Why Chemistry at Oxford?

Planning your future career direction, you might well be concerned with some of the following questions. What is the point of training as a chemist in the 21st century? What are the prospects of fulfilling work after taking a Chemistry degree? How can I make a difference?

Chemistry furnishes much of the material base of modern civilisation, and chemists are a constant source of innovation for its further benefit. It is hard to imagine any product introduced in recent times that did not require the creative efforts of a chemist at some stage in its development. From the formulation of petrol, through the materials and colouring of your clothes, to antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, chemists have played a key role in shaping our modern world. The 20th century saw several industrial revolutions resulting from new materials created by chemists, for example plastics, the liquid crystal display on your computer, the etching process that made microchip technology possible, and many developments in medicine, antibiotics, DNA technology. The list is endless and we can expect many more civilisation changing discoveries in this century: molecular machines, molecular opto-electronics, new magnetic and superconducting materials, smart materials, molecular medicine, fuel cells, the hydrogen economy: many of these are the subjects of active research in the Department and this is just what we have already imagined. Most really novel discoveries are made in University research labs where researchers have the freedom to follow their curiosity, and of course some are completely unexpected.

Not all chemical technology has been an unqualified success, of course. The commercial exploitation of some discoveries in Chemistry, poor containment and industrial accidents have had disturbing effects on the environment. Again, chemists play a key role in identifying and analyzing the problem and in proposing solutions, whether this be environmental impact assessment, cleaning up, new ecologically sustainable procedures or, as in the case of CFC’s, a complete ban.

Research chemists perform many roles: some provide and evaluate new compounds and materials; some devise new and cleaner methods of synthesis and manufacture; some develop new investigative techniques and instrumentation; some participate in the design and marketing of new products; some are involved in analysis, forensic science, quality control and environmental protection; some build and operate models of large and complex systems, such as the atmosphere. None of this is possible without a strong university education in Chemistry.

Because of the great economic importance of Chemistry chemists have important roles high up in the decision-making processes, both in the UK and abroad: on the boards of chemical companies (they need to understand their processes and products); in parliament and the civil service; in the law (particularly patent law). One of our graduates became Prime Minister, and several of our staff are or have been government science advisers.

Moreover, there is a clear need for dedicated and qualified Chemistry teachers (currently in very short supply) at all levels. Society cannot manage without chemists.

Chemistry occupies a central position among the sciences. It has important interfaces with mathematics and physics, with engineering, and with biology and medicine. The study of Chemistry, with its uniquely wide span within the scientific spectrum, is an excellent way to develop your intellect. You acquire not only a powerful battery of analytical skills for problem solving, but also the ability to analyse critically and to ask the pertinent questions. These skills are transferable to almost any context, and are highly valued in the world of commerce and finance.

No other university can match the simultaneous breadth and depth of the Oxford Chemistry experience. Oxford seeks to provide an excellent general education in Chemistry, which is both invaluable as an intellectual experience and also equips students for a successful career in their chosen field.

There are three distinctive features that make Oxford Chemistry unique:

The tutorial system

Students are set work by their college tutors every week, which is followed by a small-group tutorial (usually two or three students + the tutor) to discuss it. This regular, high-intensity and close contact with teaching staff means that teaching is tailored to the individual student, and that students have an unrivalled opportunity to stretch their intellect to its limit. The quality of attention students enjoy at Oxford is unrivalled, in both academic and pastoral respects.

The non-modular nature of the course

The course is not sub-divided into modules, and nor are the examinations. The subject is treated as a whole and examinations are synoptic, covering all aspects of the course covered so far. This means that students get a very deep understanding of how the subject fits together rather than a set of seemingly disconnected modules.

The fourth year research project

Students become active members of their chosen research group, and have the opportunity to make a real contribution to chemical research. Much of the research carried out is published in scientific journals, and a high proportion of students decide on a research career as a result of the enthusiasm and commitment they acquire during the Part II year. There is nothing like the buzz of being the first person to do, make, or understand something entirely new.

This year of the course also allows students time to reflect and plan the first stages of their career without the distraction of impending examinations. It helps students to make an informed decision as to whether to continue in research by proceeding to post-graduate study. Students may learn that a career in industrial research would suit them better, or perhaps that, much as they enjoy Chemistry, their talents lie elsewhere from research.

The experience, extra maturity and enhanced self-confidence acquired during the Part II year are highly valued by many employers, both in the chemical industry and elsewhere. The major lessons and transferable skills learned have universal application, and make Oxford Chemistry graduates very attractive to employers in all areas.

Chemistry is the basis of the most economically important industries in the UK, and these companies require a supply of high-quality graduate chemists. Almost all of our graduates gain immediate employment or continue to postgraduate study.

Chemistry provides an excellent opportunity for the development of your critical faculties and intellect, and also instils important transferable skills that will serve you well, whatever your subsequent choice of career. While about 55% of our Chemistry graduates go on to do research or further study, others enter professions such as scientific journalism, consultancy, patent law and teaching.

Long term, more than half our graduates remain in posts related to chemistry in some way. The University Careers Service provides a wide range of support for students whilst on course, and also after graduating. The Royal Society of Chemistry provides further information about careers using chemistry.