The Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois
Chemistry as a Major
Chemistry involves the study of the composition and properties of matter and the investigation of the laws that govern the combination of elements. Chemistry is both theoretical and applied; it plays a vital role in everyone's life, and yet, may be the most abstract of sciences. Chemists are scientists whose activities are as varied as pure research, product development, writing, administration, marketing, and teaching.
Chemists often specialize in one of the sub-fields of chemistry. Analytical chemists determine the structure, composition and nature of substances, and develop new analytical techniques. One area where analytical chemists are heavily involved is the identification of the types and amounts of pollutants in the environment. Organic chemists originally studied the chemistry of substances from living things, but this area of chemistry has been broadened to include the study of all compounds of carbon. Carbon, when combined with other elements, can form an incredible variety of substances; and a large number of modern commercial products, including plastics and other synthetic materials, have resulted from the organic chemist's work. Inorganic chemists study compounds of elements other than carbon. They may apply their knowledge in developing new substances, such as catalysts to lower the pollution in automobile exhaust and materials for use in solid state electronic components. Physical chemists study the role of energy transformations in reactions, and their work will be important in finding new and better energy sources.
Although chemists usually specialize in one of these main branches of study, they often further limit their activities by specializing in an approach, product, or process; the accumulated knowledge about chemicals and their uses has become so immense that it is impossible for a single person to master the entire discipline. All chemists, whether engaged in research, development, or theory, share a common core of knowledge and methodology. Each specialist must know something about the other branches of chemistry and how his/her interests relate to them. Consequently, the purpose of the undergraduate education is to provide students with a basic understanding of chemistry -- its theories, its knowledge, methods, and applications; some students, however, begin their specialization at the undergraduate level.