Despite common perceptions of chemistry as nerdy, difficult, intractable, or dangerous, chemistry is a discipline that affects every aspect of our lives. Cars, smartphones, drugs, and art are only possible because their developers understand chemistry. It is estimated that over 96% of all manufactured goods are directly touched by chemistry. Biology, metabolism, and evolution function because of chemistry. Renewable energy relies strongly on sound chemistry. Laws and policies affect our exposure to and dependence on chemistry. Really, we can't afford not to know chemistry.
Not only is chemistry incredibly relevant to our lives, but it also addresses fundamental questions about the nature of matter. Consider two common substances: a pencil and a diamond ring. Pencil lead, commonly known as graphite, is soft, easily breakable, and an opaque black. Diamond, on the other hand, is the hardest naturally occurring material, nearly indestructible, and completely transparent. Yet both graphite and diamond consist solely of carbon. Chemistry shows us how the arrangement of carbon atoms can make these two seemingly similar materials behave so radically differently. Chemistry answers questions like: how does ibuprofen make my headache go away? What is the science underlying climate change? If nothing sticks to Teflon, how do they get Teflon to stick to the pan? Chemistry, like all rigorous academic disciplines, requires real work. But the payoff is the acquisition of some fascinating and practical knowledge.
What can I do with chemistry?
So you're convinced—chemistry doesn't sound so bad and, perhaps, even somewhat fun. What can one do with chemistry?
Get a job.
In 2012, companies invested $57 billion dollars into research and development. There are about 85,000 jobs in the US directly involving chemistry and another 784,000 jobs in related fields. That is a large area for finding a job and, in fact, the unemployment rate for chemists in March 2012 was nearly half that of the general population. Furthermore, the median salary (all levels, not starting salary) for chemists is $92,000/year. If developing new products and influencing practical and product-oriented research sound interesting, choose chemistry.
Go to graduate school.
Your research and courses in chemistry at W&M have been excellent—of course you'd want to learn more! Many people choose to develop their talents further by going to graduate school. In addition to a broader and deeper education, median salaries greatly increase with education—for a B.S. it's $74,000/year, while a Ph.D. earns $101,000/year. A Ph.D. opens the door to careers in both industry and academics, incorporating research and teaching in different ways. In any event, grad school will be paid for. Graduate students teach, usually as a TA, and do research, so the school waives tuition and pays a stipend—typically $20,000-30,000/year. Typically, one receives a Ph.D. in chemistry without incurring debt. An added bonus: W&M is an excellent undergraduate program and has high grad school acceptance rates when applying to appropriate programs; and our students usually receive a Ph.D. in approximately five years.
Go to medical school.
You know you want to be a doctor, but you really like chemistry? Chemistry is a great major for going on to med school. Not only can chemistry launch a medical-research-oriented career (think M.D./Ph.D.), but just getting into med school may be easier as a chemistry major. The average matriculation rate for all applicants in 2012 was 43.1% with an MCAT score of 31.2, while those in the physical sciences had a matriculation rate of 48.4% and an MCAT score of 32.4. And the idea that science classes lower your GPA, making it harder to get into med school is only a myth—physical sciences had the same average GPA as everyone else, both for the applicant pool (3.54) and the accepted pool (3.67). Don't forget, a chemistry major at W&M covers almost all of the required courses for med school. Though biology isn't required, the other required courses for a chemistry major cover the chemistry, math, physics, and writing requirements, and biochemistry is an elective for the major. Not only is chemistry useful in getting into med school, but also in med school, too, when it comes to talking about pharmacology and metabolism. Chemistry is a great start to a successful career in medicine.
I don't know what to do!
You like chemistry, but none of the above options sounds ideal? No problem. With critical reasoning, data analysis, and scientific interpretation skills, there are lots of alternate careers for chemists. Careers in consulting help others solve problems related to their chemical research. There are government positions in chemistry, either doing research lab or influencing science policy. Technology transfer and patent law offer rewarding careers for those who want to help turn research into cutting-edge products. Science writing is also an option, bridging the gap between highly technical scientific data and information that is accessible and persuasive to a wide audience. As a fallback, knowing lots of colorful party tricks and how to make explosions is a sure winner for birthday parties. There are endless options with chemistry!
How do I get started?
Want to study chemistry? Come talk to us. Any of our faculty would love to help you get started and make a plan that works for you. Our main office is in ISC 1039 or contact us by [[chemistry, email]].
All statistics are for 2012 and come from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the American Chemistry Council, the American Chemistry Society, the National Science Foundation, and the American Association of Medical Colleges. Updated December 2013.