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Chemistry or Chemical Physics? A story about a man and his dilemma.

  1. Apr 20, 2014 #1
    Hey all,

    Lately I've been distracted by a big decision. I am a chemistry major at a small liberal arts college. And boy do I love chemistry! Doing research in the lab is really fun, and I enjoy thinking about chemical phenomena. But I feel like I've been cheating on chemistry lately. I've always found physics attractive, and I've gotten really into her over the past few months...I'm worried that I'm falling in love. I feel guilty, but it's oh so sweet. I don't know if it's the thrilling feel that I get when I think of her, or the novelty of our new relationship together.

    I've been a chemistry major for almost four years now and I'll be applying to Ph.D. programs next semester. I've established a reputation in the chemistry department at my school, and I've been doing research in an inorganic chemistry lab for a few years now. My current area of research relies heavily on the foundations of physics. I love that about inorganic chemistry. I can get away with thinking about special relativity or quantum mechanics without being accused of neglecting my work.

    But lately the question I have been asking myself is, "am I more into the physics of chemistry than the chemistry itself?" I am a little worried to hear the answer to that question, because I fear that the answer is yes. I guess I fear that people will tell me that I've wasted my time, let alone their time (faculty that have taken their time to work closely with me), or even that I've chosen the wrong path. But I don't think it has been a waste doing the work that I have done. It has prepared me well for a few different paths.

    I've considered physical chemistry, but I don't think that I want to think of physics problems from the chemist's point of view, I think that I'd rather think of chemistry from the physicist's point of view.

    I'm into math. I dig calculus. Diff. Eq. excites me, as does physical chemistry. And out of what I've considered, both condensed matter physics and chemical physics seem intriguing to say the least.

    What do you guys think? Help dig this answer out of me, it's in here somewhere.
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2014
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 21, 2014 #2
    I used to be in the same boat but I switched to mechanical engineering after I honed my interests a bit. The reason I did this was because mechanical engineering and materials science are very interrelated, and I am interested in physics of materials (from the atomic to macroscopic level).

    I suggest you check out Materials Science and Engineering programs. Chemistry majors are more than eligible to apply, we have many chemistry majors who came into the PhD program at my school. MSE involves a lot of inorganic chemistry, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, classical mechanics, and physics in general.

    Aside from that, you would be happy to know that Chemical Physics is chemistry from physicist's perspective. If you want to look at chemistry this way, then go for that!
  4. Apr 21, 2014 #3


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    I think the first questions you need to really ask yourself are related to what your career goals are? Academia? Industry? What kind of problems do you wish to focus on? After you figure this out, you might have a better idea which program will lend itself more to whatever you decide.
  5. Apr 21, 2014 #4
    I have actually considered materials science, and I think it would be a very interesting field. I talked to my research mentor today and he seems to think that any flavor of inorganic chemistry could suit my interests. Of what he mentioned, spectroscopy is pretty cool to me. I will look further into materials science also.

    It's a bit early for me to assuming that I will go one way or another, but I could see myself enjoying academia or industry. I have a wide variety of research interests and I have yet to refine them! But as I said to cytochrome, I think that spectroscopy is very cool. Heavily founded from the roots of quantum mechanics and a very thought dominant field. I like this idea of thought over synthesis because I worry that I will never get my Ph.D. if my work is directly related to my lab hours. I'm always thinking.
  6. Apr 22, 2014 #5


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    OP, I work in chemical physics now (which is usually done in chemistry departments), after I originally got a MSc in physics. Since chemical physics is very much halfway between chemistry and physics, both backgrounds are very useful in different situations, and de facto anyone entering the field has to learn a lot from the other one. So if chemical physics is really what you want to do, a strong background in inorganic chemistry can only help. In particular, it will tell you what are the right problems to solve...[1]

    However, you need to be aware of what this field encompasses, and that the skill profile required to succeed in this field are very different from the skill profile required in many other branches (maybe except for analytical chemistry, if you go into the experimental domain). For example, an excellent organic chemist might make a horrible quantum chemist due to a lack of programming background, and an excellent quantum chemist might make a horrible organic chemist due to poor work organization... Additionally, it can be hard to convince other chemists that what you are doing is indeed relevant to the field of chemistry as a whole and their work in particular. This becomes important in job searches, grant applications, and publications (even articles that can be easily predicted to get >200 citations in J. Chem. Phys. have a near zero chance of getting into J Am Chem Soc, for example). And of course, there is little prospect of getting a job in chemical industry with this specialization.

    So unless you are convinced that chemical physics is what you want to do as main job, staying with inorganic chemistry and looking up things later (e.g., theory) may be a good idea. One of the most influential active theoretical chemists (Frank Neese) has taken this route for example (he is originally a bio-inorganic spectroscopist and developed theory in order to interpret his experiments). Looking into other fields like analytical chemistry or materials science might also be worthwhile.

    Do not get me wrong... chemical physics is a fantastic field, both on a intellectual and practical level. And it is one of the few fields where individual persons (including graduate students) can produce extremely high impact work, if they do the right thing. But it is a risky choice.

    [1] (it is very important to solve the right problem. Many people do not get this and attack problems because they are difficult or fundamental, not because their solution would be important)
  7. Apr 22, 2014 #6
    Yes I know of Frank Neese! I used ORCA for a while to do some DFT work (I have a Mac and was struggling to dual boot with Linux, so I just installed ORCA to my Mac. I loved it!). I use Gaussian '09 now because Gauss View is a great drawing program and I found a way to get Red Hat running as a virtual OS.

    Anyways, what do you work on from day to day? Do you develop new functionals? I know there is a lot of computational chemistry involved. What specific problems do you guys tackle, and what tools do you guys use to solve them? Also, how much of an overlap is there in fields like theoretical chemistry and chemical physics? Is there a lot of computer programming involved?

    I don't want to be a computer programmer, my father does that. It's not quite my thing, but I love using computers to model my work and make predictions. I love solving the problems, but am not too big on the idea of creating the tools to solve the problems.
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