Theoretical and Physical Chemistry

Experimental physical chemists use spectroscopy and other methods to study the properties of chemical systems, while theoretical chemists employ computer simulations to examine molecular systems. Read on to learn more about career and degree options for physical and theoretical chemists.

Is Theoretical and Physical Chemistry for Me?

Career Overview

Physical chemistry seeks to understand the physical and scientific basis of molecular properties and chemical phenomena. It can be used to understand how proteins fold, how nanostructures form and why holes in the ozone layer originated. Theoretical chemistry is a sub-field of physical chemistry that relies on computer simulations to elucidate molecular properties and interactions, such as quantum mechanical energy levels and electron transfer. An experimental or theoretical physical chemist typically holds a bachelor's degree in chemistry and/or physics and a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Physical Chemistry.

Career Options

As a qualified graduate of a formal education program, you may pursue a career as a chemist, chemical engineer or chemical technician. Additional career options in physical science and chemistry may be found in the cosmetic or pharmaceutical industries. You might also pursue work in analytical chemistry or quantum computing, or conduct groundwater analysis of pollutants.

Employment and Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in May 2013, chemists made between $41,350 and $122,830 a year, while annual salaries for chemical technicians ranged from $26,520-$71,530. As of May 2013, most materials scientists earned between $46,700 and $138,570 a year, while most postsecondary chemistry teachers earned between $41,290 and $140,740.

As reported by the BLS, the demand for chemists and materials scientists was expected to grow by a slower-than-average rate nationwide from 2012-2022, with an average increase in job openings projected for chemical technicians. By comparison, college and university teachers overall can look forward to a faster-than-average growth in opportunities from 2012-2022 (

How Can I Become a Theoretical or Physical Chemist?

Undergraduate Programs

Some 4-year colleges and universities offer bachelor's degree programs in chemistry and/or physics with a specialization or courses in theoretical and physical chemistry. Common undergraduate courses include the study of general chemistry and its quantitative foundations, organic chemistry and physical chemistry with biological applications. You'll also conduct lab work and pursue topics in electrochemistry, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics. Additional coursework in biochemistry, physics and mathematics, as well as research activities, can help make your transition to graduate work smoother.

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) Programs

Ph.D. programs in theoretical and/or physical chemistry combine class time with lab work. Graduate coursework can include topics in quantum chemistry, spectroscopy, reaction dynamics and statistical mechanics. In addition to attending seminars and teaching, you'll research and write a dissertation. Many Ph.D. graduates go on to pursue post-doctoral research or jobs in the private sector, government and academia. At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, you can supplement your major or field of study with complementary courses in chemical physics, biology, materials science and nanotechnology.

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