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Physics Physics or chemistry?

  1. Jul 26, 2011 #1
    Hi PF,
    I'm in my second semester in chemistry, and i'm feeling that i am not getting as much physics as i would like and it's based a lot in experimental works instead of theoretical.
    i want to study theoretical chemistry, but it seems like going to a physics graduation would be better and get me there faster... I've read a lot of things like relativistic quantum chemistry, quantum physics and quantum chemistry (even though i don't understanding it).
    I've looked at both and i don't see how i can learn quantum chemistry if i don't know quantum mechanics (by the way, it's impossible for me to do chemistry and get classes in quantum mechanics or atomic physics, because i need a lot of other classes as a prerequisite).

    i'm really considering changing to physics, but i want to know if it's possible to study theoretical chemistry with a physics degree or should i stay in chemistry?

    sorry if i wrote something wrong and thank you in advance. :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 27, 2011 #2


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    My feeling is that it's quite possible. Especially if you take physical chemistry in addition to your physics degree.

    I started as a chemistry major, took a year of physical chemistry, and switched to physics. The quantum I took from the physics department made p-chem look like kindergarten quantum!

    But I'd advise you to discuss your concerns with a physical chemistry professor.
  4. Mar 1, 2012 #3
    I am in an exact same dilemma. I find quantum mechanics fascinating and want to do my PhD in chemistry. Considering field is theoretical chemistry/quantum chemistry or something math related-I am not interested in synthesis and things like that. I talked to my TA who is in theoretical chemistry and noticed he has a little envy for physics.

    I am wondering if I'd be better off in physics undergrad, considering the skills and depth of knowledge of quantum mechanics and then, apply for Chem Grad Program.

    Anyway, I have taken Gen. Chem 1&2 and O. Chem 1, so it shouldn't be too hard to catch up with chemistry stuff in grad school, right?

    Would P. Chem offer me any knowledge that I can't get in Modern Physics and Quantum Mechanics courses from Physics Department?
    If no, I would rather go do my physics degree before it is too late. Plus, physics includes a ton of useful math skills and other goods like relativity.

    One thing I am concerned is how hard the math will be in physics? I am in calculus 1 right now and so far has no difficulty whatsoever (actually quite easy, though). Can it be a better judgement of how well I might do in advanced math and physics stuff?
  5. Mar 2, 2012 #4
    I originally started doing Chemistry at university (for a bureaucratic reason my options were limited to chemistry and engineering degrees) and although I had a long-standing interest in it, I quickly realized that I was paying more attention to the physics aspects in the courses than the chemistry. I liked lab work but I felt like I'd rather be studying physics most of the time. After my 2nd year I had the opportunity of switching to physics and did so, and don't regret my decision.

    My thoughts are that if you're certain you want to do chemistry & lots of lab work, stick with chemistry. If you have the slightest inkling towards physics, then try physics instead of trying to convince yourself you'll get to do as much physics as you'd like in chemistry (as I tried to and wasn't satisfied).

    I definitely see a lot of theoretical physicists doing "theoretical chemistry", making computer models of molecular interactions, working out bonding energies, etc. at my university. So if that's the bit of chemistry you like the most (like myself), you'll probably be making a good decision (and have a lot of other options available too).
  6. Mar 2, 2012 #5
    I'll be going to graduate school in Fall for theoretical chemistry actually so maybe my perspective can help.

    I started as a chemistry major and switched to Math and Applied science where I took a lot of courses in physical chemistry and physics. If I had to choose between chemistry and physics, however, I would unequivocally choose physics (Although, interestingly enough, my quantum chemistry class was massively more difficult than quantum mechanics in the physics department, most of chemistry is too light though).

    Don't underplay labs though, even if you want to do theory. You want to skip organic, analytical and inorganic labs, sure, that's cool but even for a theorist it is good to have exposure to experimental techniques. If you go physics, take a p chem lab too.

    All in all: If I were in your position, I would go the physics route but, I would also take physical chemistry, computational chemistry (if offered), molecular spectroscopy (if offered) and a physical chemistry lab, through the chemistry department. Also, take a course on inorganic chemistry. It's so much fun. The group theoretic approach to constructing MOs is just awesome.

    The math you use as an UG is really not that bad. If you learn your calculus well, you'll be completely fine. If you learn linear algebra well too, you'll be great.

    I just noticed this was actually pretty old.
    Last edited: Mar 2, 2012
  7. Mar 2, 2012 #6


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    I did my diploma in chemistry but switched for my thesis to theoretical molecular physics. Obviously it is possible to do theoretical chemistry with both backgrounds. Nowadays doing a quantum mechanical calculation on a molecule does not even require that you understand too well the method or the code you are using. So for a chemist theoretical work can be something like doing experiments on a computer instead of a work bench and involve about the same amount of routine work.
    On the other hand as a physicist it is probably easier to specialize into methods or coding.
    In either case the available jobs after university will be quite limited. As a physicist chances to work as a theorist (not necessarily a chemical one) are probably higher.

    But take also in mind that - as nowadays already buying a test tube is regarded at as a potential act of terrorism - the experimental skills (or only the lab experience) are much harder to obtain once you are outside of university than accquiring a good level in theoretical physics from a book.
  8. Mar 2, 2012 #7


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    Physics vs chemistry is a tough decision, with advantages and disadvantages to both sides. I myself got a diploma in physics and joined a quantum chemistry group for PhD (specializing in method development). While I think that my physics background is very helpful for all the method and derivation related stuff (quantum mechanics, E&M, stat mech, etc), my knowledge of actual synthetic and analytic chemsitry is clearly not adequate for understanding what is a interesting or a not-interesting subject for theoretical investigations. For example, if someone gave me a random synthetic Nature paper and a fourth-rate synthetic chemistry paper, I could not tell the difference. That means that if you are specializing in physics, you will need to work together with actual chemists in order to stay on the right track.
  9. Mar 2, 2012 #8
    Naturally, the ideal solution is to do a dual degree or concentration in chemistry and physics, if feasible. Otherwise....it's really up to you. I know people from a variety of backgrounds who ended up as theoretical chemists. In fact, I know a surprising number of former experimental chemists who ended up as theorists (they claim theory is easier than experiment, but I think they're just trying to soften me up so as to try their suggested experiments). ;)
  10. Mar 2, 2012 #9
    theoretical chemistry is better because labs for chemistry are a pain in the butt!
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