Physical Chemist

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Physical Chemist


What do you get when you cross chemistry with physics? A breed of scientists known as physical chemists. Since physical chemistry uses both chemistry and physics, physical chemists study both matter and energy. Most chemists are concerned with answering the "why" in scientific experiments, but physical chemists not only answer the "why" but also look into the "how". Physical chemistry is the sub-discipline of science that seeks to explain and interpret chemical phenomena. This is accomplished by first assuming that chemical behavior is governed by a finite number of scientific laws. The job of the physical chemist is to discover and understand these scientific laws.

Physical chemists work in a variety of different industries, but their common goal is to discover, test, and understand the fundamental physical characteristics of a solid, liquid, or gas material or molecule. Precision and attention to detail make their work similar to analytical chemistry, although physical chemists also stress the importance of applying knowledge of math and physics to develop an understanding of the material. Physical chemistry is closely related to engineering due to the hands-on, design nature of the field.

Physical chemists study the physical characteristics of atoms and molecules and the theoretical properties of matter, and investigate how chemical reactions work. Their research may result in new and better energy sources. Physical chemists concentrate on the study of quantitative relationships between the chemical and physical properties of substances. These chemists are helping to develop new energy sources, such as wind and solar. The work also involves analyzing materials, developing methods to test and characterize the properties of materials, developing theories about these properties, and discovering the potential use of the materials. Physical chemists use sophisticated machinery including lasers, mass spectrometers, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometers, and electron microscopes.

Some of the main traditional areas of physical chemistry are thermodynamics, reaction kinetics, electrochemistry, spectroscopy, colloid and surface chemistry, and theoretical chemistry. Physical chemists are often concerned with developing new types of instruments for measuring different types of data. The aim is to provide tools both for scientific and technological purposes. Today, many other physical chemists spend a lot of time with computer modeling of chemical systems in various ways.
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  Interests and Skills  
What does it take to become a physical chemist? Physical chemists need good communication skills including reading and writing, and an affinity for mathematics, science and problem solving. Most are also curious about how things work at the atomic level. They should be able to work independently as well as with a team, have incredible patience, and meticulousness. Physical chemists should also enjoy synthesizing information and finding innovative solutions to problems, working with instruments at tasks requiring precision, and directing the work of others. They should also be persistent because experiments will not always yield the desired results. Finally, they are also able to combine their knowledge and love of chemistry to make discoveries.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Work with complex machinery such as lasers, mass spectrometers and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometers
  • Study matter and energy sources including the details of atoms and elements
  • Analyze the components of solid, liquid or gas mixtures
  • Develop methods and equipment to make and study chemical compounds
  • Studying the physical characteristics of matter to better understand the fundamental principles of chemical structure and behavior
  • Work closely with scientists and supervise the work of technicians and students
  • Write reports on experiments and publish articles in scientific journals
  • May lecture and travel to conferences
  • Physical chemists work in laboratories with large machines and sophisticated instrumentation used to test and analyze materials. However, those who do laboratory experimentation work say their time is divided between working on experiments and working at their desks doing calculations and reviewing data. Physical chemists who go into management also spend time supervising other scientists, reviewing department needs and goals, and meeting with business managers in their companies. The majority of physical chemists work average hours with occasional longer hours to complete tasks.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Physical chemists work in almost any industry, research institute, or educational institution that is involved with the development of materials. This includes industries as diverse as plastics, ceramics, catalysis, electronics, pharmaceuticals, surfactants and colloids, and personal care products. They are also employed by all levels of government, performing research and experiments.

  Long Term Career Potential  
The long-term career potential for physical chemists is great, usually because many have extensive education. Accordingly, with further education in other fields, physical chemists can move into related professional disciplines such as medicine, law, teaching and engineering. Some go on to become scientific writers and even journalists. With experience, they can move into more managerial and supervisory roles, training junior level scientists and guiding the work of research assistants.

  Educational Paths  
Most physical chemists begin their postsecondary education by taking a four-year Bachelor of Science degree in physical chemistry. Those who wish to specialize usually continue their education to the master's or doctoral level. A PhD is often required for research and teaching positions. Students planning careers as physical chemists should take courses in physics, chemistry and mathematics, should like working with their hands building scientific apparatus and performing laboratory experiments and computer modeling.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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