Chemical Physicist Vs. Physical Chemist

A chemical physicist is interested in energy while a physical chemist is interested with properties of matter. We'll explore both careers, highlighting salary, job growth and common duties.

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Comparing Chemical Physicist to Physical Chemist

A chemical physicist studies forces at the atomic and quantum level. A physical chemist studies the properties of matter at the molecular and atomic level. There is overlap in the interests of these scientists, but each approaches the workings of atoms from a different perspective.

Job Title Minimum Education Required Median Salary (2016)* Job Growth (2016-2026)*
Chemical Physicist Doctoral or professional degree $115,870 (for all physicists) 14% (for all physicists)
Physical Chemist Doctoral or professional degree $73,740 (for all chemists) 6% (for all chemists)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Responsibilities of a Chemical Physicist vs. a Physical Chemist

Physical and chemical properties are related at the atomic level. A chemical physicist investigates how atoms respond to force and energy while a physical chemist investigates how atoms interact with other molecules. For example, when studying crystals a chemical physicist would evaluate the molecular movement in the crystal lattice when bombarded with different energy sources such as an infrared beam or electrical impulse. A physical chemist would evaluate how the crystal lattice forms based on interactions between molecules and the overall properties that the lattice structure generates in the entire material. Some of the equipment used to visualize the crystalline lattice would be used by both scientists and they both employ mathematical computations to predict experimental outcomes.

Chemical Physicist

A chemical physicist may work to develop theories on how energy is transported through different chemical mediums or they may experiment in the lab to find practical applications in fields such as renewable energy. Work in this field is highly mathematical and attempts to apply quantum theory to the interactions of molecules. One example is maximizing the efficiency of catalysts by using theoretical principles to increase the accuracy of chemical interactions. Another research area involves metals which may have applications to superconductors. Regardless of the application or focus, to work as a chemical physicist requires analytical skills and creative exploration of the physical nature of the chemical world.

Job responsibilities of a chemical physicist include:

  • Publishing papers on experimental findings or theoretical models
  • Designing computer software for visualization of molecular structures
  • Using lasers to energize materials
  • Teaching and supervising students
  • Collaborating with other scientists

Physical Chemist

A physical chemist may work in industry to develop new materials, create molecular models for pharmaceutical companies, or work in government labs where they test the stability of nuclear weapons. To complete these jobs a physical chemist performs tests on materials using lasers, spectroscopy, and specialized microscopes. Mathematics is another important tool that allows them to analyze data and create equations that simulate chemical interactions. This job often requires numerous safety precautions which can impact the researcher's health if not properly executed. Regardless of the tools used, to work as a physical chemist requires analytical skills and creative exploration of the chemical properties of the physical world.

Job responsibilities of a physical chemist include:

  • Writing reports on experimental procedures and documenting findings
  • Conducting tests to verify that laboratory equipment is functioning properly
  • Submitting evidence of the safe handling and disposal of dangerous materials to appropriate authorities
  • Using computer software to visualize molecular structures
  • Collaborating with other scientists

Related Careers

Electrical engineers have similar interests to chemical physicists because they both work with subatomic particles. A job as a nuclear engineer may be attractive to someone interested in physical chemistry because they both are interested in the reactivity of molecules.

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