What Does a Pharmaceutical Chemist Do? - Job Description, Role & Salary

Discover the basics of a career in pharmaceutical chemistry. Learn about the job description, the salary and the job growth to see if becoming a chemist is the right move for you. Schools offering Sciences degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Career Information at a Glance

Pharmaceutical chemists, also called medicinal chemists, experiment with chemicals to create compounds that might be used as medicine in the pharmaceutical industry. Some companies hire medicinal chemists with a bachelor's degree and experience, but most prefer candidates with a Ph.D. in something like organic chemistry. For more info on the career, take a look at the table below.

Degree Required Bachelor's; doctoral preferred
Education Field of Study Organic chemistry, pharmacology, biological chemistry
Key Skills Analytical, communication, problem-solving, math
Job Growth (2016-2026) 7% (for all chemists and material scientists)*
Median Salary (2019) $93,445 (for medicinal chemists)**

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Payscale.com

What Do Pharmaceutical Chemists Do?

Pharmaceutical chemists use their advanced knowledge of chemistry to develop new medicines. Many work for pharmaceutical companies, where they isolate plant compounds or design synthetic drugs by testing them in the lab. Most are a part of a team of scientists from ancillary professions including toxicologists, microbiologists, theoretical chemists and bio pharmacists. Together, they turn an untested theory about a compound into a drug that's safe and effective.

How Do You Become a Medicinal Chemist?

Becoming a pharmaceutical chemist starts in high school, where classes like chemistry, biology, anatomy and other sciences should be on the menu. The same goes for postsecondary school -- you'll want to study something in the field such as biochemistry, organic chemistry or biological chemistry. Some schools even offer programs in medicinal chemistry. After a bachelor's degree, some candidates with experience might be able to land a job in the industry as research assistants. However, most companies will ask you to have a Ph.D. in the field.

What Skills Do You Need?

Aside from the educational requirements, there are some inherent skills that will help you mount a successful career as a pharmaceutical chemist. Since you'll be carrying out scientific experiments with great precision, being detail-oriented and having a great level of organizational skills is critical. Communication is also important -- you'd be working with a team made up of professionals from a wide variety of disciplines, so being able to work together is vital. Working as a scientist can be frustrating. In fact, many of the things you do may fail, so being able to persevere through the setbacks will serve you well.

How Much Do Pharmaceutical Chemists Make Per Year?

Because the field requires an advanced degree and no small amount of expertise, medicinal chemists enjoy a relatively large salary. According to the salary data site Payscale.com, pharmaceutical chemists were pulling down a median salary of $93,445 per year in 2019. This is higher than the median annual salary for all chemists, which was $74,740 as of 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Is Medicinal Chemistry a Growing Field?

Hard numbers for employment growth in the medicinal chemistry field is scarce. The BLS puts the growth number for all chemists at 6% between 2016 and 2026, which is slightly below the average for all occupations. According to a letter posted to the American Chemical Society, employment for medicinal chemists has been declining in recent years, thanks in part to increased regulations and the success of so-called 'blockbuster' drugs.

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