Chemistry Major: Choosing a Specialization in Chemistry
So you want to be Walter White
Chemists are involved in numerous aspects of our lives: they create the textiles we wear and perfumes we love, they synthesize the pharmaceuticals that keep us healthy, and they are even involved in investigating murders. Needless to say, chemistry is one of the more interesting STEM majors and certainly one that has the potential to earn you a comfortable living. It’s also one of broadest areas of study, because there are a lot of different kinds of chemistry and many subtopics to explore within the major.
That’s why you’ll want to pick a specialization in your chemistry degree- by doing so you can keep focused on the kind of chemical science you'll want to work on later in your career. Here we’ll look at the details of how chemistry is broken into areas and what it will take to be a chemistry student.
Spoiler alert: we won’t mention working in an RV or the type of reactant that makes your product blue, so if that’s what you’re here for, you can stop reading now.
What are the 5 types of chemistry?
Organic chemistry—This is where you study the element of carbon and the compounds if forms, which make the first building block of all life. This field of chemistry looks at the reaction of an organic compound, which contains carbon in a covalent bond. Simply put, you will study the carbon atom and discover how it interacts with another chemical substance(s) and molecules. You'll hear a lot of terms you first ran across in your high school chemistry class- you'll study subjects like what is a covalent bond vs ionic bond, hydrogen bonds, protons, neutrons, electrons, molecules, oxidation and redox, synthesis and synthesis decomposition.
Inorganic chemistry—Organic chemistry is all about carbon and compounds made from it; inorganic chemistry focuses on the chemical structure and properties of things that don’t contain carbon, known as inorganic compounds. It deals with things that aren’t made up of carbon—really important things like water and metal—but are still made up of particles and studies how they fit together. Inorganic chemistry includes a lot of the same concepts as organic chemistry, like those mentioned above as well as valence electrons, elemental form, the oxygen atom, acids, bases, and more.
Analytical chemistry—Organic and inorganic chemistry start at the bottom with the tiniest particles and look at how they come together. An analytical chemist approaches from the opposite direction, studying complex things by separating them into smaller parts and measuring how much there is of each. Analytical chemistry involves practices you may have heard of in other parts of everyday life, like spectroscopy, chromatography, titration and precipitation reactions.
Physical chemistry—It’s not enough to know what everything is made of and how much of it there is. Physical chemistry studies what happens when elements come together and react to one another. It answers why matter changes when it comes in contact with chemicals, like why acid eats through surfaces, why you can make a “volcano” out of vinegar and baking soda, and why washing with soap gets your hands clean. A physical chemist also studies most peoples' favorite chemical reaction: the combustion reaction.
Biochemistry—Biochemistry is a lot like organic chemistry because it looks at how things are structured at the most basic level. The difference is that organic chemistry is about all things that contain the carbon atom, but biochemistry is exclusively about living things, and it’s not the same list. Living things are a subgroup of carbon-based matter, and the life cycle has different aspects that make biochemistry a whole other subject, with quite a bit of biology mixed in. If you are more into looking at the smallest, most basic components of the walking, talking, eating, breathing things around you, this is your area.
What are the 10 branches of chemistry?
Apart from the five main types, there are several other areas of chemistry that fall underneath them. These are even more likely to be where you will find your specialization, as these topics lead directly to careers, drive faculty research, and let you get more into the exact things you like about chemistry.
- Environmental Chemistry—This branch of chemistry focuses on natural systems and what we think of outside of chemistry as the “elements:” air, water and soil;
- Forensic Chemistry—applying chemistry techniques and instruments to analyze evidence and help solve criminal cases
- Geochemistry—studying the earth, specifically the physical planet and how it’s made up; you will talk a lot about lava, magma, silicates, which combined with metals form the earth’s crust, and types of silicates like zeolites, as well as analyze samples of the earth’s crust and do geochemical modeling
- Polymer Chemistry—studying polymers, substances made up of a lot of the same particle chained together over and over again; you’ll mainly study the molecules in plastics, resins, types of rubber and glass, and other textiles
- Theoretical Chemistry—here is where you use math, physics, computation, and your existing knowledge of chemistry to try to figure out the laws of chemistry that haven’t been written yet. In this branch, you will discover the newest chemical reaction(s) and properties that have yet to be defined.
- Industrial Chemistry—looking at the makeup of chemicals that help us mass-produce commercial products and create the buildings and structures we need to help society survive, like paints, detergents, batteries, dye, pigments and prescription drugs
- Thermochemistry—all about heat, but more to the point, the energy released or absorbed in a chemical reactions as well as phase changes like melting or boiling; based on variations on the law of conservation of matter—matter can’t be created or destroyed in any physical process
- Medicinal or pharmaceutical chemistry—the study of the chemical design of pharmaceuticals, otherwise known as drugs, by picking apart what drugs are made of at the most basic level to find how they are held together, why they work on the human body, and help design new chemical combinations
- Nuclear chemistry—the area of chemistry that deals with dealing with radioactive materials, how radioactivity transforms matter, and the amazing way that reactions in less-than-microscopic little atoms leads to huge amounts of energy
- Materials chemistry—takes the concept of theoretical chemistry and puts it into action, finding out how to design, create and understand new kinds of matter; this kind of chemistry can be applied in architecture, construction, environmental protection, medicine, energy production, and more
Why do we study chemistry?
When explaining why we should bother with chemistry, well-known Professor of Biochemistry Richard E. Dickerson put it like this: “We can begin to see wholes rather than parts, and the organization of a whole is almost always more interesting than the collection of parts … We can (learn) from chemistry … what life is, where it came from, how it operates, what our solar system is like, and how it arose. For the first time, in chemistry, we are on the verge of understanding.”
There are clues to whether you should go into chemistry. If you loved science and math classes in high school, that’s one. If you’re not interested in how things look but fascinated by how they’re put together, that’s another. And if you’re into solving mysteries, if you like putting puzzles together—and even better, breaking them apart—you may be a chemist at heart.
Even more than that, there are great jobs to find in all the core sciences, like chemistry and biology. The medical industry, government, and consumer goods companies are big employers of chemists, and chemistry jobs are on the rise. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that there will be 4% more chemistry jobs by 2028, which equals about 3,500 positions. Salaries for chemistry jobs range from $67,000 a year up to as much as $114,000 a year.
How difficult is chemistry?
Chemistry has a reputation as a hard subject, but like anything else, a reputation develops over time and isn’t always based on the facts. Professor Anne Marie Helmenstine, a science writer with a Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, did a breakdown that includes the five major reasons we think of chemistry as hard:
- It involves a lot of math;
- The subject is huge—there are many different areas to it and studying it means you have to go back and forth between them a lot;
- You have to spend a lot more than just classroom time on chemistry because of lab hours, pre-labs, assigned study time with others, and lab reports which can take much longer than other papers;
- Chemistry has its own language with a ton of terms that take a long time to learn and even longer to get comfortable with;
- And most important of all, you tend to psych yourself out because you’ve heard how hard it is.
Chemistry isn’t easy by any means. But the most important thing experts stress in taking chemistry is patience. It’s supposed to take a long time to learn, and while it’s a complex subject, that’s because chemistry is literally part of everything.
Don’t feel like you have to master the subject right away, and don’t get angry if you don’t feel satisfied by it right away, either- it is unrealistic to assume you can fully understand a decomposition react or redox reaction overnight.
If you’re serious about chemistry, do all things you’re told to do in school but have trouble with:
- Start everything early.
- Set time aside to study and make your chemistry studying a priority.
- Ask for extra work and practice problems.
- Go over your exams carefully and review the subjects you didn’t do well on.
- Prepare for your lectures and labs by doing all the reading, showing up on time and awake, and ask lots of questions.
Think carefully about what kind of chemistry works best for you and use that as you are narrowing down your school choices. Check out websites like the one for North Central College’s chemistry department and see what schools with strengths in the sciences have to offer. If you need more information on North Central College or you’re ready to apply, go to northcentralcollege.edu/apply.
Keep in mind North Central College caters not only to the chemists at heart, but also offers opportunities for aspiring biologists, physicists, neurologists, and psychologists. Learn about the different types of psychology and specialties in biology or find the answers to questions like “What can you do with a neuroscience degree?” and “How can I become an occupational therapist?” Even discover the answer to the question "What are typical nursing school and OT school requirements?", as well as what it takes to get yourself on track to start pursuing the career path of your choice.
Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 10 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.