Self-studying chemistry takes guts. It’s a challenging subject that forces you to grapple with abstract concepts and solve problems that require some serious critical thinking and creativity, not just rote memorization.
Despite the challenges it poses, chemistry is anything but impenetrable to self-directed learners, who have a wide range of chemistry textbooks and free online resources at their disposal.
Whether you’re self-studying chemistry to get on a path towards becoming a chemist, or to scratch an intellectual itch to better understand how our world works, this guide will help you reach your self-education goals.
The 7-step self-education roadmap is designed to give you a foundational education in chemistry that’s comparable to that of a college chemistry major, albeit without the labs.
Below is a preview of the steps for self-learning chemistry from scratch:
- Watch an Introductory Video Course: Get an overview of the scientific field via Crash Course Chemistry.
- Read 2-3 Popular Chemistry Books: Test your curiosity by reading interesting and inspiring chemistry books.
- Learn the 5 Main Branches of Chemistry: See how the field of chemistry is divided and understand the different branches.
- Start to Learn the Periodic Table: Familiarize yourself with the elements, their properties, and what their location in the table means.
- Read a Beginner Chemistry Textbook: Study a high-school level chemistry textbook to learn the fundamental theories and concepts.
- Study College-Level Textbooks in Order: Use 6 textbooks and related online material to learn general, organic, inorganic, analytical, biological, and physical chemistry.
- Follow Your Curiosity & Pick a Concentration: Pick a branch that most interests you and learn more about it.
The earlier steps are broad, giving you an overview of the entire subject, and simple to perform. But as you progress, they become increasingly difficult in subject matter and study methods, and take longer to complete.
The steps are logically ordered, but feel free to hop around or skip over stuff you know. If you more or less follow this guide, you’ll systematically teach yourself the fundamentals of chemistry’s major branches and thus be better able to choose which subfield you want to study in-depth. That said, let’s dive in and start learning chemistry from scratch!
1. Watch Crash Course Intro to Chemistry
Crash Course Chemistry is a 46-video YouTube series that gives you an overview of the field of chemistry in an engaging, inspirational, and sometimes funny manner — some of their jokes definitely miss, but isn’t that part of being a good teacher?
The course’s videos are 8-12 minutes long and give introductions to a range of topics, from the periodic table to kinetics and the global carbon cycle, making it the perfect course for beginners looking for a map or outline of the field.
I’ve listened to almost every series they have to offer and find them invaluable for giving me the basics I need to understand the basics of any subject I’m self-studying, including what questions its scholars ask, how they find the answers, and how these findings affect and improve our world.
2. Read 2-3 Pop-Chemistry Books to Test Curiosity
After, or during, your viewing of Crash Course, read a few popular yet academically-respected chemistry books that were written for the layperson interested in the subject.
Doing this will help you test your curiosity for chemistry, like a scientist might, to see if it’s high enough to warrant a long self-directed learning project.
If the books inspire and grab hold of you, if you feel a chemical bond forming between your soul and that of the writer’s, these are signs that it’s a worthwhile endeavor. If instead you’re repulsed or bored, consider another subject.
Below are some of the most widely recommended chemistry books for beginners:
- The Disappearing Spoon: This entertaining history of the periodic table relays fun and inspiring stories related to the elements and the scientists who discovered them and their uses, like how Gallium is a wonderful element for doing pranks with spoons.
- Stuff Matters: A material scientist reveals the complexity and magic underlying the matter we see everyday, answering such questions as “why is glass translucent?” and “why does a paperclip bend?”
- Designing the Molecular World: Computational chemist Michelle Franci assigns this book to her intro to chemistry students to show them how fun chemical research can be. It surveys the most recent and exciting scientific developments in chemistry and its related fields.
After reading a few of these books, you should be ready to dive into a more academic-focused DIY chemistry curriculum. Read on to see how.
3. Know the Five Major Branches of Chemistry
It’s important to familiarize yourself with the main branches of chemistry and understand at a basic level how they differ from one another. The branches are organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, physical chemistry, biochemistry, and analytical chemistry.
Here’s a 5-minute video by Jeremy Krug that covers these five main branches:
Later, in step six, you’ll study an entire textbook for each one of these branches. For now, just focus on watching the above video and reading this article on the 5 branches of chemistry so that you gain context and create a mental binder of sorts where you can organize all the new things you learn going forward.
4. Familiarize Yourself With the Periodic Table
The elements within the periodic table are the letters of chemistry, according to Chemistry Teacher Niki Kaiser in her article about learning the periodic table:
“The periodic table is the chemist’s alphabet, and we need to be very familiar with it. By putting the elements together in various combinations, as we do when we spell words, we can build our dictionary, containing all the substances in the universe.”
Perhaps that’s why memorizing the periodic table and singing the elements in order is a right of passage for so many chemistry students.
While that might be a good thing to be able to do later in your self-education journey, for now it’s important to just become familiar with the table. First things first, you should know what an element’s location tells you about its properties.
You should also start to cultivate an appreciation for the elements and their qualities, like a great poet must do for the words in their language.
One great way to familiarize yourself with the periodic table is by reading The Element’s Trilogy book series, a visually stunning representation of the elements:
The three books in the series are elements, reactions, and molecules. Each contains photographs of the substances, along with their descriptions, entertaining stories about them, and data regarding their properties. It’s perfect for those who nerd out over the elements.
No need to read it before moving on, but this can be a valuable resource going forward, and a fun thing to flip through while sitting on the toilet.
5. Work Through a Beginner Chemistry Textbook
Introductory Chemistry is a textbook designed for absolute beginners in the subject and is often used in high school chemistry classes.
The author, Nivaldo J. Tro, is an award-winning chemistry teacher with an engrossing and accessible writing style.
Reading this book will introduce you to the various topics of chemistry and give you the fundamentals necessary to move onto the more advanced textbooks used by chemistry majors in college.
A great feature of this book is its end-of-chapter questions, which will help you test your understanding of the concepts you just learned about. Don’t just skip the questions like I used to do in high school. Answering them improves your ability to understand and remember what you’ve just read.
Another advantage of this textbook is that it includes helpful illustrations. This is especially useful for you visual learners.
If you dedicate an hour every day to studying this textbook it’ll probably take you anywhere from 1-2 months to finish it, and that assumes you’re studying it closely, taking notes, and answering the questions.
Some of you who’ve taken high school chemistry and just need a refresher could finish it even faster, skipping over chapters and concepts you remember.
6. Study College-Level Chemistry Textbooks in Order
After teaching yourself the basics of chemistry, it’s time to start reading college-level textbooks sequentially, one for each of the core chemistry classes that chemistry majors take in college.
The common sequence of chemistry courses, and the order in which you’ll read the textbooks, is as follows:
- General Chemistry
- Organic Chemistry
- Inorganic Chemistry
- Analytical Chemistry
- Physical Chemistry
Most of the textbooks I recommend are used by reputable universities, such as MIT. They’re also accessible for beginners and filled with practice problems you can do to test your knowledge and comprehension.
Below each textbook I’ve also listed supplemental self-study material, including lectures and even entire online courses you can use in tandem with the textbook.
Some of the online courses come with problem sets, solutions, exams, exam answers, and lecture notes as well.
I’ve also called out any prerequisite reading you’d benefit from (e.g., physics before physical chemistry). Read on to find the best textbooks for self-learning the major fields of chemistry like a chemistry major would.
General chemistry is the first course chemistry majors take. It covers the essential topics, principles, and theories of chemistry, including matter, atoms, measurement, molecules, chemical calculations, gases, and more.
Chem majors usually take it in 2 courses over their first year, but I bet you can do it more quickly than that with a textbook.
Best Textbook for Self-Studying General Chemistry: Chemistry: The Central Science
Widely used to teach general chemistry in college, this textbook contains practice problems, answers, and illustrations and uses a writing style that simplifies wrapping your head around the complex topics it discusses.
Supplemental Lectures: UC Irvine General Chemistry 1a and UC Irvine General Chemistry 1b.
These lecture recordings from UC Irvine should help you reinforce what you learn while self-studying the general chemistry textbook. Unfortunately it doesn’t offer problem sets or exams like some of the other courses I’ll recommend, but it’s still helpful.
Prerequisites: High school chemistry is helpful (see step 5’s textbook)
After working through the general chemistry textbook and perhaps the lectures, you’ll have a well-rounded understanding of the science of chemistry, and be ready to tackle organic chemistry, a difficult subject known for weeding out the wishy washy chem majors.
Organic chemistry deals with carbon-containing compounds (organic matter) and explains their structure, properties, and chemical reactions, (often between carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen). You learn hundreds of reactions, how they work, and what they produce.
It’s notorious for being difficult, but some students say it’s not as hard as its reputation would lead you to believe. Plus, with challenge comes growth and ultimately satisfaction with yourself.
Best Textbook for Self-Studying Organic Chemistry: Organic Chemistry, L.G. Wade Jr.
Despite its ugly cover, this is a straightforward and accessible textbook for learning the principles of organic chemistry and its reactions. Perhaps that’s why MIT uses it to teach their organic chemistry courses.
One reviewer said this about the textbook: “If you’re looking to teach yourself organic chemistry with a strong in-depth understanding, this is the book I would get.” That’s what I like to hear!
The book contains comprehensive and clear explanations of each topic, advice about what to memorize and what to understand, numerous illustrations, and tips to help you think critically when approaching chemistry problems.
Supplemental Online Courses: MIT Organic Chemistry I and MIT Organic Chemistry II.
These online courses are from the MIT OpenCourseWare and both use the textbook recommended above. While they don’t offer lecture recordings, they do provide a treasure trove of supporting materials, like lecture notes, problem sets, and exams (both with solutions). Doing the textbook plus the courses is an excellent way to attack the subject from multiple sides.
Prerequisites: General Chemistry
After learning organic chemistry, move onto inorganic chemistry, the study of inorganic compounds, ones without carbon — metals, minerals, etc., — and their properties, structure, and behavior.
It’s usually taken after organic chemistry and known to be a bit on the easier side, but it’s still chemistry so buckle up.
Best Textbook for Self-Studying Inorganic Chemistry: Inorganic Chemistry, Gary Miessler, etc.,
University of California Irvine uses this textbook to teach inorganic chemistry in its online course (details below). The book’s language strikes the right balance between depth and breadth, complexity and simplicity, making it perfect for motivated beginners self-studying inorganic chemistry.
The book’s practice problems will also force you to think hard about the concepts and help you develop a deep understanding of them.
Supplemental Lectures: UC Irvine Inorganic Chemistry.
UC Irvine offers 29 lectures on inorganic chemistry, given by Matthew D. Law, Ph.D. Although the textbook should be your main focus, these lectures can help you identify the most important topics to understand, as well as clarify anything you find confusing during your reading.
Prerequisites: General Chemistry
Analytical chemistry is the branch of chemistry concerned with separating, identifying, and quantifying matter. Compared to the basic concepts of organic chemistry, the fundamentals of analytical chemistry are easier to learn on your own.
Best Textbook for Self-Studying Analytical Chemistry: Fundamentals of Analytical Chemistry, Skoog
This textbook will give you a firm foundation in the main concepts and principles of analytical chemistry, while also illuminating the field’s many practical applications.
Further, the textbook includes practice problems that increase in difficulty as you work your way through the book, as well as in-depth explanations of how to solve them. This prevents that uncomfortable experience common among self-directed learners of feeling like you’re working alone and confused in the dark without any guidance.
Supplemental Online Course Materials: edX Basic Analytical Chemistry
edX’s free online course Basic Analytical Chemistry ($49 for a certificate) is a great way to get an introduction to analytical chemistry through videos. Consider using it alongside the textbook to reinforce your understanding of the material, or as a precursor to the textbook to give you context.
Prerequisites: General Chemistry
Biochemistry is an interdisciplinary field that uses chemistry to study living matter, at a cellular and molecule level. Both chemistry and biology claim biochemistry as a subdiscipline, and biochem courses are common in the curriculums of chem majors.
Self-studying biochemistry should be interesting, especially since the field is often responsible for newsworthy breakthroughs in medical and nutritional science.
Best Textbook for Self-Studying Biochemistry: Fundamentals of Biochemistry, Donald Voet, etc.,
MIT’s free online biochem course (details listed below) uses the above textbook to teach the class. So, if you want, you can do the assigned readings and then watch the relevant lectures. If you’d rather just read the textbook, you can do that as well. It’s well-structured for self-directed study, offering helpful diagrams, clear explanations, and a fair share of practice problems.
Supplemental Online Course Material: MIT Biological Chemistry I
This free MIT online course prescribes the textbook mentioned above to its students, and offers other online learning materials like video lectures, lecture notes, problem sets, and even problem set solution videos, a super helpful feature that most of its courses don’t offer.
The courses also tell you what readings to do before each lecture. If only MIT made every online course on their OpenCourseWare platform as comprehensive as these two — we autodidacts would be ever grateful.
Prerequisites: General Chemistry and High School-Level Biology (here’s a self-teach bio textbook)
Physical chemistry applies theories and methods of physics, including quantum mechanics, to the study of chemical systems. It’s known to be one of the hardest classes in college, across all majors, and might pose a serious challenge to those self-studying chemistry because of its math and physics prerequisites.
But, it’s a challenge that can be overcome, and you’ll grow intellectually and personally in the process. Plus, there are some really helpful online resources for self-learning this subdiscipline. Note that there are prerequisites to this field.
Best Textbook for Self-Studying Physical Chemistry: Quantum Chemistry, Donald A. McQuarrie
I recommend Quantum Chemistry because, once again, MIT offers a free online Physical Chemistry I course that uses this textbook. Since it’s such a difficult subject, it’ll be nice to have lectures and problem sets that relate to what you’re reading.
The book is also written in a way that requires an understanding the basics of calculus. Comparable textbooks for physical chemistry often require readers to have more advanced calculus knowledge.
Lastly, the book is well-organized, ensuring that you know the terminology and math techniques needed to go onto the next chapter. The practice problems are difficult, but that’s the nature of studying one of the hardest courses in undergraduate chemistry.
Supplemental Online Course Material: MIT Physical Chemistry
MIT’s free online Physical Chemistry course gives you access to pretty much everything a chemistry autodidact could want — lecture videos, lecture notes, problem sets, well-explained problem set solutions, exams, and exam answers. Leveraging these while studying the textbook should help you understand and retain the information.
Prerequisites: MIT Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism and MIT Multivariable Calculus (these, of course, have prerequisites themselves, making picking up physical chemistry an arduous but enlightening mathematical journey)
Different physical chemistry online courses or textbooks will call for different prerequisites. I included the ones above because those are what MIT’s online course requires.
Fortunately, MIT actually offers online courses for each of them. You can buy the textbooks they use in the course and study those. Don’t think of this as a detour but as a chance to broaden your range in the natural sciences and to pick up some handy mathematical skills.
7. Narrow Your Focus & Follow Your Curiosity
If you make it this far, you’ll have developed a serious understanding of the major concepts, techniques, theories, and applications across the major branches of chemistry.
At this point, consider choosing one specific branch or subdiscipline that appeals most to you, and start to dive deeper into it by engaging in further reading and online courses.
You could also focus on learning other subfields of chemistry that weren’t covered in the guide, such as Environmental Chemistry or Industrial Chemistry.
Can I Self-Study Chemistry?
Self-learning chemistry without teachers is possible as long as you have the right textbooks and a sufficient level of curiosity and self-discipline. If you consistently devote time and focus to learning chemistry and solving problems, there’s nothing stopping you from building an impressive foundational education in the science.
Really, the only two things that a chemistry major has that you don’t is access to the lab and professors. While laboratory experience and guidance from teachers is an important part of a chemistry education, the bulk of a chemistry major’s knowledge will come from studying the textbooks and doing the problems.
The textbooks you can find in our chemistry self-education roadmap, and online by looking at college syllabi for courses that align with the chemistry topics you want to self-study. Further, many places like MIT OpenCourseWare also give you access to full online courses with not only problem sets and solutions, but also lecture recordings.
Bottom Line: Self-Learn Chemistry
At this point, some of you might be so enamored with chemistry that you want to continue self-studying the subject, or perhaps even attend a University program in the field. If so, congratulations, and good luck!
Others might feel a torrent of hatred for the field of chemistry, and want to pursue self-directed study in field that feels a bit more human — something like Psychology or English Literature, for example.
Wherever you are at the end of this journey, whichever steps you’ve done or ignored, you’ve accomplished something impressive, studying a challenging scientific subject with no assurance of a reward other than intellectual development and truth. Be proud of that, and let your curiosity guide you onward towards the next learning adventure.