Why Chemistry is a Weird Career Choice

If you have not studied chemistry past the secondary school/high school level, or if you have, but have been unfortunate enough to follow a bad curriculum with a bad teacher, chances are you probably misunderstand what modern chemistry is like. No need to feel bad; I myself don’t really know what physicist do nowadays. We all are a bit ignorant.

Why is chemistry a particularly troublesome science to explain briefly? That is because of its very broad nature. Before interdisciplinarity was a thing, chemistry was riding that wave, because it had no other choice. The stereotype involving the chemist mixing solutions using test tubes or having some green solution bubble around a statement glassware setup (just as entertainment venues use statement lighting, chemists occasionally use such setups, fail, and then avoid them like the plague) is rooted somewhat in the long distant past involving alchemists trying to turn lead into gold, but mostly in the early development of chemistry as a true science, starting about 250 years ago. Great chemists discovered the elements and their combinations, invented the statement glassware, because they had to, and step by step laid the foundation of our current understanding of the world, and life in particular, as a chemical problem. But in order to do so, chemistry had to bridge the gap between physics and its concern with the particular and biology and its concern with the general. Put it differently, physics gave us the atom, biology gave us evolution theory, and chemistry had to figure out how atoms make up living creatures.

And this historical metaphor sets the precept of chemistry as fundamentally empirical: trapped between seeing and imagining, the chemist just had to try it out. And that is what chemistry is all about. Trying it out. If this is what attracts you to chemistry in the first place, before you understand much of what is going on, then you are a chemist at heart.

Why is pursuing a chemistry career in modern times a weird choice then? It has to do with money. It always does. And I don’t mean average pay, but the cost of research. Research is expensive. And the body paying for research, unlikely to be an individual, will want to see what they are getting for their money. Which means, that unless your ‘trying it out’ is contributing towards solving a commercially relevant problem, it will probably be scrapped for a different approach. Pretty much everything is ‘commercially relevant’ in one way or another. No need for us to get disgusted at the idea that money makes the world work. Thank Science! that scientific research is on the expenditure list. Humanity needs it! But the drawback is that the resulting pressure can be uncomfortable for the curious chemist who wants to do the mixing for a living.

And that is why chemistry is weird: pursuing it professionally often involves dropping attachment to its core values. The commercial issue is easy to see in the industrial setting. It is somewhat more tricky in the academic setting. The research in most such institutions is funded using public money. Again, thank Science! for the governments spending money on improving the human condition. But how is the created value assessed? I believe the answer has to do with publication. In chemistry, most of the current publication is carried out through peer-reviewed journals, which belong to a publishing house. The publisher holds the rights to the content, and sells it to anyone who needs that scientific information. And although contradictory (public money funding scientific journal publishers?), and certainly not free of flaws, this model accounts for how the economy turns over and everyone gets what they want: the scientist has created new knowledge, had it approved by his peers, and disseminated it widely; the publisher has new content to sell; the government will receive tax money in return; and only finally, sadly, chemistry, science, and humanity benefit themselves from the expanding body of knowledge.

Sounds kind of great? Let’s not forget who had to sacrifice their job satisfaction for this to work? The poor ol’ chemist, who couldn’t just ‘try it out’, but had to carry out a laborious analysis beforehand to assess the potential gain to loss ratio. And they might not be the only ones losing out: serendipitous discoveries are made less often this way, and perhaps more important, fewer chemists will want to pursue that career.

How can I help fight that? I think everyone has the right to an informed decision, and that is why I tried to create a balanced picture in this article. It is certainly not sufficient for anyone to make a decision. But I would encourage you to start thinking of all these things before you, if you happen to be in the position, find a scapegoat to vent your frustration.

And if you want to know more about what modern chemists use in the lab, it is a mixture of very simple (look up the round-bottom flask) and very complicated (look up NMR spectroscopy). We still use test tubes sometimes, we just don’t like washing them.