Careers - Chemistry - University of Canterbury - New Zealand

Careers in Chemistry

What Can I Do With a Degree in Chemistry?

When thinking about what to do after University, Chemistry can be a career in its own right. 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. However not all Chemists wear white lab coats, and an increasing number are employed in advisory roles and end up either at the top of industry, or in government departments in key decision-making positions.

If you choose to study Chemistry, you can study it as your major subject if you see Chemistry as your potential career, or as a minor subject if you want to understand Chemistry as part of a broader interest. The interface between Biology and Chemistry is the focus of some of the world’s most fascinating research, and is arguably having the greatest impact on our lives. This is Biochemistry – understanding how cells work at the molecular level. The Department of Chemistry at Canterbury works with the School of Biological Sciences to offer courses in Biochemistry that can lead to careers in the medical sciences.

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.

The wide range of skills provided by a University Degree in Chemistry also opens up a variety of career opportunities outside chemistry. Studying chemistry develops skills in handling information, problem-solving and dealing with abstract concepts. These qualities are sought by many different types of employers.


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; chemistry is a target subject for TeachNZ scholarships.


Industry uses chemists in such areas as research and development of new products, monitoring product composition and quality, environmental monitoring and regulation.

Chemists are often needed to solve deficiencies in chemical processes. As noted above, 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.


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


The majority of chemical research in New Zealand is done in universities, the Crown Research Institutes (e.g. Crop & Food at Lincoln) and private laboratories (e.g. Canesis at Lincoln). These institutions provide chemical challenges equal to any in the world.

Graduate Profiles

Marie Squire – PhD in ChemistryMarie Squire

Marie completed her PhD in Chemistry (Protein Drug Delivery Systems) at the University of Canterbury. She then moved to the UK where she worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Oxford University on a carbohydrate and protein research project. Marie returned to New Zealand as an Assistant Lecturer in Organic Chemistry at Otago University before finally settling back where her career started at the University of Canterbury.
Marie now manages the instrument suite within the Department of Chemistry, and has a particular interest in NMR and Mass Spectrometry techniques. Marie enjoys the challenges and variety of her position – instrumentation, research, lecturing and tutoring, and student research project supervision. Her research interests are broadly in Chemical Biology, from molecular biology and protein expression, to chemical and enzymatic modification of proteins, to synthetic chemistry.

Penel Cross - PhD in Biochemistry

Why Science? After deciding on a change of career, I came to UC to complete a BSc in Biology before intending to complete a Masters in Forensics at Auckland University. However, life led me in a different direction where I completed both a BSc (Hons) and a PhD in Biochemistry at Canterbury. The supportive environment and enthusiastic staff at UC made it an easy choice to complete my graduate studies here.
Do other opportunities exist during/after study? During my studies, I have managed to travel around the world attending conferences, have met a number of Nobel Prize winners and am a regular user of the x-ray crystallography and small angle x-ray scattering beamlines at the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne. I am currently employed as a postdoctoral fellow based in the Chemistry Department at UC working for Prof Emily Parker.
What do I do? My research focuses on enzymes, in particular, the determination of the regulatory control in an enzyme which is essential to bacterial metabolism. This involves both structural and functional characterisation of the enzyme and genetically modified variants.
What does that actually mean? For me, it means getting up every morning to go to a job I love and the bonus is that I now get paid for doing it.
Life’s challenges? Although it’s sometimes difficult to find the thing that excites, inspires and motivates you, once you’ve found it, you’re most of the way there. For me, it’s Biochemistry!

Chris Sumby - PhD in Chemistry

After graduating, I spent three years working at the University of Leeds on an EPSRC-funded post-doc position.

I returned to New Zealand with a FoRST New Zealand Science and Technology Fellowship to work at the University of Otago. I was awarded an Australian Research Council Australian Post-doctoral Fellowship and appointed as Lecturer in Chemistry at the University of Adelaide. The combination of a research fellowship and an academic position gives me the opportunity to lecture courses and to keep my hand in the research while building a research group. We have recently been awarded significant funding to provide two x-ray diffractometers that are key to my work. In my current position, and as a South Australian Tall Poppy for 2009 - 2010, I have also been able to write newspaper articles and appear on television and radio to talk about science.

Being an academic and research fellow allows some of the best opportunities to teach chemistry, do ground-breaking science and to interact with the general community, students and national and international researchers.

Eva Harris - PGDipSci in Chemistry

General Subjects: Analytical and Environmental Chemistry, Organic, Inorganic, Environmental Science.
Technical/Environmental Officer, PPCS Ltd (now Silver Fern Farms), Hastings.

I started this job only a week after finishing my exams. Silver Fern Farms specifically wanted someone with a chemistry degree as they like to have a variety of backgrounds in their technical team. The technical side involved a lot of food safety auditing and one of the more interesting investigations I had to do related to the discolouration of a canned product, which was traced back to a Maillard Reaction. I was also the contact for all environmental issues in the North Island. This involved writing resource consent applications, investigating new technologies, determining the effectiveness of wastewater treatment and analysing and monitoring data.

Compliance Officer, Hawke’s Bay Regional Council - Napier.

This job is best described as an “Environmental Police Officer”. I attended and cleaned up incidents of environmental pollution in the Hawke’s Bay Region. I would have to undertake investigations, trace back the source and may have to do some enforcement if necessary.
I am now with the Northland Regional Council as a Monitoring Officer. This is similar to what I did at Hawke’s Bay and I managed to get this at the height of the recession within about two weeks of returning to New Zealand, mostly because of the critical and logical thinking that my chemistry degree taught me.

Some really interesting things I have done in my jobs: fly a plane, four-wheel driving, monitoring of the Kaipara Harbour (which included playing with dolphins), presenting cases in court, CSI-like investigation for pollution and lots of travel around New Zealand.
Where to from here? The options are almost limitless as I have found that a chemistry background in the environmental science field is very much sought after. From here, I would like to complete my MSc in Environmental Science - this would allow me to move into management roles or my own consultancy. I have also been accepted into Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO) and I am waiting for a placement to spread my skills and education to some third world country that needs it.

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  • Department of Chemistry
    University of Canterbury
    Private Bag 4800, Christchurch
    New Zealand
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