Why study chemistry?
I) If you’re a lover of the whole field of STEM, this subject is the best. Besides chemistry, you get a (strong) flavour of maths, biology, physics, coding, engineering concepts too. Yes, I end up relying on Wikipedia for most of it but still, it is always good to get a taste of another field! Interdiscipline is inherent in STEM and a chemistry degree demonstrates that very well.
II) Depending on what you’re studying, and how you’re looking at it, it can be both tangible and abstract. You’ll find certain topics so visually clear that you might feel like you can see these things happening. But I must admit that the more I study chemistry, the more unclear I become about the actual nature of electrons. So, expect some grey area but really it wouldn’t be science if we knew all the answers. There is something about feeling lost and then finding the answers yourself that I really enjoy and if you have this curiosity, chemistry will serve it very well!
III) You get to admire nature a lot better! Nothing makes me happier than learning about chemical concepts and then seeing how my knowledge enables me to appreciate nature better. As a chemist, I find calling something ‘beautiful’ per se redundant. You see the flower and you instantly think about the esters responsible for the fragrance. You see the colours and you think about conjugation (or the d electrons). You look at water and chuckle at how cheeky the seemingly simple HO molecule actually is.
IV) You get to write from little to loads. I do enjoy writing a lot (which might explain why I blog so much). In chemistry, you’ll get the opportunity to write loads in exams and as part of your post-labs and full-length lab reports. That’s not to say that you go away and waffle. It is very important to be concise but also ensure you write down all the relevant information. Having said this, you’ll also find that some topics require more maths than others, or more drawing than others (who said organic?). I find that this enables me to have the best of both worlds. I can revise relevant topics when I feel like writing or do maths calculations when my scientific calc appeals to me more.
V) There is reading in chemistry! This one might come across as an obvious one to some of you but I came to university thinking you don’t do much reading as a scientist. This is so not true. It is quite common to hear humanities or social science students to moan about their essays and their "so much reading" that they need to do but we are not deprived of this either! As an avid reader, I didn’t initially like that there isn’t much reading but it only took me until Christmas to come to terms with how important reading is! It is an important part of the subject. Whilst chemistry is very much about applying concepts, you’ll only fully understand them if you’ve studied them to depth.
If you’re not much of a reader, I’d say focus on the material that the lecturers teach you, practice lots of questions (and do some light reading? Even if it is not books but websites or YouTube videos might work as well). But if any of you out there are lovers of reading, chemistry will not let you down!
VI) Conclusions from chemistry can be directly applied to real life situations. First year thermodynamics problems that I only managed to solve once last year – in the examination hall itself – were the best example of how directly chemistry relates to everyday life.
Organic chemistry reactions involve synthesis of functional groups but quickly you’ll realise (provided you do your reading) the importance of these reactions in the industry and beyond.
Now that I’m applying to chemistry placements, I am realising how big a role analytical chemistry plays in the chemical industry be it the pharmaceutical industry, the agrochemical industry, or any other. The chemicals (or their derivatives) that we synthesise in labs have industrial uses: we aren’t doing any baby stuff here! You go straight into the useful stuff.
I could never quite find physics tangible. Not saying that physics isn’t good enough but chemistry is very much something I find a lot easier to visualise and feel. Biology doesn’t really go deep enough into the fundamentals of matter which can be good for those who enjoy it but I realised that I only enjoyed biology when it became chemistry or at least biochemistry.
VII) Your work impacts so many fields. I find it amazing how much the knowledge of chemistry is used in other sectors. For example, analytical chemistry is used in space research to identify compounds. NMR scans form an important part of the medical discipline. Cis-platin, such a seemingly simple complex, shows how inorganic chemistry can impact medicine. Concepts like symmetry and mirror images play a huge role in the functionality of molecules. I did an experiment studying two brands of sunscreen and it was amazing how much photochemistry (physical chemistry) and UV/Vis spectra analysis I got to do with them! I never considered cosmetic chemistry before but seeing its links with physical chemistry is pushing me to consider it more!
VIII) Chemistry opens so many doors for you in terms of career options: research, industry, patent law, teaching, science communication, and banking and finance. Don’t discount the jobs you can do with any degree like consulting (especially with Accenture I know). There is the Civil Service Fast Stream. My friends are considering graduate medicine as well. As a scientist, you can work for the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and surely there’s lots more out there! Clearly there are a range of different sectors for you to choose from so never think that a degree in chemistry will leave you limited to the labs, it will only open more doors for you!
Everybody’s way of looking at their subject is different. This post is all about how I feel about chemistry but indeed if you ask other chemists, they might say different things and even contradict! Your subject will be to you what you make it to be. So, choose something that gets you talking and smiling. Good luck!