I am glad you found the post potentially useful to aspiring students. It is a topic that hits home a little bit for me because I experienced some of the same pressures as the opening poster. Having now the benefit of time, and being a parent myself, my view on the issue has matured since I was entering graduate school what seems like eons ago.
In the last few hours I thought about this topic some more. Here are a few additional thoughts on parental pressure that may be useful, not just to aspiring physical chemists, but also to aspiring chemists, aspiring scientists or even just aspiring professionals:
Parents can be useful sources of information, but there are a few things to keep in mind. Parents have different priorities than you do. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that they understand that priorities are different when you're 40 than they are when they're 20. In this sense, you should take their advice seriously because they have the benefit of wisdom. When I was 22 and entering graduate school, I wasn't thinking about the weighty pressures of careers, family, retirement, home ownership, and so forth, that now press upon me like the atmosphere of Venus! Now I see that some of the things they were concerned about I should have taken more seriously. At the least, I should have done a better job of trying to understand what an important decision I was making and what some of the possible downstream implications of that decision were. It's hard to do that when you're 22 and feel like you have eons of time ahead of you to find your place in the world. But those eons go by quickly and the decision you make now WILL set you on a path that will determine the course of your life. Perhaps not irrevocably, but the current is certainly stronger than I ever would have thought.
On the other hand, your parents can't get inside you and know what makes you tick as a person. They are looking at your decision from the outside. They consider the material part of happiness, but it's impossible for them to incorporate your personality, desires, ambitions, and passions into the complex algorithm that anyone must use when making a decision. When it comes to distinguishing between medical school and graduate school, they look at the physical aspects of a career, not the emotional ones. This means their advice, while valuable, lacks an important aspect of consideration. It also means they won't understand it when you show signs of choosing another path. This is true for any decision you will make, but especially so when it comes to choosing science over medicine.
Most non-scientists understand medical careers. People get what doctors do, what their value to society is, and - especially - they see the lucrative nature of a career in medicine. People interact with doctors all the time. Doctors cure our physical ailments, make lives visibly and immediately better. We will all need their skills sooner or later. And their lives in medical dramas on television are glorified. Shows like ER, Gray's Anatomy, and even House scream, "Doctors make a difference, dammit!" Doctors are usually depicted as handsome, successful, intelligent, wise, gregarious, confident, empathetic, sympathetic, and wealthy. They make weighty decisions over life and death with aplomb. They wear shiny white lab coats with their names embroidered on them. They drive nice cars, dress well, and live in big houses. Hell, physicians as professionals have even stolen the title of doctor from the common lexicon, as though the public has already collectively decided that the medical degree is the only doctorate worth recognizing.
The role of scientists in our society, while no less important, is abstract. This is even more true for research scientists. Our labor may not bear fruit for decades, even if we work in practical areas. Popular culture has a mixed view of scientists, casting them as villains or - if as heroes - as socially awkward, dumpy looking nerds, and movies, books, and computer games often are driven by themes related to the potential dangers and ethical quagmires of scientific progress. People love technology, but corporations and entrepreneurs like Apple and Steve Jobs are the sexy and exciting face of technology, not scientists. And people don't have many chances to interact with scientists to see what they are like or what they do in their daily lives. Their only first-hand experience with academic scientists may be their college professors, and their memories of those professors, if they are not scientifically inclined, are probably not good ones.
To be fair, some of these stereotypes ARE grounded in reality, although there is place here for what came first: the chicken or the egg? It is possible the stereotypes are self-perpetuating. I'll leave that open for discussion.
Like the opening poster, I was interested in physical chemistry in college, and this interest blossomed into a successful experience as a graduate student. My parents came to my dissertation defense and I know they didn't understand a word of it. They didn't understand its value. What the hell was I doing? What was the use of those equations, those abstract symbols all over my slides? The ubiquity of foreign students probably didn't help improve their disconnect with my professional environment, their tendency to feel like an alien in my world. My conversations with my parents about my work life during graduate school were always awkward. Because they were my parents, they were interested in my life in a general sort of way, but there was simply no way to explain what I was doing, why it was important to me, much less to society. (Hell, it was even hard for me to understand it sometimes!) So when they would ask me what I was doing, I started shrugging off the question, even deriding what I was doing with a laugh about its purported uselessness. I certainly didn't give off the vibe that I loved what I was doing or found it particularly interesting. In retrospect, I don't think this was a smart thing for me to do, because it only fed into their concern about my choice to be a scientist. I should have been more up front about why science excited me, and done a better job explaining why the research was potentially valuable. As a scientist you need to work hard to bring people in your world, and it's a skill you better learn now. Admittedly, this is especially hard for a physical chemist. At least an organic chemist can point to pharmaceutical research or beneficial natural products.
This is better for me now. I am still a research scientist but my research is far more applied. I work for a well-known branch of the federal government, and thus it's much easier to point toward the value of what I do - if not my personal work, at least they understand the value of my employer. Honestly, I think this new avenue between my value as a professional and the sphere of experience possessed by the average person is the chief reason why I am so happy in my current position. When I'm asked what I do for a living, I no longer have to explain. I just tell them who I work for, and this is enough for them to nod their head with interest and respect. It is a good feeling to finally have people see value in what I do, even if it's a general kind of understanding. Beyond that, I think I've also gotten better at explaining what I do and how it's useful to people. Another valuable skill I've learned in my position outside of academia. Speaking to nonscientists is a necessary part of my current job, and it's something I would urge any aspiring scientist to start practicing early. Your parents, not surprisingly, would be a good audience to start with. (As an aside, I think a lot of scientists do the profession a disservice by treating laypeople with measured disdain: "They couldn't possibly understand, those ignorant masses, so I won't even both to trying." There is plenty of social science research to demonstrate the various negative impacts of the wide, bidirectional communication gulf between scientists and laypeople.)
Where I was going with all that is this. Your parents are a good source of information. Their hearts are in the right place and they do want what's best for you. You should heed what they say about careers and family and so on. But they don't know everything and they don't know what's in your heart. There's no easy answer to what you should do with your life. The best you can do is do what you love, but keep your options open. It's never too late to shift gears and do something else, and this is most easily accomplished when you have more skills, more experience, and a wider network of supporters, colleagues, and friends. So, if you choose to go to graduate school, learn as much as you can, work as hard as you can, meet as many people as you can, plan as far ahead as you can, and be the best that you can at everything you do. Expect disappointment, tragedy, setbacks, self-doubt, failure, sadness, frustration, heartbreak, stress and fear. But know that you'd encounter these in whatever career path you choose. And most of all, tell your parents what you're doing and why it excites you. They can be your biggest fans, and can offer you the physical and emotional support you're going to need to make it to the end of your journey toward your PhD, but you have to help them understand what they're supposed to be cheering for.
One other thing, about women in sciences. Twenty years ago, it may have been an accurate statement to say that women in sciences, particularly in hard physical sciences, would have been an abnormality. But this is absolutely not true today. You can find actual statistics somewhere at the Chemical and Engineering News website, which publishes a kind of census every year. I believe it's pretty evenly divided now across the gender lines. It may be true that women are slightly underrepresented in theoretical chemistry, BUT there are still plenty of brilliant female physical chemists out there. Up until recently the editor of the Journal of Chemical Physics, the premier journal for theoretical chemistry for almost a century, was a woman. Many of the greatest scientific minds today in science, be it biology, physics, chemistry, or whatever, belong to women - my wife, I like to think, emerging as one of them, but maybe I'm a tad biased
. Being a woman is the LAST reason that you should shy away from a career in science. So, anybody who thinks that a career in physical science is no place for a woman is simply misinformed. Period.