Students considering biochemistry vs. chemistry as potential areas of study should understand how these two subjects differ and what career paths each one offers.
Simply put, chemistry is concerned with the properties of, and interactions between, all physical substances. Biochemistry is also concerned with the properties of matter, but only as they relate to living organisms.
Biochemistry: The bridge between two disciplines
Biochemists function as a sort of bridge between biologists and chemists.
Biologists start large and go small. They understand bodies as networks of organ systems, organ systems as networks of organs, organs as collections of tissues, and tissues as amalgams of cells. On the other hand, chemists are only interested in minute phenomena. When they engage with the human body, it's on the level of the molecular structures that control the cell — and they understand the behavior of those structures as chemical interactions. You could say chemists view things through a micro lens, while biologists see things through a macro lens.
Biochemists span both fields. They apply pure chemical theory, but only in the context of living organisms. Still, biochemistry is an altogether separate field of study, often incorporating elements of biology and chemistry for its own distinct purposes.
Chemistry: Less applied, more diverse
Biochemists are generally only concerned with the aspects of chemistry that directly affect life. To a large extent, that means organic chemistry, or the study of the properties and interactions of carbon-based molecules. Since all known life is carbon-based, much of biochemistry is focused on this field.
These days, much of biochemistry focuses on the functions of genetic material: DNA and various types of RNA that are coded to perform any number of tasks in the cell. Molecular biologists study the direct manipulation of DNA and RNA, but they rely on the chemical insights and procedures developed by biochemists.
While biochemistry is more focused, with applications typically tied to biology and medicine, the field of chemistry can offer more diverse subject matter. Chemists may choose to focus on subdisciplines that involve other substances, such as inorganic chemistry or physical chemistry. Chemists can study everything from crystal formation to ocean acidification to the decay of trace substances at crime scenes. Chemists can also contribute to fields such as materials science, where they might help design stronger and lighter aircraft. They may also pursue electrochemistry, where they might help develop a better form of cell for solar panels.
The difference between chemistry and biochemistry career paths
Students in either field can graduate with considerable earning potential. Chemistry graduates typically have a greater number of career choices, while biochemistry graduates typically have a more straightforward and stable career path, since the work of a biochemist is so well defined.
Biochemistry graduates often pursue careers in medicine or at large biotech firms interested in developing new therapies. Earning a degree in biochemistry can also lead to a fitting career path for students interested in more technical fields within biology, such as biotechnology or genetic engineering.
There are many potential career paths for chemistry graduates. Chemists can find ample opportunities with large companies that produce anything from tiny computer transistors to a better way of synthesizing industrial diamonds to a low-emissions version of concrete. Studying chemistry can also translate to a rewarding career path for students interested in related hybrid fields, such as chemical engineering.
The decision of which subject to study may come down to whether a student wants a more reliable career path (biochemistry) or a more diverse career path (chemistry). Biochemistry may be the right choice for students who already know they want to enter the biomedical field, while chemistry might make sense for those who want to better understand the underlying nature of the physical world.
Earn your accredited chemistry degree online
Arizona State University offers several programs in chemistry and biochemistry online programs.
- ASU Online's Bachelor of Arts in chemistry and Bachelor of Arts in biochemistry degrees support a variety of related career paths.
- If you’re interested in a postgraduate health program or full-time position in STEM, research or education, ASU Online's Bachelor of Science in biochemistry degree program may be the right choice.
- Students interested in health-related graduate studies or careers in medicine, pharmaceuticals or biotechnology might want to consider ASU Online's Bachelor of Science in biochemistry with a concentration in medicinal chemistry.