level but it remains true at undergrad.

You will learn a lot of new stuff. Too much to list, but essentially while a Physics and Biology degree quite heavily re-tread "well we learned about the nucleus before but now lets get into more detail" or "well we learned about simple harmonic motion before but now lets drill down all the maths" - Chemistry goes to completely new places that you wont know from A-Level or otherwise.


I think the biggest things that stand out are how Chemistry moves away from being a "memorisation" subject and has a lot of learning new concepts, learning a lot of different areas (organic for example is very very different to theoretical) and has quite a lot of flexibility in 3rd year.
Depending on what you're like, that'll probably tell you if you want to do it or not. I know some people don't like the idea of learning a lot of new things this "late" into their academic career, or want to focus on one thing. If you have broader scientific interests and dont know if you'll want to go into protein folding or if you want to go into broader ecological challenges, etc then Chemistry is a good way of delaying that choice for another 2-3 years.

Outside of academics; Chemistry is a pretty good degree in general because it has a reputation for being pretty heavy in analysis, mathematical methods, etc. It isn't quite the same silver bullet that Maths/Physics are but its very close.
Original post by A Light Lilt
I went to Cambridge so not all of this will be typical to a normal Chemistry degree;
1st year is a lot of work, to be honest it is too much. But this is a consequence of the Cambridge Natural Sciences course. The workload in the Chemistry module was fine, it was 3 lectures, 1 supervision and 1 lab per week. On its own that would have been fine.
2nd and 3rd year the workload is much more manageable. You can expect 2-3 lab sessions a week and these will typically be around 4-5 hours although this is reasonably chill. The work gets harder but also more interesting.
There is quite a lot of choice in 3rd year - certainly a lot more than in other Physical sciences. You can basically choose a specialty under the umbrella of Organic/ Inorganic/ Physical/ Theoretical or stay reasonably general if you want to.
Chemistry (and I'm sure this applies to most Universities) is a very largely taught undergraduate course. You will be expected to design your own experiments and do a lot of independent work on preparations, executions, writeups, but this is still with a "safety net" of oversight. You will also be expected to push into further detail for a better grade, but this is the equivalent of studying a book in class at school, and then going and reading something related to it in your own time - i.e. it's still guided independent study. The majority of what you learn will be taught to you through more traditional lectures, problem sheets, etc and (at least until 3rd year organic) there is pretty much a "correct answer" or at least a "correct set of answers".
My guidance for an A-Level student; Chemistry may not be exactly what you think it is. Chemistry at A-Level (from what I remember) is quite basic, a strong emphasis is put on "learn this rule/ this trend, and how to apply it, but not how it works", not a lot of maths, and quite a lot of memorisation and kind of "wordy" answers like "how does X promote sustainability". At University:

There is a lot more Maths involved. The maths is not super difficult - if you are doing A-Level Maths/ Physics, then you can expect more of the same. But Calculus, more involved algebra, waves/ basic quantum mechanics and also a lot of "new" areas of Maths (particularly Group Theory) are large parts of a Chemistry degree. This falls short of the much heavier maths workload that you'd get in a Maths or Physics degree though; you wouldn't be expected to do very heavy maths modules (unless you chose them) or go through rigorous training for formal proofs.

You'll probably dip into more Physics than you might expect. Entropy, Thermodynamics, Quantum Mechanics are all core parts of Chemistry and things you will learn not in great detail but enough to fully appreciate "what's actually going on".

Reactions pathways, NMR/IR/ Mass spec, etc are even bigger than they are at A-Level. The fun kind of "figure out or prove what this molecule is from limited evidence" (bit like a puzzle or murder mystery) is a significant part of the course.

Organic (and to a lesser extent Inorganic) is a lot more creative than I think people assume. You will go far beyond just learning reaction mechanisms and tbh you should reach a level of understanding where you arent really "remembering" anymore but just directly applying. I'd almost call the sharp end of this towards 3rd/4th year as more like learning a language or an art.

You study a very wide set of modules in Chemistry. This is true of A-Level but it remains true at undergrad.

You will learn a lot of new stuff. Too much to list, but essentially while a Physics and Biology degree quite heavily re-tread "well we learned about the nucleus before but now lets get into more detail" or "well we learned about simple harmonic motion before but now lets drill down all the maths" - Chemistry goes to completely new places that you wont know from A-Level or otherwise.


I think the biggest things that stand out are how Chemistry moves away from being a "memorisation" subject and has a lot of learning new concepts, learning a lot of different areas (organic for example is very very different to theoretical) and has quite a lot of flexibility in 3rd year.
Depending on what you're like, that'll probably tell you if you want to do it or not. I know some people don't like the idea of learning a lot of new things this "late" into their academic career, or want to focus on one thing. If you have broader scientific interests and dont know if you'll want to go into protein folding or if you want to go into broader ecological challenges, etc then Chemistry is a good way of delaying that choice for another 2-3 years.
Outside of academics; Chemistry is a pretty good degree in general because it has a reputation for being pretty heavy in analysis, mathematical methods, etc. It isn't quite the same silver bullet that Maths/Physics are but its very close.

Hi! I'm really thankful for the level of detail you provided in your answer! I also want to ask - what career options are you and others in the subject considering? Also, what was your favourite new concept to learn? I would love to do more research on it to see what it's like 🙂
Original post by mitostudent
Hi! I'm really thankful for the level of detail you provided in your answer! I also want to ask - what career options are you and others in the subject considering? Also, what was your favourite new concept to learn? I would love to do more research on it to see what it's like 🙂

it's been several years since i graduated. Most (at a guess maybe 60-70%) of the people in my year went into further study (PhD, etc). A few did graduate medicine or an equivalent post-doc training course.
Most of the rest of us (perhaps 30%) (I include myself in this group) basically went into tech/ heavy data/ software/ etc analysis jobs in the city or for larger companies. There's nothing unusual about this, its pretty much good jobs with good starting salaries that are lower stress (if you are good at it) and (if we're honest) not that difficult.

So in Chem I really enjoyed:

Molecular bonding theory and understanding bonding resonance and spectra through group theory. This isn't something you can briefly cover in an afternoon by yourself though. An undergrad course would spend multiple modules on it and you'd still be learning new things 3-4 years in.

NMR spectroscopy. This is maybe my absolute favourite thing from 1st and 2nd year - because I really enjoy little puzzle or logic games. I don't remember how much detail you go into this at A-Level, but the way you try to puzzle backwards to the molecular structure from how equivalent and non-equivalent hydrogen atoms in a molecule are split is very cool. It just suits my personality, I prefer to play puzzle games on my phone during a few free minutes, I prefer strategy/ puzzle games over FPS or action games, its just who I am tbh (a lot of the people on my course were similar).

The detail on exactly how and why symmetries in orbitals causes splitting in ligands and I guess the foundations of how quantum tunnelling works in chloroplasts and how haem based molecules are ingeniously "designed". This is also "too much" for an A-Level student to get into though.

Protein folding on a much more detailed level. This is again a bit too much for an A-Level student but this was my favourite 3rd year module by far and if I had stayed in academia it is 100% what I would have chosen to pursue. Very interesting, very complicated and very important for the next 50-100 years of research and biological/medical breakthroughs

Organic mechanisms is something I didnt love at the start but did at the end. Towards the end of my degree I was so good at it that I could basically make "anything" from "anything" and I did enjoy trying to find ways of reducing the steps. I don't have this level of mastery/ knowledge anymore though, but it rapidly became one of my favourite areas of study and I can honestly say that the 3rd year final exams on it were actually fun.

I did enjoy a lot of the monte carlo/ advanced mathematical simulations on how electron densities and how superconductors work. There was quite a lot of coding and slightly more advanced maths involved with that.

I did quite enjoy labs in general. Although 5-10 hours per writeup (and often there were around 2-3 per week) is a lot and I didn't enjoy that quite as much.


I'm not sure there is anything I massively disliked. Perhaps the heavier thermodynamics stuff because it is just so dry and it's the kind of thing I found interesting exactly once (when it was first taught) and then found revisiting it boring.

The biggest thing Chemistry opened my eyes to was actually biological insights. It's difficult to describe but the genius in the detail of how life and the molecules vital for it is ""designed"" (evolution) is something I never fully got over. "Intelligent design" is the wrong word, the more you study these things the more unbelievable it all becomes. I am not religious but it's almost beyond belief that boltzmann-like noise can output such things.
Don't confuse Pharmacy and Pharmacology - Choosing between Pharmacy and Pharmacology (bath.ac.uk)
Also worth looking at degrees called 'Drug Discovery' or 'Medicinal Chemistry'.
Original post by mitostudent
Hey! For anyone studying or considering a chemistry degree, how is it? Can you cope with the number of hours you spend in the lab? How much work do you complete in your free time? How much do your professors assist you with work/ how much independent learning? I would love insight on which University you go to, as well as any future career prospects you have in mind! From - a nervous Year 12 student

Hi @mitostudent,

I'm a third-year chemistry student at Lancaster University so can provide some insight as to what it has been like for me.

Can you cope with the number of hours you spend in the lab?
The number of lab hours is definitely manageable and, for me, has been one of the best parts of the course because it is where you get to socialise with a lot of people in your year. In first year, you spend about 4-5 hours in the lab a week and in second year this increases a bit more. In third year, you spend a full day in the lab throughout the first term and then in the second term 2.5 days a week in the lab. As you can see, lab time steadily increases as you progress throughout your degree. The subjects of these labs vary from analytical to synthetic to inorganic to computational. The wide breadth of subjects makes it quite interesting and you really get to know which areas of chemistry you enjoy through spending so much time on all the areas. In your final year, you complete a research project where you get to design your own procedures, do all the safety checks and are just generally given a lot more independence in the lab, which has been a different kind of challenge to following pre-written experimental procedures and has introduced me to how a research job would in the industry or in academia. The number of hours can feel a lot but it is manageable.

How much work do you complete in your free time?
Generally, I have had roughly 20 hours a week of contact time. This is including lectures, workshops, tutorials and practicals. In my free time, I have to complete lab reports, coursework assignments and attempt extra questions. On some weeks, for example if I have lots of deadlines, I may spend more time on work as opposed to a week where I have nothing due. However, there is also free time for societies, chill nights and a social life if you manage your time well.

How much do your professors assist you with work/ how much independent learning?
The lecturers here often do workshops where they go through worked questions in smaller groups and this is often super helpful to attend before doing the workshops. Lecturers cannot give out answers to coursework but in my experience they have been helpful and nice about answering questions relating the coursework and even providing extra feedback retrospectively. University is all about learning to work independently so there is a lot of self-motivated and self-directed work. However, the work gets more independent as you progress through the years and become more used to it.

I personally would like to go into the pharmaceutical industry to research but I know other people in my year that want to do PhDs, law conversion courses or go into green energy. There's such a wide array of things that you can do with a chemistry degree and a lot of the skills you gain are very transferrable to other industries.

If you have any other questions let me know
-Beth (Lancaster Student Ambassador)
Original post by mitostudent
Hey! For anyone studying or considering a chemistry degree, how is it? Can you cope with the number of hours you spend in the lab? How much work do you complete in your free time? How much do your professors assist you with work/ how much independent learning? I would love insight on which University you go to, as well as any future career prospects you have in mind! From - a nervous Year 12 student

if you're also thinking about pharmacy then I would recommend talking to a pharmacist
and ig with chemistry you could also ask your chemistry teacher

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