They say bright students today don't read chemistry at university because it is seen as a 'hard' subject. And there are fears over job prospects



They say bright students today don’t read chemistry at university because it is seen as a ’hard’ subject. And there are fears over job prospects, with the UK chemical industry in decline. Plus students want to keep their options open, and chemistry is seen as committing them to either working as a chemist or teaching chemistry. Let me explain just how wrong that is. 

Consider my own university chemistry class. We were initially 80 strong, having been whittled down from over 800 well-qualified applicants - happy days! - and 76 of us eventually graduated. Around two thirds stayed in chemistry one way or another, and by and large did pretty well. For example, five became professors, one a pro vice-chancellor, and another even rose to the dizzy heights of secretary general and chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry. 

But let me home in on the other third, who sooner or later left the profession. Starting with the boys, immediately after graduation one headed for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada), where he should have been all along, and eventually became a stage and television producer whose credits include Dr Who, and Alan Bennett’s Talking heads. It doesn’t get much better than that. Another, by a route too tortuous to explain, wound up as a clinical psychologist in Switzerland, working in German. Another eventually owned a company in Australia making desserts and cakes, and is known to those who kept in touch as the Mr Kipling of the southern hemisphere. 

It gets better. One guy became senior partner in a major accountancy firm and, after retiring, a professional gambler. Three of my classmates were good enough footballers to consider turning professional. They didn’t in the end but one of them did become a Miami property developer who couldn’t attend a class reunion some years ago because his green card had run out and he feared they wouldn’t let him back in. Among the boys’ more mundane career paths were one leading to chief executive of a well-known British public company, and another to chairman of a major construction firm.  

As for the girls, one became a precious metals trader and expert on real ale, another a vicar, and one trained to become a teacher of English as a foreign language, then learned the saxophone in order to practice a Hungarian technique using music to get through to autistic children. And keeping the best to last, one girl taught for several years at a top public school, took a degree in business studies and finance, and switched to market research in the computer industry. In her spare time, apart from raising a family, she became one of the best gymnastics judges in the world, officiating at innumerable top class events including World Championships and the Olympics. Reader, I married her. 

I could give many more examples, and there is no reason to believe my class was in any way out of the ordinary so, extrapolating, there must surely be a large number of lapsed chemists ’out there’ who have done well in any walk of life you care to mention. And I have a strong feeling that if a chemist ends up as, say, a plumber, he will be a better plumber by virtue of his training in chemistry. I cannot prove it but doubtless there is an ’-ology’ somewhere that could.  

Maybe Margaret Thatcher, a chemistry graduate herself, should have the last word, something she was rather good at. She once said* that chemistry is the best training for life in the modern world, and is in fact the new Greats (a degree in Classics at Oxford used to be known as Greats, and was deemed necessary for entry into the Civil Service). It pains me to agree with her but I think she had a point.

Brian Malpass

* private communication