The Department of Chemistry recognizes that there are a large number of students taking our introductory courses who have yet to decide on what major to pursue. There are some perspectives for you to consider on career options for which a B.S. degree in Chemistry serves as an essential and/or solid foundation, that is, a foundation on which you can build a variety of careers.
The Chemical Industry
The business of chemistry in the USA directly generates approximately 1 million jobs. Millions more are created and supported by the industries that base their own production off of chemistry products, with nearly 37 million jobs (or 26% of total U.S. employment) in industries that depend on chemistry products, including farming, construction, plastics manufacturing, furniture manufacturing, dry cleaning services, building services, health care, food chemistry, forensics, environmental monitoring equipment and services, etc. to name just a few (http://www.americanchemistry.com). Employment opportunities for chemists include: Academics (26%); Government (7%); Chemical industry (66%); and others (librarians, writers, small business owners, etc.)
The chemical industry is a keystone of the U.S. economy, converting raw materials (oil, natural gas, air, water, metals, minerals) into more than 70,000 different products. Few goods are manufactured without some input from the chemical industry. Chemicals are used to make a wide variety of consumer goods, as well as thousands of products that are essential inputs to agriculture, manufacturing, construction, and service industries. The chemical industry itself consumes 26 percent of its output. Major industrial customers include rubber and plastic products, pharmaceuticals, textiles, apparel, petroleum refining, pulp and paper, and primary metals. The chemical industry is nearly a $1.5 trillion global enterprise, with the U.S. being the world's largest producer. There are over 170 chemical companies operating in the United States alone, and one of few American industries that records large trade surpluses every year. (Sustainability in the Chemical Industry: Grand Challenges and Research Needs - A Workshop Report(2005) National Research Council Board of Chemical Sciences and Technology)
There are more than 80,000 chemicals registered for use in the United States, and an estimated 2,000 new ones introduced each year. Modern society depends on, and greatly benefits from having most of these chemicals in the market place. According to the American Chemistry Council, “the business of chemistry [in the United States] is a $450 billion enterprise and is a key element of the nation’s economy. Chemistry is the nation’s largest exporter, accounting for ten cents out of every dollar in U.S. exports. Chemistry companies invest more in research and development than any other business sector.”(Copyright © National Academy of Sciences.)
Some perspective on biological sciences, biomedical sciences including neuroscience, and employment opportunities
The chemistry industry is a large and continuing source of employment, with the number of chemistry degrees remaining fairly constant relative to the growing number of degrees in biology. For example, data provided by the NSF shows the number of baccalaureate degrees awarded in 2004 for Biology and Chemistry were 63,892 and 9,305 respectively. Some excerpts from an article published in the September 21, 2007 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education provides some perspectives which you may find informative with regard to science career environment:
- Averaged across the sciences, it takes graduate students a half-year longer now to complete their doctorates than it did in 1987.
- In physics, nearly 70 percent of newly minted Ph.D.’s go into temporary postdoctoral positions, whereas only 43 percent did so in 2000.
- The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, or FASEB, released a report showing that the number of doctorates in the biomedical sciences had risen from just over 4,000 in the mid-1980’s to more than 7000 in 2004, with no increase in the number of tenured and tenure-track positions in academics.
- Despite a doubling in the budget of the National Institutes of Health since 1998, the chances that a young scientist might win a major research grant actually dropped over the same period (the average age of people winning their first NIH grant was 35.2 in 1970 compared to 42.9 in 2005)
- Some administrators have finally decided enough is enough with respect to doctoral students. Brown has cut its incoming class of biomedical Ph.D. students by 20 percent, and Penn slimed its class by about 12 percent. The National Institute of Mental Health has trimmed its budget for graduate training in an effort to preserve money available for research grants.
- The job market in science is now shifting faster than the graduate programs can keep up with, leading often unhappy Ph.D.’s to hunt for careers far from their academic homes where they thought their degrees would lead.
- A panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences argued for enlarging “the pipeline” of students studying science. The influential report also called for increasing support for the physical sciences which have been relatively neglected in recent decades. Congress took those recommendations to heart and enacted a law that calls for doubling the budgets of the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department’s office of science, and other divisions that support physical sciences (note that chemistry is considered a physical science).
Indeed, an article published in Nature, a prominent scientific journal, cited a report by the National Research Council which recommended that life sciences Ph.D. programs should not be expanded… In 1973, about 11% of Ph.D.s still held postdoctoral or other non-faculty jobs at universities five to six years after graduation, or were outside science all together. By 1995, that number had risen to 38%, with no evidence that the trend would improve.
Chemistry and premedical opportunities
If one considers the pre-med requirements typical of most schools, you are already well on your way to a chemistry degree over your first two years at W&M if you began your chemistry in the freshman or sophomore year. For example, the admission requirements for the Harvard Medical School are: 1. Biology: one year with laboratory experience; 2. Chemistry: two years with laboratory experience. Full year courses in general (or inorganic) and organic chemistry generally meet this requirement. ; 3. Physics: one year; 4. Mathematics: one year of calculus ; 5. Expository Writing: one year. Note that requirements 2, 3, and 4 are also required to successfully complete the chemistry major at W&M.
Pre-med students: Choosing your major
As a pre-professional student, the world is your oyster. As long as you take the required courses to support your application, you can major in any subject you choose. If you have always loved music, or are fascinated by psychology, then take on those majors. You will never again have the freedom to pursue those interests the way you can now. But before you make your choice, make sure you have all the facts. Application to medical and other professional schools is a complex process, … “Everyone” is not going to medical school, and if you want to get there, you need to check your facts.
Fiction #1: Medical schools do not accept science majors because they want to see “well-rounded” applicants. Besides, being a science major will lower my GPA so no medical school will want me.
Fact: Students majoring in mathematics and the physical sciences (the physical science category being mostly chemistry) have the highest medical school acceptance rate of any major. Being a science major works for you, not against you!
Fiction #2: Chemistry majors have to take a lot of hard courses so they don’t have time to do volunteer work, research, and other activities that help with medical school applications.
Fact: A student who has completed his or her required coursework for medical school can obtain a chemistry degree with as few as five additional courses.
Fiction #3: I’m not going to need chemistry when I get to med school.
Fact: Coursework in medical school makes extensive use of chemistry, and you can do yourself a favor by learning more of it in advance.
Here are a few reasons why a person should consider a chemistry major who has medical school aspirations:
- You might eventually want to do fundamental research in molecular areas related to medical problems. You may want to get both an MD and a PhD to pursue fundamental research work. Clearly, many medical difficulties at their foundational level are chemical/molecular problems.
- As unfortunate as the situation might be, not everyone is going to get into medical school. Chemistry is a huge industrial science and provides an enormous employment outlet. Very few biological areas are of industrial significance and impact from an economic perspective. In addition to biology being a small industrial field, biology graduates each year are more than six times the number of chemistry graduates, 64,000 versus 9,400. Chemistry can provide excellent backup options to becoming a medical doctor for wage-earning careers.
- You might want to express your interest in the life sciences areas at the molecular level. Chemistry is an excellent foundation for this. An undergraduate major in chemistry followed by specialization in a molecular science program at the graduate level is a common route to expressing a molecular life science interest.
As a chemistry major, you can take several biochemical courses in the department (Biochemistry 414, Advanced Biochemistry 415, and Biochemistry Laboratory 420), and you may do research with several of the chemistry faculty who have biochemical and molecular biology research interests. This approach will lead to an American Chemical Certified Degree in Biochemistry (minors in Biochemistry are available as well). In general, a chemistry major is an excellent major for premed students, and it keeps many other options open should a person eventually choose not to go to medical school or perhaps should not be accepted for medical studies.
A few concluding comments
We have only one paramount goal for the chemistry curriculum, and that is to help students become successful in achieving their career goals. And, indeed, William and Mary students have an exceptional record of accomplishment after earning their baccalaureate degree.
The chemistry program for undergraduates at William and Mary receives continuing national recognition. For the 2004-05 academic year, the department ranked 22nd overall for the total number of majors (57) and 5th for the number of American Chemical Society certified degrees (49) out of 634 schools nationwide with certified ACS programs. This is noteworthy given the overall size of the W&M undergraduate program (~5500) compared to the other schools in the top five, including the U. of Texas, U. of North Carolina, U. of California-San Diego, and the U. of Michigan. We ranked sixth overall nationwide from 1989-2000 for the total number of ACS certified degrees.
Research opportunities are made available to any major desiring such an experience. Independent undergraduate research is regarded highly by industry, graduate schools, and medical schools. While research is not required to obtain the chemistry degree, roughly 85-90 percent of our majors elect to participate in chemical research. How is it that William and Mary’s chemistry program can sustain such vigor? That is related to two items – first, the exceptional students that we have and the camaraderie that they build with each other, and second, the fact that the chemistry faculty care intensely about the progress and well being of our students.
William and Mary chemistry majors can do great things upon graduation. The vast majority continue into post-baccalaureate graduate and professional programs in chemistry and medicine, and they attend the finest graduate and medical schools in the country. Chemistry has been described as the “central science” and serves as a foundational major for many different careers. These careers include teaching at secondary and college levels, and research in academia, industry, and government. More broadly, chemistry careers encompass management of research and development, chemical sales, agricultural products such as herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, environmental chemistry, food and flavor chemistry, forensic chemistry, hazardous waste management, materials science, medicinal and pharmaceutical chemistry, petroleum chemistry, polymers and synthetic materials, pulp and paper chemistry, science writing, water chemistry, and others. Since much of America’s industry is technical in nature, a chemistry major is also a good background to legal areas such as patent and environmental law and to an M.B.A. degree. Each year we have individuals, often several, who pursue post-baccalaureate degrees in law and business. For example, James Comey, the 2008 Charter Day speaker and of national legal prominence, was a William and Mary chemistry major, and three recent alumni were accepted into the Harvard Law School.
Graduate programs in chemistry or similar disciplines are typically quite eager to accept our students into their programs. The Committee on Professional Training of the American Chemical Society recently reported that the average time required to complete a Ph.D. in chemistry was slightly over five years based on some 1000 respondents. The quality of W&M students works to the advantage of usually taking less than five years to complete a Ph.D. Also, remember that in chemistry graduate programs, all of your tuition and fees are normally waived, and you receive a salary/stipend ranging from $20-30,000 for living expenses. For the vast majority of students, the degree can be completed without incurring any additional debts for your education.
Most particularly, a chemistry foundation, that is, a B.S. degree in chemistry provides strong access to careers in the molecular areas of the life sciences such as molecular biology, molecular genetics, neuroscience, and other graduate program specialties. For example, Roger D. Kornberg recently won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry as a member of the Stanford Medical School faculty in the Department of Structural Biology. Professor Kornberg, however, was not educated as a biologist; rather he earned a B.S. degree in Chemistry from Harvard and a Ph.D. degree in Chemistry from Stanford. Chemistry can be a most helpful foundation for those interested in the molecular dimensions of biology and neuroscience.
We hope some enlightening perspectives have been provided with regard to considering chemistry as your major discipline. Please feel free to talk to any chemistry faculty if you have any questions concerning the chemistry curriculum and career options.