Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Chemistry vs Physics Major?

  1. Nov 12, 2008 #1
    I'm currently a freshman student a local community college, where I'm taking some liberal arts classes to transfer to a university. I've taken AP Chemistry, AP Calculus, and Physics in high school, and I liked them all. Because of this, however, I'm at a crossroads as to what I should major in. After thinking it over for the past few weeks, I can't decide what I should major in. I like physics a lot because I think it's beautiful how physical phenomena can be represented mathematically...it just blows my mind. With a physics degree, I would have a lot of opportunities. I could go to graduate school and study the different fields of physics, or get a masters in engineering if I wanted a more applied job, or I could go into law, or medicine.

    The downside, however, is that I'm not sure how interested in theoretical physics and electronics. My school's physics program requires that I take a semester on quantum mechanics, and a semester of digital and a semester of analog electronics, and a semester on linear algebra. I do not find quantum mechanics and electronics to be interesting in the least bit, and I don't particularly like what little linear algebra I've been exposed to. Another important downside is the difficulty of the subject. As of now, I'm interested in medical school. Although it could be argued that the difficulty level between physics and chemistry is more of a personal issue, I'm going to go with the popular notion that physics is more difficult. With a lower GPA I may not get into a medical school, or even be accepted into a graduate school program, which would be very bad, as I've read that job prospects for physics students aren't particularly good.

    On the chemistry side, I've heard that it's easier to get a higher GPA in chemistry, which would be important for medical or law school if I chose to attend either. With a chemistry degree, I could get a job directly out of school if I chose to do so. I could also continue my education with graduate school, but my options are more limited. I couldn't, for example, decide to study plasma physics with a bachelors in chemistry.

    I guess the trade off is:

    physics - more interesting, harder, less jobs with bachelors


    chemistry - little less interesting, easier, more jobs available

    Like I said, I still can't really decide on either. I'd very much appreciate some insight from a different perspective.


    Another thing I forgot...a physics major requires more credits when I fit in pre-medical courses. Physics + pre-medical is 110 credits, while Chemistry + pre-medical is 100 credits.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 12, 2008 #2
    i would go with chemistyr. it's a lot more conceptual and less mathematical. Quantum Mechanics will get extremely borign for you, because it'll be ALL math. It wont be fun math either. You'll prolly have to prove some mathematical relationship that will make you say "wtf was the point of this?" Very little concepts. Even if you liked Calculus BC, you will end up hating math in physics. It won't be very midn blowing. You'll prolly need 1 yr of QM right?? It's goingto be one whole year of long tedious and boring math.

    Anyways, in my experience, physics aint all that interestign when you reach upper div.

    What about going into biology?Chemistry is pretty tough. That might hurt your chances of getting into medical school.

    Also ,remember, your interests will change when you progress through school.

    So if i were you, i'd go into chemistry. Forget physics. I would rather go into biology. it's very conceptual. or maybe biochem?
  4. Nov 12, 2008 #3
    Yes, I'm thinking the same way. I really like classical mechanics and I find the concepts of upper level topics to be interesting (nuclear, plasma, optics, etc)...but some of the classes I need to take for undergraduate are just horrible. The problem is that I'm fascinated with some topics (nuclear/plasma/optics/classical mechanics/others)...but I can't decide if it's worth it to suffer through a year of electronics and a semester of quantum mechanics!

    I like biology but enough to major in it.
  5. Nov 13, 2008 #4
    Where can I find a list of what different chemical disciplines actually do? I've looked up organic/inorganic/physical/analytical, but it's just a jumble of technical words to me.
  6. Nov 13, 2008 #5
    I think you should try quantum mechanics out. It's useful for both chemists and physicists. If you're going study chemistry, don't you want to be able to better understand how things work on the microscopic level. Quantum mechanics can give you a better understanding of that. I guess since you're real goal is to get into medical school, you need to worry about grades so keep that in mind when you're making your decision. By the way, graduate schools care more about research and less about GPA, and if you want to go to a research oriented medical school, you'll probably want to have some research under your belt.

    cdotter, I suggest looking up chemistry under wikipedia and scrolling down to sub-disciplines. Of course, I never use wikipedia when I'm doing actual research, but it's useful if you need a quick definition.
  7. Nov 13, 2008 #6
    I like the concepts of quantum mechanics but I don't think the mathematics behind it will be fun...but who knows, I might be completely wrong! I know for sure that I absolutely hate electronics labs, and the program requires two semesters worth. I'm really interested in nuclear, optics, nanotechnology, and atomic physics, but I'm trying to decide if it's worth suffering through electronics classes to study these (if I decide against medical school, that is).
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2008
  8. Nov 13, 2008 #7
    Mostly to do with carbon and hydrogen and oxygen. Probably the area you want to be good at for med school. It's very closely related to biology. Also a lot of synthesis of chemicals involved.

    Anything not included in organic. From experience, mostly a study of metals, especially transition metals.

    This branch tries to explain what happens during a reaction including but not limited to: how much heat is given off, whether the reaction will create more products or reactants, whether using a catalyst is possible, how the rate of reaction changes with the amount of reactant you put in, etc. Also, it tries to explain what a chemical bond is. It's an overlap with physics and this is where knowledge of quantum will help. Can be quite maths intensive too.

    Think CSI labs. You've got a sample. Can you tell what's in it? You've got a big protein. Can you tell what the order of amino acids is? You've got DNA. Can you tell if it matches someone's DNA?

    There's also computational chemisty but you're probably not interested. =P
  9. Nov 13, 2008 #8
    I started out in Chem, and switched to Physics. (Recall: almost everyone switches majors once!) Chances are, if you are in one major, you SHOULD be taking at least a few classes in the other department, so that should help you make up your mind if it's just between those two (I'd still recommend coming in as SOMETHING, not "undecided"). I ended up still completing a minor in Chem, and adding a minor in Math.

    My sister went to med school (on an M.D./Ph.D. program); she doubled in undergrad in biology and chemistry... granted pre-med programs weren't around at the time; but I'm sure what she did was better than pre-med!
  10. Nov 15, 2008 #9
    What's a good physics textbook for a college freshman? I've taken AP calculus so I'm familiar with it, but I don't want something completely over my head. Yes, I've tried reading the Feynman lectures but I didn't like them. The book provides no examples or practice problems and it's a little too wordy for me. I'd like a book with a lot of examples that I can visualize.
  11. Nov 15, 2008 #10
    Halliday-Resnick-Walker. A really good text.

    I've also heard that University Physics is good. And some like Giancoli. Or Knight which is a bit more 'visual' but I found it too shallow.
  12. Nov 17, 2008 #11
    After reading some I still can't decide. Parts of physics are interesting, but I can't stand others. I guess I'll have to take some classes and find out through my own experiences...
  13. Nov 17, 2008 #12
    Why not do both? :biggrin:

    Nah, but seriously;

    I just don't get the feel of you wanting to do science. To actually stand in a lab and get your hands dirty? Or being a mechanic on faulty lab equipment that just keeps breaking down until you know the equip better than your girlfriend...

    The thing is, they have very similar ways of doing science (chem and physics), the real big thing between them is that they have different approaches to mathematics. Chemistry is more of book learning to actually get to know anything (especially org.chem) and physics is more about maths than anything else really. And chemists are often more (at least mathematical/theoretical chemists) inclined to do molecular physics (bonds and stuff like that) because that is the mainstay of their game. for example (maybe not a good one but still a sneakpeak).

    Then you have the applications, physics is about long-into-the-future-applications. Chemistry is about the near-future-applications. This interfere with funding, getting a job, getting the job done etc.

    One thing I know is really REALLY unique is a chemist who knows his math better than a physicist. If I had done my education all over again, I would've taken a pure chemistry course with as much physical chem, stat mech, quantum mech and a bachelor in maths beside it. It's like the ultimate combo for science. Or at least, my five euro-cents. :approve:
  14. Nov 17, 2008 #13
    I don't like chemistry labs (at least in high school) because it's been done a million times before. I'm sure every chemistry major has done the electrolysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen. While it's interesting for a bit, I can't see myself doing labs that recreate something I've already learned from a textbook. I really like the idea of doing original experimentation in a lab, though, but it seems like most of undergraduate chemistry is just recreating things that are already understood. For example, I'm really interested in bioluminescence, but my school doesn't offer opportunities for undergraduate chemistry/biochemistry research.

    Then again, I'm not fond of some topics in physics. I'm not interested in electromagnetism (what little I understand, that is), and electronics. However, I like the mathematics behind it, but not enough to want to do a full on math degree.

    Anyways...you can see why I'm so confused because I like/dislike parts of each....
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2008
  15. Nov 17, 2008 #14
    Eh, so you don't think superconducting educational laborations or stuff like that have been done a million times before? Believe me, they have.

    But I tried to interpret what you said about chemistry being old science. Yeah, some parts of it is really old and purely for application. Like chem-engineering (if you stay away from physics and just programming a reactor/separation chamber or something like that).

    "I can't see myself doing labs that recreate something I've already learned from a textbook." When I saw this, I shrugged, getting a bit eagerbeaver are we? Maybe you should try to calm down life a bit, and ask yourself "Do I really want to do a lot of really boring things, to get to the cool parts?". If the answer is yes, then you should be in science. Otherwise I recommend some GPA-pumping course to get into law-school. ( I hope you don't take that in the wrong way, but I feel that men of science (and women) need discipline, a work ethic and some kind of "I wanna get stuff done"-attitude)

    But then to discuss the subjects in depth. Chemistry becomes physics and physics becomes chemistry in some areas. Like materials, computational science, quantum transport, heat transport etc.

    I myself have become less infatuated with some parts of chemistry (like org.chem, I hate that crap), while I am very much in love with other parts of chemistry, like quantum chemistry, which is not physics, and definitely not chemistry.

    I also am completely blown away by materials physics.

    I will prolly major in some nanophysics (very chem-related), but my ChemE-background will land me the jobs like extra spice on my resume.

    But I hope you choose what you want to do and then stick to it.
  16. Jul 25, 2009 #15
    you were misinformed.
  17. Jul 27, 2009 #16
    If you don't like Linear Algebra, I don't think you'll like Quantum Mechanics. At all.
  18. Jul 27, 2009 #17
    sometimes you have to do what you dont want to do to do what you have to do
  19. Jul 27, 2009 #18
    What's wrong with linear algebra? If there is a specific reason for not liking linear algebra, that might help answer your question... For example, some people dislike linear algebra because they find matrix computations to be tedious, whereas others dislike it because it's a little more abstract than calculus, and it is often the first exposure to write mathematical proofs, which can be troublesome to some students.

    Also, I might be the only one who think this way, but if you are scared of GPA, you can't get much done in college, especially if you're planning to major in chemistry or physics. Both of these majors are pretty demanding (I believe), and you need to be courageous sometimes when it comes to taking demanding courses. And I'm not so sure if chemistry is any easier than physics--who knows, it might be harder than physics for some people.
  20. Jul 27, 2009 #19
    Yeah chemistry is harder... Can't mathematically deduce much about it >.<

    But if you don't like electronics or doing labs then chemistry/physics are not for you.
  21. Oct 10, 2009 #20
    I agree with Feldoh. I'm only in Yr 11, but I find chemistry harder than physics. I want to be a physicist myself, so I'm a little biased, but I would advise physics from what I understand, as it is more useful generally than chemistry. It is also far more interesting in my opinion, and with an enjoyment in mathematics, it will be much more enjoyable than chemistry. I think doing a more interesting subject is worth the increased difficulty, as you will be more motivated to achieve in it, and no doubt, score more highly.

    The exception being medicine - chemistry would be more advantageous here, and is often a pre-requisite for medicine.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook