If you’re considering a graduate degree in chemistry, congratulations, you’re about to explore a fascinating realm. You’ll have a bit of decision-making before you can really get started. There are literally hundreds of options to consider, as you look at the degree you want, the discipline, and even an area of specialization.
The simple choice is between a Master’s and Doctoral degree. The Master’s degree tends to be more generalized, giving you a more thorough grounding in all disciplines of chemistry, without getting too specialized in an area. The Master of Arts may not involve a thesis project, but the Master of Science certainly will. As a result, the M.S. degree provides a taste of research, and a small amount of specialization. The Ph.D. program will be more focused from the start on a specific aspect of chemistry. While there will be some overlap with other areas, the primary focus is to specialize and perform original research, contributing to the body of chemical knowledge.
Most colleges divide chemistry into five major disciplines. They are, in no particular order, analytical chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and biochemistry. Doctoral programs let you pick your concentration, and you will work under a professor who also focuses in that area. It is not uncommon for a professor to draw from multiple disciplines, combining aspects of each to achieve his or her research goals. Without going into too much detail, the following list gives an idea of what each discipline deals with.
– Analytical chemistry develops new instruments and techniques for identification, separation, structural analysis, reaction monitoring, and other purposes. Typically, this means that analytical chemists are the ones responsible for designing the fancy “toys” of chemistry. There is a great deal of problem solving and trouble-shooting involved, as well as the actual analysis.
– Organic chemistry is a very old branch of chemistry, and still immensely important. Organic chemists strive to synthesize new (organic) molecules, find better synthetic pathways to old molecules, and understand structure, function, and reaction mechanisms of organic molecules. Organic chemists are able to apply technology, but also still rely on traditional wet chemistry methods as well. To a large extent, organic chemistry presents puzzles with known solutions. Finding the route to the solution is the challenge.
– Physical chemistry focuses primarily on how chemistry happens. Physical chemists are most interested in the energy of bonds or reactions, the kinetics governing reactions, and how molecules interact in different situations. There tends to be a great deal of mathematics involved, and physical chemistry also employs a great deal of computer modeling.
– Inorganic chemistry deals with non-organic molecules, but otherwise has a fair number of parallels with organic chemistry. It tends not to receive as much attention as other disciplines, but is still quite productive. Unlike organic chemistry, which is focused on carbon, inorganic chemistry deals with the entire periodic table. The variety is immense.
– Biochemistry is the newest of the five to be listed as a discipline, and focuses on the chemistry of life. It is provides a bridge between biology and chemistry. Biochemists are interested in structure and function of existing bio-molecules, the design of new bio-molecules, and the manipulation of existing bio-molecules.
Even within a specific discipline, areas of specialization are nearly countless. For practical purposes, the limitation is only imposed by the school and professor you choose. (Any given professor has a particular research focus, which you will contribute towards.) It is wise, with this in mind, to review what research is performed at different schools. Finding a path that is interesting to you will offer a more beneficial graduate experience on the whole. While an exhaustive list would be impossible, here are a few examples, just to whet the appetite.
– Semiconductors (inorganic)
– Viral manipulation (biochemistry)
– Chemistry of smog (analytical, physical)
– Performance fabrics (organic)
– Explosives detection (analytical)
– Fuel Cells (organic, inorganic, physical)
– Drug screening (analytical, biochemistry, organic)
At the end of the day, no two advanced chemistry degrees are likely to be the same. The experience is customized for each individual, especially once research is involved. Best of all, after obtaining that doctoral degree, chemistry offers many opportunities for post-doctoral research, and further honing and customization of your skill set. Choose well, and choose for yourself. Specialization makes you an expert, but if you become an expert in an area you dislike, it’s more difficult to cross over into a different area.