What Do You Learn in Chemistry?
Reviewed by Jacob Imm
Dec 29, 2021
What Do You Learn in Chemistry?
Chemistry is so much more than what movies and TV make it out to be. While you will don a white lab coat and handle beakers full of chemicals at some point, you’ll spend plenty of time outside of the lab, too. Pursuing a degree in chemistry is a rewarding and engaging journey that encourages logic and creativity in equal parts.
So, what do you learn in chemistry?
In short—a lot. Let’s look at all the ground you’ll cover as a chemistry student and, later, as a working professional in the field.
Topics in Chemistry
Chemistry is the study of matter—its characteristics, behavior and structure. Chemists are interested in the way materials act and react in certain situations, so they produce and observe these reactions, both in nature and artificially in a lab setting.
So, is chemistry hard? It may be a demanding field of study, but there are so many things you can learn and discover. In fact, modern chemistry is very much an active discipline. It continues to be refined and is constantly expanding. So what you’ll study in college could change as groundbreaking discoveries are made. Still, standard concepts in chemistry include:
- The transformation and structure of matter
- Chemical bonding
- The periodic table (with which you’ll become intimately familiar)
- Math (including stoichiometry and calculus)
- The handling of chemical solutions
Chemistry covers so much ground within the world of science that listing it all would be impossible. The best way to discover all that chemistry has to offer is to enroll in chemistry courses.
Courses for a Chemistry Major
As a chemistry major, you’ll likely graduate with a bachelor of science (BS) degree. However, you can earn other degrees like a bachelor of arts (BA), depending on the programs offered at your college.
Chemistry course loads vary between institutions, but you’ll likely enroll in courses that include:
- A General Chemistry Course – Explore basic chemical principles like atomic structure and electronic structure, ions and intermolecular forces.
- Chemical Analysis – Learn how to collect and prepare samples, analyze statistics and work with sophisticated measurement equipment.
- Thermodynamics and Kinetics – Dive deep into the laws of thermodynamics and how they relate to chemical systems.
- Spectrometry and Spectroscopy – Discover the relationship between electromagnetic radiation and matter.
Additional courses that focus on professional development, education, business, or law may also be required (especially for a BA).
When researching where to major in chemistry, look for programs accredited by the American Chemical Society (ACS). An ACS-certified curriculum allows students to work deeply with applied and theoretical chemistry, giving them the “intellectual, experimental, and communication skills to become effective scientific professionals."
Completing an ACS-certified chemistry program—like the BS degree offered at North Central College—means you’ll leave school with a professional-level mastery of applied and theoretical chemistry.
Courses for a Chemistry Minor
If you’re fascinated by chemistry but don’t want to pursue it as a major, you may be able to earn a chemistry minor. Combining a chemistry minor with a major like biology, business, or medicine can help your employment prospects, as you’ll have a broader range of specialized skills to draw from.
Schools that offer a minor in chemistry typically require the completion of 6-8 chemistry courses—some at the 100-level, some in 200- or 300-level courses. For example, North Central College offers a minor in chemistry. Requirements include General Chemistry I & II, Chemical Analysis, and 10 more credit hours in chemistry courses at the 200-level or above.
Different Branches of Chemistry
Chemistry is an umbrella term that covers several exciting subcategories. To help you understand all the possibilities that studying chemistry unlocks for you, we’ll outline what you can learn in:
- Organic chemistry
- Inorganic chemistry
- Analytical chemistry
- Physical chemistry
Organic chemistry pertains to the study of organic, carbon-containing compounds, according to ACS. As an organic chemist, you’ll develop new compounds or improve the process of creating existing ones.
Organic chemistry is all around us. Work in this field revolves around the creation and testing of familiar products, such as:
Most chemistry programs will include several courses on organic chemistry. If you choose to specialize in this branch of chemistry, you can start a long and lucrative career synthesizing carbon-based compounds. Potential jobs exist in government (for example, with the Food and Drug Administration) and the petroleum and pharmaceutical industries.
If organic chemistry relates to organic compounds, inorganic chemistry is the opposite. Inorganic chemists are interested in compounds that do not contain carbon, like metals and minerals (though there is an intersection, as some organometallic compounds contain carbon).
Work involves the manipulation and modification of inorganic compounds and materials. Inorganic chemistry careers are generally centered around the heavy industry, mining and government sectors. For example, if you were to work in the mining industry as a chemist, you might be in charge of analyzing extracted ore or purifying waste streams.
Pursue a career in inorganic chemistry, and you could find yourself handling anything from fertilizer to computer chips.
Analytical chemistry is the intersection where math meets science. Chemists in this field still work hands-on with matter, but they’re more concerned with the numbers—how much of the matter is there? Analytical chemists answer this question through the use of sophisticated lab technology and computer modeling.
A typical day as an analytical chemist could involve analyzing matter in a lab or designing instruments for measurements. And because many regulations restrict the quantity of one or more chemicals, you’ll also find analytical chemistry work with the marketing and legal teams of food, beverage, and pharmaceutical companies.
Other career paths include quality assurance, forensic science, government regulatory agencies and environmental work.
Biochemistry combines biology and chemistry to study chemical processes specifically as they pertain to living organisms. While that may sound reminiscent of organic chemistry, there is a distinction to be made: all life is carbon-based, but not all carbon-based compounds are alive. So, biochemistry is related to organic and inorganic chemistry, but it is a separate discipline.
Biochemists work to understand and control chemicals found in the brains, bodies and other systems of living beings. If you specialize in biochemistry, you’ll likely become familiar with subjects like heredity, disease, molecular biology and neurochemistry.
Biochemistry jobs exist in agriculture, pharmacology, nutrition and physiology, as well as the medical fields.
As the name suggests, physical chemistry blends together chemistry and physics to create an entirely different field. Chemical reactions are interactions between atoms and molecules. Physical chemists are interested in the physical properties and behaviors of these minute particles when they react.
Work in this subfield of chemistry is about exploring what goes on “under the hood” of a chemical reaction. As such, there’s an emphasis on the use of scientific instruments, computer modeling and statistical analysis. Physical chemists often split their time between the office and the lab, working equally with theoretical math and hands-on with chemical materials.
Physical chemistry applies to most industries, and many physical chemists end up supervising research and working with business managers within their organizations.
Other Skills You’ll Learn in Chemistry
Aside from an understanding of chemical processes, completing a chemistry degree program will prepare you with other skills, such as:
- Problem-solving and critical thinking – Chemistry exists at the boundary of creativity and critical thought. Solving complex chemical problems tests both sides of your brain, and by the end of your chemistry degree, you’ll be a problem-solving pro.
- How to carry out and present research – Not only will you have to gather data in the lab, but you’ll also have to present it to fellow students and professors. You’ll have plenty of practice with public speaking in your courses.
- Communication in group settings – Your interactions with others will go beyond presenting. In school and in your chosen field, you’ll work with a diverse team of people from various disciplines. Your time as a chemistry student will teach you how to communicate effectively with them.
- Job safety and ethics – The safe handling of chemicals is of the utmost importance; learning chemistry teaches you how to identify a safe workplace and what to do in the event of a regulatory violation. You’ll also explore the moral responsibilities of chemical manufacturers.
- Time management – Studying chemistry involves a lot of reading and practical lab work. You’ll have to quickly master the art of time management, as your busy schedule will likely follow you into the professional world.
Getting Started with a Chemistry Degree
Chemistry is a wide-ranging discipline that encompasses math, research, and more. And although there is a theoretical side to chemistry, much of your education will come from firsthand, practical experience. That’s why it’s vital to study chemistry at a school with talented faculty, a comprehensive curriculum, and proper facilities.
Whether you plan to major or minor in chemistry, look for a school like North Central College. In their advanced lab, you’ll learn through hands-on experience with knowledgeable professors as early as your first year. They will l help prepare you for a fulfilling career in chemistry—be it organic, physical, analytical, or otherwise.
Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 11 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.
ACS Approval Program. American Chemical Society. (n.d.). Retrieved October 6, 2021, from https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/policies/acs-approval-program.html
Organic Chemistry. American Chemical Society. (n.d.). Retrieved October 6, 2021, from https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/careers/chemical-sciences/areas/organic-chemistry.html