Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Is chemistry a profession?

In the midst of longtime defense reporter Thomas Ricks' positive review of Omar El Akkad's novel American War (of a second American Civil War) , this interesting observation of both El Akkad's, followed by Ricks' thoughts:
Another line that gave me pause: “the only true profession is blood work — the work of the surgeon, the soldier, and the butcher.” I’ve been reading and writing about military literature for decades and yet have never seen that thought expressed before, to my knowledge. (Not that I endorse it. My own view is that something is a true profession if its practitioner is governed more by the soul more than by the market. Thus law is not always a profession, but other work, say boatbuilding or cooking, sometimes can be.)'
I thought this was a pretty interesting observation about what constitutes a profession. By contrast, let's look at what Merriam-Webster has to say:
4a :  a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation
4b :  a principal calling, vocation, or employment
4c :  the whole body of persons engaged in a calling
Under the Merriam-Webster definition, chemistry is indeed a profession, something I wholeheartedly agree with. My engineer father (whom I love) would probably point to licensing bodies as a sign of "professionalism", something that chemistry mostly does not possess. Happily, I believe chemistry also meets the Ricks' definition of a profession as well; while much of chemistry (including what I do) is governed by the market, so much of what we do as chemists is also 'governed more by the soul.'

Readers, what do you think? Is chemistry a profession? What is your favorite definition? Are you governed more by your soul than the market? 


  1. A profession is a job married with an ethos.

    By my personal definition, chemistry is a profession. Most chemists care about capital "C" Chemistry. They know the heroes, history, and lore. They care about how Chemistry is perceived by the general public. They take pride not just in their jobs but in participating in the larger endeavor of manipulating matter to serve mankind. There is a unique spirit to the work.

    1. "A profession is a job married with an ethos."

      I think this is perfect.

    2. I generally think of professions as jobs where people do their work according to certain standards of conduct--which is really close to the ethos definition.

  2. I think one big difference between chemistry and medicine, law, etc is that most doctors and lawyers don't carry out medical research or write new laws.

  3. To me, it's the certification / licensing factor that separates "true professions" from other careers. This is related to potential risks to health, safety, or public order if misconduct occurs.

    Doctors, dentists, lawyers, engineers, etc. are all professions, with governing bodies that set ethics and competency standards. Those who fail to meet these standards can't call themselves doctors / dentists / lawyers / engineers. Scientists have no licensing or governing bodies, so it's hard to fit it into a "profession" category.

    I realize this definition is fuzzy at the edges but I think it works well for many purposes.

    1. Joe Q you are not seemingly fuzzy claiming then only certifications and licenses will make people professionals which I believe does disservice to others whose professions do not have such direct evidence requirements. Are "professional athletes" to be excluded (unless you consider the Draft as a pseudo-certification). I earned a BS in Chemistry and later PhD and have been paid according and do consider my self in a profession. IMO most the licensed professions do so to inhibit frauds and not sure enough profit in someone posing as a Scientist.

    2. The distinction between a technician and a scientist is fuzzy, and varies considerably between companies. This is probably a consequence of our field not having a central governing body or licensing - the distinction between a doctor and a nurse, or a lawyer and a paralegal, is clearly defined.

      Chemists don't need licensing because we don't deal directly with the public. It is our employers' responsibility to ensure that qualified people handle chemicals and do so in a safe manner, while the average person visiting a doctor or hiring a lawyer has no way of judging their qualifications easily.

      Following up on my earlier post, licensed professionals have a lot less freedom than scientists as to how they carry out their jobs. Most doctors aren't medical researchers, and have to follow established procedures rather than creating them.

  4. Seems like a loaded question to me...

  5. There is this 'P. Chem.' designation that I've seen 1 person use:

    Likely confusing with phys chem (he was an organic chemist).

  6. A professional is someone licenced by the government to practice a profession. That is there's an artificial barrier to entry. A physician or a nail technician are professionals but chemists are not. It wasn't until I was licenced in my non-chemical profession that I really began to make money.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20