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Physics Career in Physics or Chemistry?

  1. Jul 1, 2012 #1
    Hello everyone, just joined the forum. I need some solid advice about choosing my career path, I've read some of the previous posts on the topic, but would greatly appreciate any further help!

    I'm 18 years old, at the end of high school. I love and enjoy both Physics and Chemistry, and work well in both (as well as math). I would like to do my Masters and PhD, and eventually get into research and academia. The only problem is I haven't been able to choose between Chemistry and Physics.

    Could you tell me what it's like to be a physicist and carry out research? Or, what it's like to be a chemist? (if there's anyone out there willing to answer :P)

    What are the main differences in the approaches of the 2 fields?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 11, 2012 #2
    Hi Implodable. I did my degree in Chemistry, but have a strong interest in Physics (hence why I'm on this forum). Firstly, both subjects can be very interesting so which is preferred really depends on the individual.

    Physics covers all your usual stuff - quantum mechanics, condensed matter, relativity, etc...have a flick through a course program/syllabus to get a good flavour. Physics at university is very different to high school. There tends to be a lot more mathematics, but you will study thing at a very fundamental level which can be very interesting.

    Chemistry is a very broad field that stretches from biology all the way to physics. What you study will depend very much on the course you pick so have a good look at the course program. Basically, you will do organic, inorganic and physical chemistry. Organic entails the chemistry of carbon and hydrogen - ie what we're made of. Basically it involves making useful compounds such as pharmaceuticals, polymers etc. Inorganic is the chemistry of every other element ie transition metals, lanthanides etc. This involves a bit more mathematics (but not that much) and has applications in things like hydrogen storage, superconductors and materials in general.

    Physical chemistry is basically just physics but applied to solve chemical problems. It can have quite a lot of math, but it is toned down a bit to cater for the less mathsy audience. But more advanced courses can have a lot of math. Depending on your course, you would do the same fundamental quantum as a physics undergrad. The physics quantum is done in more mathematical rigor and is more general, but the fundamentals are all studied in phys chem as well. You will also do some statistical mechanics (again less than physics, but the same fundamentals) and thermodynamics. Everything will generally have a chemical application, whereas the physics course will be more general.

    The benefit of a chemistry degree is it gives you a very good grounding in science in general. For example, it will give you the "toolkit" to understand things from fundamental biochemistry all the way to quantum mech. In fact, most modern chemistry research occurs at these borders, especially the border between bio and chem.

    I suggest you look at some course syllabuses and see which you prefer. If you like maths and are a reductionist (like looking at thing at the most fundamental level) do physics. If you like doing experiments (lab work is essential for a chemist) and broader scope look at chemistry. Also, do you want your career to be in the subject you studied? Both will require PhD level education to get anywhere in research. Outside of science, both degrees would be viewed favourably.
    Last edited: Jul 11, 2012
  4. Jul 11, 2012 #3
    Maybe try something materials related. The job prospects for certain fields in chemistry are horrendous.

    Or If I were you, I'd do chemical engineering. Much better prospects than chemistry, even if ChemE is in a bit of decline. Basically you want to do any chemE, chemistry, or materials that are not biologically, biomedically, or medically related. Many fields that are biologically related are completely oversaturated, have terrible employment prospects, or years and years of never ending post docs in academia or constant permatemp gigs at biotech firms that offer absolutley 0 job security if you're looking to go into industry.
    Last edited: Jul 11, 2012
  5. Jul 12, 2012 #4


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    Welcome to PF, implodable!

    I agree with gravenewworld - the job outlook for chemists is pretty bleak right now.

    But the good news is you don't have to decide right away. The courses you have to take for physics, chemistry, and engineering are very similar in the first year. So as you are taking your first year classes, I'd advise you to poke around to get an idea of what path you want to take. Join clubs, visit the career center, try to line up some job shadowing opportunities.

    Engineering degrees seem to be far more marketable and flexible than pure science degrees - I'd give a good consideration to engineering if I were you.
  6. Jul 12, 2012 #5
    This distinction is not so clear today, especially in fields like materials science, condensed matter physics and physical chemistry. The research might be very similar. However, there's also things that are very different like particle physics vs. biochemistry. In general, the more APPLIED you get, the more physics and chemistry start to blend into each other. The more FUNDAMENTAL you get, the less they have in common.

    I somewhat disagree with Vampyr - physics is an experimental science and most physicists need to have a strong grasp on experimental skills such as soldering circuits, operating analytical instrumentation and materials fabrication, while there's also desk chemists who work in computational chemistry. The most highly funded area of physics is experimental condensed matter.

    It is true, however, that there's more experimentally illiterate physicists than chemists and chemists are in general worse at math. Most physics experiments involve complex machinery and computer interfacing, while some chemists (though usually not physical) work with things no more sophisticated than a beaker and heat source.
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