What is Chemistry all about?
Have you ever wondered why some objects fluoresce whilst others appear dull? Or why did mixing Coke and Mentos cause that mini volcanic eruption in your backyard? The mystery behind these fascinating questions can be uncovered with chemistry.
Chemistry is the science of studying matter, both on a microscopic and a macroscopic scale. This consists of finding out what the composition of the substance is, what structure it adopts, how the structure relates to its observable properties, and what reactions the substance can undergo. Chemistry encompasses a wide range of topics and is often considered the central science because it acts as the glue which connects all the other branches of natural sciences.
Chemistry is more important now than ever. From developing new materials to increase the efficiency of solar cells, to synthesising new and improved drugs for fighting off diseases, or creating cleaner fuels to reduce pollution, there is an increasing demand for new chemical discoveries and innovations to be made in today’s world.
A chemistry degree will involve plenty of practical work to familiarise you with the different experimental techniques and safe practices in a lab setting. You will learn how to read and adapt chemical literature to your experiments, how to record and analyse relevant data, and how best to communicate those results to a target audience. You will also be exposed to many different concepts and principles, covering topics ranging from quantum chemistry to catalytic cycles.
If you have a passion for delving deeper beyond just the surface, to try and understand the mechanisms and inner workings of phenomena on a molecular level, then a degree in chemistry may be right for you. With a chemistry degree, you will develop a strong set of foundations to prepare you in pursuing a career in scientific research and beyond. The potential to understand the global issues we are currently facing and to come up with solutions to these problems using chemistry is what makes this subject so exciting to be a part of.
But first, let’s dig a bit deeper into some of the typical topics you might expect to come across if you choose to pursue a degree in chemistry.
Typical topics covered in a Chemistry degree
Quantum chemistry is a branch of physical chemistry exploring the use of quantum mechanical equations and principles to rationalise the behaviour of subatomic particles (1) like the electron. You will be introduced to fundamental concepts such as the quantisation of energy levels (2), particle-wave duality (3), Heisenberg uncertainty principle (4) and many others.
You will also learn more about where the different shapes and sizes of atomic orbitals came from and the important approximations which have been made to simplify computational calculations.
In any chemistry degree, a strong practical element is to be expected. Labs can be divided into 2 main categories – synthesis and non-synthesis labs. In synthesis labs, the goal is to perform a chemical reaction to obtain a desired final product. You will learn how to plan an experiment, operate appropriate lab equipment to carry out the reaction and how to analyse your product or reactants.
Non-synthesis labs can involve measurement science, where the goal is to optimise an instrument like a UV-Vis spectrometer (5) and use the instrument to help us answer questions about the properties of a substance. It could also involve computational work, where you utilise computational software to optimise the molecular geometry, bond angles and predict the measured spectra of different molecules.
During your practical chemistry module, you will develop good lab practices such as keeping a detailed record of all experiments and learning how to structure and effectively communicate your experimental results.
Organic reaction chemistry
Organic chemistry is the study of carbon-containing compounds. You will learn about the different types of reactivity at carbon centres, how to rationalise trends in reactivity across different molecules and how to predict if a reaction will occur using your knowledge of functional groups, pKa (6), resonance (7) and more.
You will learn how to use curly arrows to draw reaction mechanisms and classify any selectivity observed in the reaction.
An important skill you will develop is the ability to visualise 3D structures of molecules given a 2D representation. This is especially important when it comes to understanding the forms of isomerism (8) which are possible in organic molecules.
The content covered will also overlap with many of the other modules taught. In particular, the synthesis labs you will carry out require you to apply your knowledge of organic chemistry to propose and justify any hypothesis made.
As its name suggests, analytical chemistry is about utilising instruments to gather information about your sample and then carrying out analysis to help characterise or quantify your compound.
You will learn about the working principles of common laboratory instruments when they are suitable for use and how to decipher the corresponding spectra to obtain relevant information. Some common techniques include 1H NMR spectrometry (9) which is useful for determining the structure of compounds, Mass Spectrometry (10) which is useful for determining the molecular weight of the sample, and UV-Vis which is useful for obtaining an absorbance spectrum of your sample.
Apart from just learning the theory of these techniques, you will also have the opportunity to engage hands-on and test your knowledge in the lab by operating on different instruments to collect data for your experiments.
Skills you are likely to develop
Some of the experiments you will perform throughout your degree may require figures to be generated. That’s where tools like Python, MATLAB and Excel come in. You will learn how to apply basic code to generate experimental figures like an IR spectrum or a phase diagram. You will also learn about how to perform curve fitting and how to plot error bars to determine the confidence of your experimental data.
Being able to interpret your experimental results is crucial when it comes to writing a lab report. You will develop the skills to analyse data generated from common instruments which can be found in the lab. This could be interpreting a 1H NMR spectra to identify the different proton environments in your molecule, or identifying which functional groups are present based on your sample's Infrared spectrum.
Some common chemistry software you may come across in your degree are:
ChemDraw: A program which allows you to draw and edit molecular structures
Mestrenova (11): A software for processing your 1H NMR data
CrystalMaker (12): A software to visualise various 3D crystal structures
Gaussian (13): A software which uses quantum mechanics to predict the optimised geometry, energy and spectra of molecules
Python (14): A programming language useful for data analysis, plotting graphs and much more.
Communication is a universal skill and very important in any field. Effective communication is crucial in helping advance scientific innovation. After all, if no one can understand what your research is about, it is very unlikely it will make much of an impact.
Through the many reports and presentations, you will have plenty of chances in your degree to practise and develop your communication skills both verbally and in writing. You will learn how to tailor your presentation to target a specific audience and how to reference to maintain academic integrity and avoid plagiarism.
During your degree, you will be working with different lab partners and be involved in multiple group projects, providing you with the opportunity to collaborate with other students in your cohort. This may involve completing an experiment together or collecting secondary research on a specific chemistry topic and presenting the findings together. You will learn how to work well under an unfamiliar environment, and how best to split up the tasks, ensuring that each member's unique strengths and abilities are recognised and utilised to their full potential.
Problem solving, like many other skills, is best learnt through practice. Being able to think critically and understand the information available to make a rational decision to overcome challenges will serve you well in all aspects of life – not just chemistry. That being said, during your degree, you will also face multiple obstacles. This could be a reaction yielding an unexpected product, your experimental data being too noisy or having to design an appropriate reaction scheme to synthesise a target molecule (Retrosynthesis (15)). You will develop your ability to troubleshoot, analysing relevant facts to break down large problems into smaller resolvable ones.
What are the career options?
A Chemistry degree opens up many doors. Whether that’s going into the field of scientific research, working in industry, or exploring roles outside the laboratory, there are many possibilities for a chemistry graduate.
If you would like to continue to use your chemistry knowledge after your degree, some careers of interest could be:
As a pharmacologist, you will study the effects of drugs and other chemical substances on biological systems. The work will be heavily lab-based and you can expect to design and carry out tests on cells/animal tissue, use specialist software to analyse and interpret data, and write papers for publications. Employers of pharmacologists may include pharmaceutical companies, universities and government organisations (NHS for UK).
As a forensic scientist, you will analyse evidence from crime scenes and create detailed reports for use in courts of law. This role is mostly lab-based and you can expect to carry out tests on samples of blood, hair, fabrics, and drugs found at crime scenes. You may be working closely with police officers at the scene of the crime and also required to show up in court cases to provide evidence as an expert witness. Typical employers of forensic scientists include specialist laboratories, universities and government departments.
As a patent attorney, you will help clients file and secure a patent to protect the intellectual property of their inventions. With a chemistry degree, you can go on to become a chemical patent attorney. The role will involve utilising your chemistry background to understand the technicalities of the invention to draft and file a patent. Typical clients may involve chemical or pharmaceutical companies looking to secure a patent for a new compound or drug.
Research & Development Scientist
As an R&D scientist, you will be involved at the beginning of the product life cycle, experimenting with methods to improve existing products as well as exploring new ones. The role will involve working with other scientists to plan, execute and publish the results of the research. Typical employers include the FMCG companies like Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and Unilever.
If you don’t fancy working in a lab and wish to do something non-chemistry related, some careers that chemistry graduates have gone on to pursue are:
As an investment banker, your role is to act as the financial advisor to businesses and help them raise capital. This may mean helping the company issue stock through an IPO or assisting with the merger and acquisition of one company with another. Investment banking is known to be a gruelling and competitive career, with its long work hours and less than ideal work-life balance. However, if you are passionate and willing to take the challenge of investment banking, you will be compensated well. Typical employers are investment banks such as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley and many others.
Consultants aim to help businesses solve problems by implementing new strategies to manage change or improve efficiency. They will conduct research and analysis to gain insight on the client’s business operations and offer advice to the client on what strategy the business should implement. You will have the opportunity to be exposed to many different industries since the work will depend on which client you are working with at the time. Similar to investment banking, a career in consulting will mean long work hours. You will need to handle multiple projects at a time and meet tight deadlines. Typical employers include consulting firms like Mckinsey, Bain, BCG and many more.
When deciding on where to pursue your Chemistry degree, it is important to consider if the degree is professionally accredited or not. For example, a degree which has been accredited by the Royal Society of Chemistry (16) is a mark of assurance that the program has met specific standards and will provide individuals with the skills and key knowledge to progress in a Chemistry career. Professional accreditation such as the one provided by the Royal Society of Chemistry, can enhance the reputation of the degree giving it a competitive edge for student employability over universities which are not accredited.
Why does Chemistry matter?
Hopefully after reading this far, you have some ideas as to why a Chemistry degree matters. As discussed above, a degree in Chemistry will not only equip you with the technical skills and know-how to operate in the lab, but also develop both your personal and professional skills at the same time.
Seeing as the world around us is built from atoms and molecules, it comes to no surprise that the applications of chemistry are extensive and extremely important. To give an example, if the device you are reading this from has an LCD screen, you have George Gray to thank. His work on liquid crystals (17) (4-Cyano-4'-pentylbiphenyl) paved the way for the advancement and eventually popularity of LCD screens.
From healthcare to agriculture to the energy sector, there is a long list of industries which rely heavily on chemical innovation in order to evolve. Studying chemistry provides you with the foundation to tackle global issues and be at the forefront of innovation – a truly exciting opportunity.
In summary, a degree in chemistry matters because it equips you with a deep understanding of the natural world, fosters valuable skills, and opens doors to diverse career paths where you can contribute to scientific advancements and make a positive impact on society.
How do I know if Chemistry is for me?
Studying Chemistry will train you to think critically, ask meaningful questions, and seek evidence-based answers. If you are a curious individual with a strong desire to understand the natural phenomena of the world on a molecular level, Chemistry could be the degree for you.
A Chemistry degree will not be a walk in the park. If you have a genuine passion for the subject, you will have an easier time pushing past the tough times and find the process of studying to be much more enjoyable and fulfilling.
Because chemistry is interdisciplinary and crosses over with many different fields, it does help if you have a natural aptitude towards mathematics and the sciences. While you don't need to be a genius in these subjects, a certain level of comfort and proficiency will make your journey in a chemistry degree more manageable.
You will also have to ask yourself if you enjoy lab work and running experiments. There will be a substantial amount of practical work in any chemistry degree. So, if you really dislike being in a lab, a practical-heavy degree like this may not be for you.
That being said, a chemistry degree opens many doors, and you have plenty of career options which don’t involve laboratory research as mentioned above. If you are inquisitive and love to see how scientific discovery can be applied to our everyday lives, choosing Chemistry as a degree is a great starting point.
Mann RB, Morris MS. Classical models of subatomic particles. Physics Letters A. 1993;181(6):443-5.
Ruggiero B, Castellano MG, Torrioli G, Cosmelli C, Chiarello F, Palmieri VG, et al. Effects of energy-level quantization on the supercurrent decay of Josephson junctions. Physical Review B. 1999;59(1):177-80.
Ghose P. Wave-particle duality: The mystery keeps unfolding. Pramana. 1998;51(5):651-61.
Zozor S, Portesi M, Sanchez-Moreno P, Dehesa JS. On moments-based Heisenberg inequalities. BAYESIAN INFERENCE AND MAXIMUM ENTROPY METHODS IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING2010. p. 184-+.
Czegan DAC, Hoover DK. UV–Visible Spectrometers: Versatile Instruments across the Chemistry Curriculum. Journal of Chemical Education. 2012;89(3):304-9.
Kanicky JR, Shah DO. Effect of Degree, Type, and Position of Unsaturation on the pKa of Long-Chain Fatty Acids. Journal of Colloid and Interface Science. 2002;256(1):201-7.
Pauling L. The theory of resonance in chemistry. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A Mathematical and Physical Sciences. 1977;356(1687):433-41.
Gataullin RR. New Syntheses and Properties of Some Axial and Helical Isomers of Organic Compounds. Russian Journal of Organic Chemistry. 2019;55(9):1247-74.
Gerdova A, Defernez M, Jakes W, Limer E, McCallum C, Nott K, et al., editors. 60 MHz 1H NMR SPECTROSCOPY OF TRIGLYCERIDE MIXTURES. 12th International Conference on the Applications of Magnetic Resonance in Food Science - Defining Food by Magnetic Resonance; 2014 May 20-23; Cesena, ITALY2015.
Mann M, Hendrickson RC, Pandey A. Analysis of Proteins and Proteomes by Mass Spectrometry. Annual Review of Biochemistry. 2001;70(1):437-73.
Download Mnova. Mestrelab Research Chemistry Software Solutions. Accessed 12th September 2023 https://mestrelab.com/download/mnova/
Crystal & Molecular Structures: Modelling and Diffraction. CrystalMaker Software. Accessed 12th September 2023 https://crystalmaker.com/
Expanding the limits of computational chemistry. Gaussian. Accessed 12th September 2023 https://gaussian.com/
Python. Python. Accessed 12th September 2023 https://www.python.org/
urner NJ, O'Reilly E. Biocatalytic retrosynthesis. Nature Chemical Biology. 2013;9(5):285-8.
Degree Accreditation. Royal Society of Chemistry. Accessed 12th September 2023 https://www.rsc.org/membership-and-community/degree-accreditation/#benefits-individual
Funahashi M, Kato T. Design of liquid crystals: from a nematogen to thiophene-based π-conjugated mesogens. Liquid Crystals. 2015:1-9.