Careers in Chemistry

  • supplied Syft Technologies

    Helena Barnes studied physical chemistry and physics at UC and now works for Syft Technologies in Christchurch.

"Science can take you to any industry and any management level."

UC graduate in Chemistry Bridgette from Chemsafety

Chemists are employed in a multitude of places including the pharmaceutical industry, industry and manufacturing more generally, in government departments dealing with the environment, and in clinical laboratories. Not all chemists wear lab coats and an increasing number are employed in advisory or managerial roles. Chemists have also worked in government departments in key decision-making positions.

New Zealand needs chemists in teaching, industry, health and research. New Zealand’s unique mix of primary and secondary industries provides a wide choice of careers in chemistry. Expanding industries in New Zealand, for example those related to new sources of energy and to the development of forestry and dairy resources, are further increasing the demand for qualified chemists.


Chemistry graduates end up in a wide range of careers.  Rather than training for a particular role, Chemistry gives graduates a valuable skill set that can be applied in many ways. UC's own data shows employers' top ten desirable attributes - work ethic, verbal communication, energy and enthusiasm, analytical and critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, interpersonal skills, written communication, self-management and initiative - match closely with the skills identified as outcomes from the Bachelor of Science.

Feedback from Chemistry graduates also shows the relevance of a Chemistry qualification. Asked about their current employment, more than 80 per cent said their first job was either ideal for this stage of their career, or a step in the right direction. 


Research and development of new products, monitoring product composition and quality, environmental monitoring and regulation all require the input of chemists.

Chemists are often needed to solve deficiencies in chemical processes. Chemists are skilled at handling information, which leads naturally into the areas of sales and management. A number of our graduates have successfully moved into these areas. UC graduate data shows by far the majority of Chemistry graduates are working in technical, scientific or professional services and enjoying the higher incomes these industries offer.

Syft Technologies is a Christchurch-based company producing world-leading technology in the field of environmental analysis.

Syft's technology grew out of research into ion chemistry in the atmosphere at UC. The commercial applications for the vast database of information accumulated in conjunction with international researchers were recognised in the late 1990s.  In 2002 Syft became a reality with the help of investors and a Canterprise initiative and today has customers around the world.

Syft's superior technology offers customers greater speed and accuracy than previously thought possible in analytical chemistry, with instruments vastly reduced in scale, making for greater mobility. Users can receive instant readouts of data as precise as parts per trillion.

Customers include communications giant Samsung, car manufacturer Ford and multiple governments. Applications are varied - Syft technology has been used in manufacturing, medicine, the environment and workplaces with toxic chemicals who are required to keep exposure below legislated minimums. Other applications have included pollution readouts on city streets.

Syft's longstanding UC relationship has seen it both hire graduates and offer internship opportunities for students. Up to 30 students can be employed in the University's summer break and graduates of UC are found at all levels of the company, from senior management to recent graduates like Helena Barnes.

Internships offer UC students real-world experience, ensuring they are work ready upon graduation. Syft Technologies is a shining example of the wide-ranging effects of departmental research

Chemsafety provides technical consultancy services to industry, specialising in chemical risk management and occupational hygiene.

Founded by a UC Chemistry PhD graduate 25 years ago, Chemsafety employs 15 people, 12 with science backgrounds. The majority are taken on as fresh graduates. The base qualification requirement is a BSc strong in Chemistry as this ensures applicants have a strong knowledge of chemistry, which together with a demonstrated ability for scientific problem solving and critical thinking provides an excellent skill base for our science consultants.

As a result of the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes New Zealanders have become much more aware of the risk from asbestos in buildings. The Christchurch rebuild saw a significant increase in asbestos consultancy for the business and an increase from five to 15 staff. Additionally, an increased awareness of the need for good health and safety procedures (which has been in part due to the new Health and Safety at work Act 2015) has seen significant growth in our industry.

This growth enabled the company to gain placings within the Deloitte Fast 50 fastest growth New Zealand companies list for both 2013 and 2014. Chemsafety was also named as Deloitte's fastest growing mature business in the same years.

This demonstrates the significant growth potential for the science-based service industry. It is important to remember that most science is a business and must show a profit to survive, achieved by providing benefit to paying clients.

UC graduate Bridgette joined Chemsafety 14 years ago and has expanded her knowledge to become an extremely competent Occupational Hygienist and has developed excellent management skills.

“After leaving UC with a BSc in Chemistry I started working for Chemsafety specialising in the field of occupational hygiene and asbestos consultancy. Now I have been with Chemsafety for 14 years and in that time I have worked to be the Managing Director and a shareholder. I think it’s important for Science graduates to realise that science can take you to any industry and any management level.”


Hospitals and other health services employ chemists in areas such as biochemical research, medical analysis and toxicology.


A degree in Chemistry is a good start to a teaching career with its emphasis on laboratory work and its relevance to other sciences. Chemistry teachers are currently in high demand and Chemistry is a target subject for TeachNZ scholarships.

Master of Science in Chemistry graduate Ethan Lankshear has found his calling in teaching secondary school students.

"UC provided me with a wide scientific knowledge and practical skill set that allows me to make clear links between all areas of science. It provided great lecturers, Erskine fellows and visiting guests who helped to show me that science is a worldwide network of learning and collaboration," Ethan says.

Ethan appreciated the wide variety of courses offered and helpful and approachable staff. Particularly valuable skills learned at UC included hands-on problem-solving skills, the ability to research answers to a problem, the courage to try new things and learn from failures and mistakes and the ability to communicate complex ideas to anyone regardless of scientific background.

Ethan said he looked forward to spreading the joy of science and in particular Chemistry to more of the next generation while trying to keep up to date with new discoveries.

His advice for Chemistry students was simple.

"Find the area of Chemistry that you love and explore it is much as you can, but always be aware and open to other interesting facets of Chemistry and science as a whole. Don’t narrow yourself down to one small area too soon."

Executive principal of Kristen School in Auckland Tim Oughton says he has never stopped teaching Chemistry.

He particularly credits his postgraduate studies with his role in leading learning in the education sector. Tim was the first person to graduate with a Master of Science Education in 2000 after completing a Bachelor of Science with Honours in Chemistry.

"I enjoyed the social atmosphere, the collegiality, the high standard of teaching particularly in Chemistry and plant sciences and the helpfulness of the staff."

He remains an advocate of studying Chemistry.

"There is a world of opportunity."

His favourite phrase for students is "what in the world isn’t Chemistry?"

"It helps make sense of the world and is so relevant and interesting when taught well."


The majority of chemical research in New Zealand is done in universities, the Crown Research Institutes and private laboratories. These institutions provide chemical challenges equal to any in the world. Many graduates have gone on to prestigious positions in universities overseas.

Sean Smith is a Professor in Computational Nanomaterials Science and Engineering Director of the Integrated Materials Design Centre at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.

"My PhD studies at UC launched me along a scientific pathway that took me through postdoctoral experience in Germany and California; an academic appointment as lecturer, growing to Professor at Uni of Queensland; Directorship of a US Department of Energy Nanoscience Centre at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and now to my roles at UNSW Sydney."

Sean said the department was notable for its high-quality instruction and mentorship. He also believed there were few places more beautiful than New Zealand's South Island to study.

Skills learned from UC included persistence, identifying the most important questions to ask and determination. The next stage of his work will see Sean move into new IP in the renewable energy sector and startup companies. 

"Watch this space!"

He said Chemistry was the central enabling science and provided a strong foundation that could lead students anywhere in "a fast-evolving employment environment where flexibility is key.''

"Interdisciplinarity is also key – so mix your Chemistry major with something different to further enhance your credentials for adaptability."

David Garrett completed one year of study at UC then pursued other interests, returning at age 30 to complete his studies through to PhD level. He now runs a research group at the University of Melbourne working with carbon materials like diamond and graphene, in particular for use as components in medical implants.

"We have research programmes making devices to record signals from the brain for epilepsy detection and to control prosthetic limbs and devices for restoring vision to people with retinal diseases that cause blindness. Our flagship device, an all-diamond stimulator for the retina called the Diamond Eye, is currently being commercialised by Canadian company iBIONICS. I am responsible for proving that our device offers higher-quality synthetic vision than our competitors." 

David said the strong research grounding he received at UC led to his current work, in particular at postgraduate level. 

"At this level you will be doing things that have never been done before and adding new knowledge to the world."

He said UC Chemistry had a collaborative, friendly and supportive environment.

''The first year of a chemistry-focused degree (like most courses, I suspect) was daunting. Full lecture theatres and a huge amount of new and challenging information to assimilate. The experience changed dramatically as I moved through to third year and beyond. At each stage the classes became smaller and more focused and I enjoyed getting to know my lecturers and tutors, people who have dedicated much of their lives to teaching and the pursuit of new knowledge."

The connections of the Chemistry department with other scientific agencies opened doors. Involvement with the MacDiarmid Institute led to a placement with IBM in California.

"A compelling addition to any CV and ultimately, the addition that got me the job I have now."

David said Chemistry students needed to remember to be "amazed".

"I remember, on the way through my undergraduate degree, learning about self-assembling chemical systems. Chemistry that, by design, assembles from single molecules into larger structures without any intervention apart from setting up the initial conditions. What amazed me is the fact that WE are such a system. Self-assembled out of molecules that we have eaten during our lifetime. It’s easy to do well when you find the subject fascinating."

Daniel Packwood is a Principal Investigator at the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences (iCeMS) at Kyoto University in Japan.

"My group uses computer simulation and theoretical models to design materials for next-generation electrical devices. iCeMS is an interdisciplinary institute with research ranging from regenerative medicine to porous materials for gas storage. Open discussions between research groups occur frequently, and Chemistry often serves as our common language. During these times, and I very thankful for the broad Chemistry education I received at UC."

Daniel’s postgraduate studies focused on atom scattering from liquid surfaces.

He recommends UC for budding chemists.

"I appreciated the enormous effort that the Chemistry staff put into designing their courses. The topics were introduced in a logical manner and with just the right timing and detail, and were often accompanied by an experiment in the laboratory courses."

He says the most valuable thing he learned was organic reaction mechanisms.

This gave him good intuition for how molecules interact with each other and he says this intuition means you can predict outcomes accurately.

He said regardless of personal interests, students should take courses in organic, inorganic and physical Chemistry right up until final year.

"Once you master these three, the rest of Chemistry can be learned quickly. With computation and big data becoming increasingly mainstream in physical science, you should also take courses in mathematics, statistics, and computer programming. Finally, you should spend time getting to know the international students in your classes, because you will probably be working with people like them in the future."

Graduate profiles

UC Bachelor of Science graduate Helena Barnes is utilising her physical chemistry and physics background as a new recruit for Canterbury tech firm Syft Technologies.

Helena said the hands-on learning and industry links offered by the College of Science had helped to kickstart her career.

"Many of the courses that I’ve taken throughout my degree are quite practical and teach you skills that you can apply to a large range of different problems – which has become especially useful in a working environment."

Through the Department of Chemistry she was offered a summer internship at Syft Technologies to develop a nebuliser for its current mass spectrometer technology. At the end of the internship she was employed full time in sales and development.

Her future plans include continuing to build her skills at Syft - and a trip to Africa. 

She said she particularly appreciated the ability to get to know staff and other students well and found lecturers available and willing to offer one-to-one assistance. 

"UC is also special in that the University is its own student hub away from the city centre. This means that there’s always things going on, with something to suit everyone."

Her advice for Chemistry students was to get involved and ask questions.

"Often in Chemistry it can seem like there’s a crazy amount of things that you need to memorise. It becomes a lot easier if you take the time to talk to your lecturers/classmates/flatmates/anyone who will listen to make sure you really understand the underlying concepts and why things behave the way they do. There’s a vast number of resources available at UC that are there to be taken advantage of!"

UC graduate Sam Yu credits his PhD with giving him the ability to cope with an extremely demanding career in tech.

"I was flying 33 weeks per year . . . having survived a PhD definitely made the flying life bearable! After a PhD you can do anything."

Sam's career has taken him in a commercial direction - building businesses, negotiating commercial deals and developing markets.

He has also been involved in developing commercial partnerships for New Zealand industry with overseas corporates and government agencies. One, a commercial agreement with Yili Dairy Company, was signed in front of both China and New Zealand's leaders in 2014.

Sam has also worked with international universities like MIT, Harvard, Boston University, Tsinghua, Xihua University and Hubei University of Science and Technology and says the knowledge and training he gained from UC has held up well against overseas educational institutions.

Good support and mentoring from staff, part-time work in the Chemistry department and a social and friendly environment were also highlights of his time at UC.

Sam is working toward helping some tech entrepreneurs become globally successful and says intending students of Chemistry need to be open-minded about their futures.

"Get good training on the technical aspects but also branch out on your thinking and think about the commercial considerations too.  Just because a product is technically good does not mean it will be successful in the marketplace. There are a lot of 'soft' skills and relationship management skills that you need to develop. Having a can-do, problem-solving attitude is important to becoming successful."


Aeroqual research scientist Lita Lee appreciated the supportive staff while she completed her PhD at UC.

"My supervisor, Prof Alison Downard, was very supportive of me studying and working full-time at the same time.  I'm also very grateful for the opportunity to study in France for three months and to attend conferences, both locally and internationally."

Lita's work focuses on developing air quality sensors and she says a degree in Chemistry makes anyone highly employable.

"There's a lot of job opportunities out there for people graduating with a Chemistry degree."

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