Physical Chemistry Degrees: Bachelor's, Associate & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a physical chemistry program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of an associate and bachelor's degree and potential careers.
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Physical Chemistry Associate and Bachelor's Degrees at a Glance

Physical chemistry is one of the five subdisciplines of chemistry according to the American Chemical Society (ACS). It focuses on the study of the interaction of chemistry and physics at the macromolecular level (acs.org).

Degrees in physical chemistry are not generally offered at the associate and bachelor's level. Instead, students may choose to seek out chemistry programs with physical chemistry components and strengthen their coursework with courses in physics. ACS-approved bachelor's programs require students take at least one course in physical chemistry, though often more are offered.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for chemists and materials scientists is expected to grow by 4%, slower than average, in the years 2010-2020. Chemical technician jobs are expected to grow faster, at 7%, though this is still more slowly than average. Employment for all high school teachers over the same period is expected to grow at 7% as well.

Associate Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in continuing to further education in chemistry, as well as those looking to become chemical technicians Individuals who seek to enter graduate programs in physical chemistry, or work as chemists
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Chemical technician ($42,000 - may require additional coursework)* - Chemist ($70,000)*
- Materials scientist ($85,000)*
- High school chemistry teacher ($54,000 - requires state teacher license)*
Time to Completion Two years, full time Four years, full time
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 18 courses
- Laboratory classes (for ACS-approved programs)
- Roughly 36 courses
- Laboratory classes
- Possible undergraduate thesis
Prerequisites High school diploma High school diploma
Online Availability Courses available Limited

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Associate in Physical Chemistry

At the associate level, it can be particularly difficult to find a program with coursework relating to physical chemistry. Generally, students will want to find a school that offers chemistry and complete necessary coursework. Programs in chemistry at 2-year schools offer a combination of lecture and lab work, and these labs are important for developing the physical skills necessary for working in laboratory settings. At the same time, students should pursue coursework in physics, computer science, mathematics and sometimes biology in order to develop a broad background in the physical sciences and begin building necessary skills.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • General chemistry courses available at this level can be used to solidify a student's career goals and determine if additional study is of interest to the student
  • Courses in programs approved by the ACS are usually transferable to 4-year schools
  • Associate programs are generally less expensive per semester than 4-year programs, so taking these courses through 2-year programs may save you money.

Cons

  • Physical chemistry programs are not offered at the undergraduate level, and students will need to seek out schools with coursework that can prepare them for advanced study
  • Associate-level chemistry programs may not offer all of the courses students need to pursue further education in chemistry
  • Students interested in physical chemistry will need to take classes in mathematics, physics and computer science; there may not be much time in the program to explore other interests

Courses and Requirements

Associate programs in chemistry require both general chemistry and organic chemistry. These courses are commonly taught in a year-long series with laboratory requirements each semester. It is in these lab classes that basic scientific skills are developed. Students with an interest in physical chemistry may want to consult with their instructors about what additional courses they might pursue. Nonetheless, a solid foundation in general chemical concepts and strong laboratory skills can prepare students for both further education and lab technician positions. Courses might include:

  • General chemistry with lab
  • Organic chemistry with lab
  • Physics
  • Computer science
  • Calculus

Online Degree & Course Info

While online degrees in physical chemistry at the associate level aren't generally available, students can find online or hybrid (online and on-campus) chemistry courses. Because some of the online components include chemistry laboratories, students may want to seek the advice of those working in the field about program applicability and alternatives. Online labs will be able to develop computational skills, but the physical experience of working in a lab around hazardous chemicals may not transfer to an online format and may not be suitable preparation for all positions.

Stand Out with This Degree

If you are looking to stand out with an associate degree focusing on physical chemistry, you may want to involve yourself with ongoing research even at this early stage. Chemistry internships and research projects can help develop laboratory skills and professional contacts who can provide references for the job search or college transfer application process. Students focusing on physical chemistry will also want to choose electives which will help build the skills needed for long-term career development, and select mentors who have professional reputations in the field, if possible.

Bachelor's in Physical Chemistry

While physical chemistry is not generally offered as a major at the bachelor's level, it is a required part of all ACS-approved chemistry programs. Within chemistry programs, there may be opportunities to focus coursework on a specific subdiscipline, including physical chemistry, and students may also want to engage in further coursework that will enhance their ability to work in physical chemistry laboratories and their appeal to graduate programs. This might include additional courses in the physical sciences, mathematics and computer science.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A bachelor's degree is often the requirement for entry-level chemist positions*
  • Chemistry programs that follow ACS guidelines for the bachelor's level offer courses in physical chemistry
  • Chemistry programs require courses from several of the physical sciences, providing a broad base of scientific knowledge

Cons

  • Developing laboratory skills requires a different kind of learning than pure lecture classes, and may not appeal to all students
  • Not all programs will allow students to focus on physical chemistry, so students may want to research programs and possibly contact departments and potential advisors in advance
  • Some research positions may require obtaining a graduate degree in chemistry or physical chemistry*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Courses and Requirements

Students wishing to focus on physical chemistry will generally attend general chemistry programs at the bachelor's level. With the assistance of their advisor, they may want to select further coursework applicable to the field, including the high-level mathematics and computer science necessary for modeling chemical reactions. Students can take courses on topics such as:

  • Inorganic chemistry
  • Organic chemistry
  • Physical chemistry
  • Calculus
  • Computer programming
  • Analytical chemistry
  • Physical mechanics
  • Magnetism and electricity

Online Degree Options

Because of the necessity of lab work for most chemistry degrees, online program options are limited. Available online programs may be most suitable for students who have already developed laboratory skills, and may be focused toward those looking to teach at the middle and high school level. Students looking to teach chemistry will also need to earn a teaching certificate.

Stand Out with This Degree

If you are looking to stand out with a degree in chemistry with a focus on physical chemistry, you may want to consider participating in internships and volunteering to work in laboratories. Further, you might want to apply for grants for projects under ACS guidelines and become involved in chapters of local chemistry societies. You can also show your commitment through community outreach for science education.

Continuing Education

Students interested in studying physical chemistry at the graduate level can choose from master's degree or Ph.D. programs. While some programs offer concentrations specifically in physical chemistry, others offer research opportunities or courses in this field for students pursuing a general chemistry degree. Common physical chemistry courses at this level include chemical thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, computational chemistry and spectroscopy.

Research requirements are common at this level, and students may need to complete a thesis, dissertation or term paper on original research in physical chemistry. Some research areas include magnetic materials, polymers, electron transfer, reaction dynamics and protein signaling.

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