What to Expect: Studying a BSc (Chemistry) at UCT


If youve ever wondered whether a Bachelor of Science (BSc) is for you then read on. Emmeline catches up with University of Cape Town (UCT) graduate, Tanya, to find out what it takes to study a BSc in Chemistry.

Tanya matriculated at Johannesburg’s all-girl school, St Mary’s. Her subject package included English (HL), Afrikaans (FAL), Pure Maths, Life Orientation, Physical Science, French and Drama. Although Tanya has always had a passion for drama, she knew that physical science would be a subject that could open many doors.   As it turns out, this subject proved to be extremely valuable in her study choice.

Making a Decision

As the time to make a career choice approached, Tanya found that she was unsure of what she wanted to do after school. She weighed up the options, considering both her interest in drama and the reason she took science as a subject.

She recalls,

For me, it was all internal dialogue with myself. My parents didn’t really push me to go into a particular career path. I did have a teacher who was very motivating in wanting me to get into the arts. But I do think it was more of an internal decision.”

After thinking it through, she felt that doing something with science would be more beneficial than pursuing anything in dramatic arts.

The five deciding factors that helped her make a decision:

  • Job shadowing a chemical engineer
  • Applying for and receiving a bursary to study chemistry at UCT
  • Wanting to aim as high as possible for a future career
  • The high earning potential as a scientist or chemical engineer
  • Concluding there’s perhaps better job stability in science than in the arts

Tanya decided to enroll for a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Chemistry at UCT. This is a three-year degree. After spending some time as a science student, Tanya decided to take on another major: Environmental Science.

She made the choice to pick up an additional major for two reasons: interest in the subject and the struggle of having chemistry as a single major.

“[Environmental Science] was interesting to me and it was a contrast to chemistry. It was also a safety net in case chemistry third year didnt work for me. So, [Chemistry] is a tough course and you have to be dedicated to it.”

Adjusting to the science faculty was a challenge for Tanya,

“Finding out what style of studying would be best suited to the sciences was a challenge. Also, keeping up with the volume of work that was presented in lectures and going home every day to consolidate… was quite a struggle.

After working her way through the undergraduate degree, Tanya graduated with a BSc in Chemistry and Environment Science in five years. Having enjoyed her new major, she made the choice to do honours in Environmental Science.


A BSc is a broad study field and the structure of a course will depend on the major. Tanya’s experience as a Chemistry major provides some insight into what to expect from the degree.

Core subjects in the first-year Chemistry course include:

  • Physics
  • Maths
  • Chemistry (surprise, surprise)

The combination of these subjects caught Tanya off guard straight away.

“One mistake I made was thinking the chemistry degree is just about chemistry and then physics came into the equation – I didnt sign up for that.”

Adjusting to the course is an important part of getting through the first semester at university. A BSc is practical and involves a lot of lab work. With a similar structure over the three years of the course, Tanya describes what to expect,

“So, generally, in your first and second years, you are going to have lab work about once a week just for chemistry. The other subjects might have the same. Then you will have a report to write up about each experiment every week which has to be handed in the following week. You are going to have to do tutorials which are also weekly and you have to submit weekly. Then, the assessments are generally tests. So, you get smaller tests once every three weeks, a major test and then, obviously, the exams. Thats quite consistent throughout the three years – it just increases in volume.”

The third (and final year) of a BSc at UCT will consist of a mini thesis. Work on this is continuous throughout the year.

UCT’s Science faculty also offers extra help. Tanya explains that the ‘hotseat’ is the place to be if you are in need of extra help.

“There would be tutors on duty that you could go to and work through problems”

This is a service Tanya made use of. There are also the course tutorial sessions, where you can always ask the tutors about content that was outside the set question sheet for the week. So you don’t need to make tackling challenges a solo mission.

Speaking of challenges, during her studies, Tanya experienced many ups and downs. A BSc is no picnic in the park; it requires perseverance. She lists some of the uphill battles she faced while studying:

  • First year maths – most people seemed to struggle with this.
  • The pace of the first-year course – it was a big jump from high school to university.
  • Failing for the first time – this was a new experience and reality check.
  • Recovery from Failure – it really knocks a person’s confidence and a comeback is tough.
  • Repeating the course – this can create self-doubt.

Ultimately, the challenge of the degree is what makes the qualification so rewarding at the end of the day.

“The best experience is graduating at the end of it when you survive the system and you finally get your piece of paper.”

Tanya has survived the system and now has a BSc in Chemistry and Environmental Science with an honours in Environmental Science. It is safe to say she knows what it takes to complete this qualification. These are her survival tips:

  • Never be afraid to approach a lecturer if you don’t understand their content.
  • Be dedicated – go to all your tutorials and make use of the tutors.
  • Read up on the course outline and what the course entails before you commit to it – student advisors might direct you towards a difficult combination of subjects if you show interest.  Be mindful of this.
  • Go to lectures – it is difficult to get to grips with the content if you have not gone to the lecture.
  • Work with a friend who is diligent – just working through tutorials and making study notes together will help with understanding the content.

Undergrad vs. Honours

There is a difference between undergrad and honours. Tanya says that the number one priority is your thesis. This involves working with a supervisor (and lecturer in the faculty). Similar to undergrad, there will be some theory, only with fewer lectures to attend. Tanya explains that honours is all about learning how to work on your own.   New skill! The coolest thing about doing honours is looking forward to graduating for a second time.

Life beyond Graduation

After graduation, Tanya searched for job opportunities. This was specifically in the field of environmental science.

She explains,

“One thing with chemistry is that you are not considered a chemist unless you have done honours in chemistry. So, that is quite important to bear in mind.”

Since Tanya did her honours in Environmental Science not Chemistry, she is not considered a chemist and found the job search difficult. She has now found work, unrelated to her degree. Her market research job involves desktop research and analysis. Although this is not where her interests lie, she was able to secure a job with the skills that she picked up while studying.

She says,

“There are some transferable skills like conducting research and that sort of thing but I don’t foresee myself in this job for long and I wish to pursue something closer to my studies.”

Tanya believes that a BSc is quite versatile since it’ll give you a range of skills employers look for in general.

Career Opportunities

To get ahead in this industry, Tanya says that your best bet is getting your masters in chemistry. This means studying for a total of five years. A masters will allow you to practice as a chemist. What does that even mean? Simple answer: a lot of lab work. You could find yourself doing this type of work at research and development or fast moving consumer goods companies. This type of industry deals with:

Research and Development
Product Development
Oil and Petroleum
Quality Control (Pharmaceuticals or Chemical Products)

So if you enjoy experimenting and working in a lab environment, there are many career options for you at the end of your studies.

Recommended School Subjects

  • Pure Maths
  • Physical Science
  • Life Sciences
  • Information Technology

Requirements for a BSc at UCT

  • Pure Maths: 70% or above
  • Physical Science: 60% or above
  • Completed the NBTs (Maths, Academic Literacy and Quantitative Literacy)
  • Have a Faculty Point Score (FPS) of 550 or above

EduConnect 2Cents

There is no doubt about it: studying a BSc in Chemistry requires dedication and practicality. Once you find your rhythm in the course, you can work your way to becoming specialised in any area of science. You’re never trapped in this degree. If you are not enjoying the Chemistry course, you can move around and choose an alternative science major. Or pick up another major along the way. Having more than one major is a thing. That’s the beauty of a BSc degree. The choice is yours to make.


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