Along with biological sciences and physics, chemistry is one of the three main arms of science. It can be defined as the study of matter – what it’s composed of and its structure, its properties, and how it reacts and changes when exposed to different situations. Read on for more information.
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As it studies matter at its most basic level, there is much overlap between chemistry and other science subjects. Chemical processes and the composition of elements play a large part in the study of living organisms and matter’s relationship to forces.
The origins of the discipline lie in the ancient art of alchemy, the goal of which was to turn worthless material into gold.
Though this obviously didn’t work, it was based on the founding principle of chemistry: that matter is composed of building blocks which give it is essential properties, and if these building blocks are altered in some way – a change of temperature or the addition of another substance – then changes often occur.
Of course, our understanding of the topic is much better these days and goes down to a molecular level. But don’t think this means we know everything! In fact, our greater knowledge has simply stretched the boundaries of what’s possible…
As with other scientific subjects, specialization is essential due to the basic complexity of the subject at this level. At undergraduate level, this will often take the form of elective modules, though specialized courses are also an option. Graduate study will certainly involve specialization.
Many specializations will overlap with other science subjects. Some examples are:
Chemical engineering: like alchemy but less gold-fixated, the purpose of chemical engineering is to convert substances into more useful ones - like medicines – using chemical processes. The focus can be on the actual substance produced or the process of conversation.
Biochemistry: The study of the chemical processes within living organisms, such as those which convert thought into action or make you feel a certain way. This is a massive subject and it is predicted that huge strides will be made in the foreseeable future.
Medicinal chemistry: In a way, this branch of chemistry represents a coming together of the two disciplines above, as it involves synthesizing certain chemicals present in the human body. There will always be a demand for this sort of research, and there’s surely a lot of satisfaction to be had in coming up with life-saving or improving drugs
Astrochemistry: The junction between chemistry and astronomy, the goal of astrochemistry is to discover of what matter in space is composed, and how elements and molecules behave there. You’ll be rooted on earth, so this will involve computational chemistry, spectroscopy (using light to help identify matter), and ingenuity.
Nuclear chemistry: A fairly self explanatory discipline, nuclear chemistry is the study of radioactive elements, how to harness them, and their effects on organisms and matter. It has applications in medicine and energy, and will involve engineering and collaboration with engineers.
Careers in chemistry
As with other ‘hard’ sciences, if your goal is to pursue a career in chemistry, you will probably need to go down the graduate study route – mad scientists excepted! The complexity of the subject means that often an undergraduate course will be insufficient.
Research positions can be undertaken in a range of different environments: universities, public and private research institutions, and at profit-orientate private companies.
The latter can range from defence companies to ice cream makers: there’s no shortage of practical money-making applications for chemistry.
There are plenty of opportunities for aspiring research chemists, but be warned: it can get pretty challenging at higher levels. Accordingly, you will be competing with some very clever people.
Research is not the only path open to chemists. Specialist teaching and journalism are always options, as are other careers for which specialist knowledge will be an asset: forensics for example, or health and safety related professions.
You can also enter graduate programs in law or medicine. And then there’s a whole range of general graduate jobs – sales, finance, and the media for example – out there.
And there’s more good news: research by PricewaterhouseCoopers has shown that chemistry graduates are amongst the highest earners across the board, whatever field they work in.