Our guide to chemistry
Hotcourses Editor

Our guide to chemistry

First published date December 04 2013 Amended date December 04 2013

Chemistry evolved from the medieval practice of alchemy. Alchemists sought the philosopher’s stone so they could turn lead into gold. They also tried to create an elixir of life, granting immortality. So since its roots chemistry has tried hard to improve the lot of man. And this has not really changed. Chemists today transform the world around us into wondrous novel things and they are powering medical and technological developments that are extending lives - though, admittedly, not eternally. Chemistry courses are exciting, fun and equip you to make the world a better place.


Where could a chemistry course lead?

As with all science courses, completing a chemistry course opens up a diversity of avenues. It shows an employer that you can collect data, digest it and draw your own conclusions. It shows that you can grasp complicated theories, mathematical principles and some brain-straining ideas.

A chemistry course might lead to a career in one of the many branches of chemistry, some of which are outlined below.

Biochemistry is the study of chemicals and reactions within living systems like you and me. Biochemistry is invaluable to medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine, and is in itself a huge area. Like a Russian doll, within biochemistry you find the sciences of molecular biology, immunochemistry and neurochemistry – to name a few!

Environmental chemists seek answers to questions like, how can we prevent your shower gel from contaminating a nearby stream? What is the safest and most efficient energy alternative to replace oil and gas? Or the most environmentally friendly way to get rid of waste? Environmental chemists strive to reduce the impact chemicals have on the environment.

Forensic chemists use chemistry skills to help solve crimes. A single strand of hair or a drop of dried blood could provide the evidence needed to solve a hideous crime. DNA is becoming an increasingly common form of identification, so forensic chemistry is a rapidly growing field.

All this proves that a chemistry course could provide a route to a fascinating career – and one not necessarily confined to a lab!


What do you do on a chemistry course?

Typical chemistry courses involve a mixture of lectures, tutorials, computing and lab work. Chemistry is a broad subject that overlaps with geology, physics and mathematics so you might study a variety of topics. You can expect to learn about the fundamentals of chemistry, including atomic structure, chemical reactivity and the properties of materials and states. You might delve into spectroscopy (the study of light and radiation) or electrochemistry, thermodynamics or crystal architecture.

If you choose to take a university degree course, it will typically last three years. In the final year you will be expected to conduct a research project, which often leads to publication in scientific literature.


How can you choose the right chemistry course for you?

Because chemistry is such a vast subject it is important that before choosing a chemistry course you find out exactly what the course involves. Make sure the course matches your interests. There will be a course out there that suits you, so make sure you find it.

If you already have a grounding in chemistry, you might choose to specialise in a particular field such as medicinal chemistry, analytical chemistry or nanotechnology.


What kind of person do you need to be?

To make the most of a chemistry course you must be:

·         fascinated, intrigued and exhilarated by the world around you.

·         eager to further your understanding and, in turn, our understanding of the universe.

·         prepared to study – and not be discouraged by – challenging subjects like physics, statistics and mathematics.

·         happy to spend a certain amount of time in labs.

·         a good team worker because a lot of chemistry research requires collaboration between chemists from many different fields.


 Andy Roast took a chemistry course. Let’s see what he has to say…

Where did you study? Imperial College London

What was the best thing about the course? The lab time. While the many hours in labs were a drain on time and energy, there was a real ‘we're all in this together’ atmosphere among fellow students. Everyone helped each other out, providing hints and tips. Practical experience is also very useful when applying for a job - the experiences you gain in time management, decision making and analytical thinking are a great addition to a CV. 

What's the hardest thing? I have to say the lab work again. It really is a drain, but it prepares people well for industry – many people go on to work for chemical or pharmaceutical companies.

What's the strangest thing you did on the course? In one synthesis lab we made silicone gel - the same stuff used in breast implants. This made a great bouncy ball and we bounced it around the lab (forgetting that we had to analyse it and getting lab dirt all over the product). 


By Nick Kennedy

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