Chemist vs pharmacist: Which career is right for me?

One focuses on helping people manage their illness with medication. The other, on studying things at a molecular level. Find out more and never confuse the two again.

Chemist vs Pharmacist

What is the difference between a pharmacist and a chemist? In Australia (and England), ‘chemist’ can refer to ‘a scientist who studies chemistry’ or be the vernacular expression for ‘pharmacist’, the person you buy your medications from.

For purposes of this article, we won’t dive into the somewhat arcane and confusing origins of both terms.

So, assuming that we’re carrying forward with the formal meaning of chemist, let’s see what the differences are between the two professions.

What is a pharmacy?

Another thing to keep in mind is that we also more commonly call shops that dispense medications ‘chemists’, instead of the proper term ‘pharmacies’.

So, what is a pharmacist?

A pharmacist is mainly concerned with the preparation, standardisation and safe use of medications, whether in table, capsule, injection or other forms.

They will check a customer’s medical history, advise on potential side effects and ensure that the newly prescribed medication does not interfere with the customer’s other medications.
Apart from dispensing ready-made medications, pharmacists can also compound a physician, dentist or veterinarian’s prescription. Retail pharmacists provide recommendations of over-the-counter medications to customers. In pharmaceutical research, pharmacists help with developing and testing dosages of new medical therapies.

What is a chemist?

A chemist investigates the properties of matter at the atomic and molecular level. They conduct experiments to see how different substances react with one another, which helps the world understand substances that haven’t yet been explored thoroughly. Chemists also create substances by combining other ones.

By knowing how these substances behave, we can find new practical applications for them. In the pharmaceutical industry, chemists develop combinations of compounds that can have medicinal value (in contrast, pharmacists mainly focus with safe and correct dosages of the compound). And that’s just one industry where you’ll find chemists. They’re also hired to work in food production, cosmetics, paints, all kinds of industrial research, forensic labs, art restoration, the list goes on.

Is pharmacy difficult to study? What about chemistry?

We won’t lie, neither is easy. But if you have a passion for learning, and are willing to put in the work, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t pursue either field. According to those who have completed pharmacy degrees, the focus is not on getting As. Learning pharmacy involves a combination of memorisation, analysis, calculations, applied chemistry and maths. Quite the arduous task!

On to your next question—is a degree in chemistry hard? Well, you’ll have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable—chemistry degrees are full of pure maths and abstract concepts. Chemistry students also need skills that can’t be learned in a classroom. You’ll be spending lots of time in labs, under a fume hood, with safety goggles on.

Studying pharmacy in Australia

Pharmacists in Australia are tightly regulated by the Pharmacy Board of Australia (PharmBA), to ensure that every patient or customer receives the safest, most well-informed care. Accordingly, you will have to fulfill mandatory requirements to become one.

Here are the steps:

  1. Complete a Bachelor of Pharmacy in Australia. If you don’t meet the entry requirements, don’t fret. Consider an online course such as the Diploma of Pharmacy Studies as a pathway into the bachelor degree.
  2. Already have a bachelor degree in another field? You could study a Master of Pharmacy.
  3. Apply for provisional registration with the Pharmacy Board of Australia (PharmBA).
  4. Complete a year-long paid internship with a registered pharmacist, while you do your Intern Training Program (ITP), a separate course of study.
  5. After finishing both, take PharmBA’s written and oral exam. If you pass, congratulations—you can apply for general registration as a pharmacist!
  6. If you’d like to specialise in a specific area of hospital pharmacy, clinical trials or research, sign up for additional postgraduate study, training and work experience. If you’d like to study online, these courses may suit you.

Approximate duration: 5 years for undergraduates, 3–4 years for graduate entry (not including specialisation).

What subjects do pharmacists study?

Here’s a (non-exhaustive) sample, some of which you can study online:

  • Statistics
  • Chemistry for life science
  • Microbiology
  • Immunology
  • Pharmacy practice and skills
  • Principles of pharmacology
  • Applied physiochemical principles
  • Human physiology
  • Medicine formulations

Studying chemistry in Australia

Becoming a chemist is relatively less complicated!

Here are the steps:

  1. Study a bachelor degree in science, majoring in chemistry. Want to test the waters? Try a short course or single subject online.
  2. If you can, you’re encouraged to obtain work experience via an internship or placement.
  3. Should you wish to deepen your knowledge, you can take up a masters degree, but it’s completely up to you.

Approximate duration: 3 years for the bachelor degree. The work experience and masters are optional!

What are the six types of chemistry?

Naturally, as part of your chemistry degree, you’ll be expected to learn about all six types of chemistry, which are:

  • Organic chemistry
    The study of organic compounds, formed mainly by atoms with carbon and hydrogen bonds.
  • Inorganic chemistry
    This covers the formation, composition and reaction of compounds like metals and minerals. Most of the elements in the periodic table sit within this branch.
  • Biochemistry
    Under this umbrella, you’ll learn about the chemical composition of living beings such as humans, plants, animals and microorganisms.
  • Physical chemistry
    This is the study of matter and how movement, time and energy affects it.
  • Analytical chemistry
    This area of chemistry involves the qualitative and quantitative determination of the chemical compounds of substances.
  • Theoretical chemistry
    Using mathematical and computational techniques and the fundamental laws of physics, chemists evaluate the properties of matter.

In addition, chemistry students also study calculus and linear algebra—which are used in topics such as thermodynamics and chemical kinetics.

Can I become a pharmacist with a chemistry degree?

The quick answer is yes! It may not be the most straightforward path, but it’s highly doable.
Since a chemistry degree would be considered a relevant science-based bachelor degree, you could apply for graduate entry into a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy. You’d typically (though not always!) gain accelerated entry into the third year.

Your quick guide to differentiating between a pharmacist and a chemist

A pharmacist... A chemist... 
Aims to make sure that a patient or customer is taking the right dosage of medicine  Studies matter and creates new substances at a microscopic level.
Most commonly works in retail pharmacies like Chemist Warehouse or in hospitals. If working within the pharmaceutical industry, would be in labs developing new medications.
Needs to complete a 5-year long program of study and internship.  Only needs to do a 3-year degree. Postgraduate study is optional.

Undeterred by the rigours of either profession? Then jump right in and see if we offer any courses through leading Australian universities that tickle your interest!


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