In other words, a field of chemistry that is all theoretical? I have heard of theoretical chemistry, but my chemistry professor said you can't really major in theoretical chemistry. He said the closest thing is physical chemistry.

I like predicting in Chemistry, but I hate labs or experiments.

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    $\begingroup$ Here's what you do: drudge through the experiments until you have enough experience to have your own lab, then have some graduate student do all the experiments for you, thus completing the cycle. $\endgroup$
    – canadianer
    Feb 2, 2015 at 0:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Of course you can major in theoretical and/or computational chemistry. There are a lot of groups out there, who do exactly only that. However, you still need the groundwork from basic inorganic/organic lab work. The experience counts here and you should be familiar with what is going on in the lab. After that all possible kinds of research directions are open to you. If you want to dodge all experiments, I suggest the route, studying physics, specialise in physical chemistry/ theoretical physics and later apply (in research) your knowledge to chemical reactions. $\endgroup$ Feb 2, 2015 at 2:31
  • $\begingroup$ There is computational chemistry, but IMO it's not really chemistry. $\endgroup$
    – najayaz
    Feb 2, 2015 at 5:58
  • $\begingroup$ Just a tip : if you are planning to go into theoretical or computational chemistry, make sure that your maths and computer skills are good enough - most of these are usually not taught in classical chemistry programmes, but you should try to get this knowledge elsewhere early on if you want to succeed. $\endgroup$
    – Gerhard
    Mar 9, 2015 at 23:31
  • $\begingroup$ @G-man I hope you increase your knowledge about chemistry and revise your opinion, after all theoretical and computational chemistry helps understand experiments a lot nowadays. Hopefully, when you continue your studies you will appreciate the helping hand from the computer gals and guys. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2015 at 8:45

4 Answers 4


You are correct that it is possible to study theoretical or computational chemistry, however these typically only represent a handful of courses in a normal undergraduate chemistry curriculum. Additionally, most undergraduate chemistry curriculum are designed to instruct students broadly in the core disciplines of chemistry, hence it's usually not possible to specialize.

Non-chemisty degrees may be an alternative. However any science undergraduate program will require laboratory-based coursework. Hands-on experience teaches us how scientific concepts work in the real works, giving us an appreciation of how difficult experimental work can be. It also functions to reinforce content from books and lectures; to teach technical skills (which are usually necessary for future employment); and to develop lab safety habits. So there really is no means to escape it. Moreover, in order to take advanced chemistry electives, prior courses which include lab sessions are generally necessary.

That said, there are other routes to get into chemistry. I've know individuals whom have majored in mathematics, engineering, physics, and biology who either did research in chemistry or who did graduate degrees in chemistry subsequent to obtaining an undergraduate degree in those fields. However in order to obtain undergraduate degrees in those fields and to be able to transition to chemistry programs, lab experience and some senior-level chemistry courses are typically required.

However, once in graduate school, it is possible to avoid experiments altogether: theoretical and computational chemistry graduate degrees typically do not require that the candidate engage in any hands-on experiments. Many however do require that the graduate student work as a teaching assistant in undergraduate chemistry laboratories as a condition of funding. In such cases, laboratory experience is either necessary or a significant advantage.

So while it may be possible to minimize the amount of lab work that you engage in, some will always be required. Additionally I would not recommend avoiding lab work, as it greatly enriches the study of chemistry overall.


It is possible to not perform experiments at all and only concentrate on theoretical chemistry (at least after your undergraduate studies). What your professor said might be related to your university and his group of friends.


The three names of professors in theoretical chemsitry I know from our university are Hättig, Marx and Kutzelnigg: http://www.theochem.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/home.en.html . The scientists working for them did not enter a laboratory after the 6th semester (final semester of bachelor studies) as far as I know. Their major is theoretical chemistry. This is what they can have highlighted on their master certificate. (You might want to look at this website and check out the member lists. Then you have an idea how many people are working in this field.)


There is work for theoretical chemistry at BASF and Bayer. We heard presentations from several people of that field.

Lab work is not required. There are people who specialise in lab work and master it to a fascinating level. The people in theoretical chemistry receive the results from those in the laboratories and work their magic of interpretation, explanation and prediction. The lab skills of a theoretician are not needed if a professional is working on the experiments. The computer skills of an experimentalist are not needed if a professional is working on the calculations.

[To my understanding, theoretical chemistry does not make experiments obsolete but experiments cannot give a full explanation about the multitude of properties and comprehension of its scientific context. Furthermore, theoretical chemistry gives valuable guidance. Nowadays, theoretical and experimental chemistry are roughly on eye level (even though each thinks of himself as more important).]


Many researchers do no traditional lab experiments. Computational chemistry is important and a huge subject. The mathematical theory of chemistry is the Schrödinger equation, known since over 70 years, but unfortunately too difficult to solve for most molecules with more than a few atoms. Thus, an ever-expanding set of approximative methods have been developed and keep developing. One cool example would be Anatole von Lilienfeld who uses neural networks to predict molecule properties by pattern recognition, extrapolating from known molecules.

This is not to say that lab work can be avoided for a chemistry student. I suppose an alternate route would be to become a physicist then switch subject. I did that, although I actually do lab work and enjoy it now.


Theoretical chemistry is the branch of chemistry that focus on non-experimental side of chemistry



Your professor seems to be confounding branches. Physical chemistry can be both experimental or theoretical. The same happens with other disciplines, e.g. theoretical organic chemistry.

  • $\begingroup$ Surprisingly, you would do a Ph.D. in chemistry, not in physical chemistry, not organic chemistry, etc. And some institutions don't even give you that; then you're just a doctor of natural sciences. The sentiment that theoretical chemistry is not a discipline is not only misleading, there is a plethora of universities and related institutions offering courses in that. Surely they cannot all be completely wrong... $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2018 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Martin-マーチン You are right, theoretical chemistry is a discipline. I edited the answer. $\endgroup$
    – juanrga
    Sep 24, 2018 at 12:13

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