Analytical chemistry is a burgeoning field of science that gives practitioners plenty of scope to be creative and uncover fascinating insights into the nature of substances.
Science is fundamental to everyday life. As we uncover more about the effects of global warming, genetic engineering, and a myriad of other subjects, the role of chemists — particularly that of analytical chemists — is becoming increasingly important.
After all, without understanding chemistry, how can we intelligently explore the most pressing scientific questions of our time?
In this article, we explore what it’s like to work in such an innovative field.
What is analytical chemistry?
Analytical chemistry is a broad and active branch of chemistry that deals with the gathering, processing, and communicating of information related to the composition and structure of matter.
The principles of analytical chemistry are used to check the quality of drugs, foods, and other chemicals used in products, consumables and the life-saving medicines we use every day. Without analytical procedures, it would be nigh on impossible to ensure the safety of these chemicals.
Analytical chemists perform controlled experiments to uncover the precise chemical components of a substance. To do so, they analyse samples by using a range of techniques such as spectroscopy, electro-chromatography, and high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC).
Analytical chemists are employed by a variety of public and private sector organisations and can specialise in areas such as toxicology, pharmaceuticals, quality control or forensics.
The expertise of analytical chemists is needed for a broad range of purposes, including drug development, toxicology, and forensic analysis.
What requirements are needed to be an analytical chemist?
In order to obtain an entry-level position, analytical chemists need a BSc or HND in a relevant subject such as chemistry, applied/analytical chemistry or biochemistry. Many decide to gain extensive work experience in the lab via work-study programmes or internships. Others opt to start out at a lab technician level, which places more emphasis on practical experience than academic qualifications.
Gaining membership of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) can also help individuals progress to more advanced positions.
This can be awarded three years after graduation, and it recognises achievements in professional activity. Depending on the achievement or level of experience, members can be awarded the status of fellow (FRSC) or chartered chemist (CChem), which signifies the attainment of specialised subject knowledge.
Most analytical chemists working in the research field must achieve a master’s degree or PhD to advance.
Analytical chemist skills
Aside from academic qualifications, it’s important for prospective analytical chemists to display a combination of key research and transferable skills, including:
- Numerical and analytical ability
- A curious, independent mind
- The motivation and ability to solve complex problems
- Attention to detail
- Deep theoretical understanding of analytical techniques
- Excellent IT skills
- Working well as part of a team
Given the lengthy processes involved in analytical chemistry, patience is also an important trait.
Which industries can an analytical chemist work in?
With a useful and highly sought-after skill set, analytical chemists are employed across a diverse range of industries in a variety of locations.
One sector that commonly employs analytical chemists is the pharmaceutical industry. In this field, analytical chemists determine the shelf-life of a compound and ensure if the quality of a drug substance is suitable for use in clinical trials. Using a wide variety of analytical techniques, they check for chemical impurities.
Other major industries with an analytical chemist presence include research and development (R&D), food and drink, agriculture, forensics, healthcare, academia, energy, and government.
Opportunities for analytical chemist roles are most often available in large metropolitan areas. In research and development, most opportunities are found in the south of England.
What does an analytical chemist do on a day-to-day basis?
A job as an analytical chemist involves the regular testing of products, raw materials, and intermediates on a daily basis.
The exact nature of the role depends on the setting. Analytical chemists who work in forensic analysis, for example, apply their analysis to evidence of potential crimes. Conversely, analytical chemists working in the pharmaceutical industry determine the quality and stability of drug products.
Typical responsibilities include:
- Analysing and interpreting data
- Accurately recording data in accordance with guidelines
- Writing research papers and reports
- Ensuring that health and safety standards are met
- Keeping up to date with scientific and technical trends
- Developing novel new analytical methods
Analytical chemists spend most of their time in a laboratory environment. The various experiments performed by them require handling potentially dangerous chemicals, so following standard protocols and safety procedures is imperative.
Practitioners of analytical chemistry test substances via two methods: a classical qualitative test and a quantitative instrumental check.
Classical methods use separations such as precipitation, extraction, and distillation. Meanwhile, instrumental methods — which make use of sophisticated, state-of-the-art instruments — can be used to separate samples using chromatography, heat interaction, electric fields or magnetic fields.
Once the experiments have been performed, analytical chemists switch to an office setting to analyse their data using advanced computer software.
In some cases, analytical chemists working for larger organisations may even be required to travel between locations to help monitor safety conditions.
The life of an analytical chemist is full of new discoveries, so there is no such thing as a typical working day.
How much does an analytical chemist earn?
The average salary for an analytical chemist in the UK is £27,000, though this very much depends on location, employer, and level of experience.
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Graduate starting salaries for analytical chemist jobs are range from £18,000 to £25,000. With a PhD in a related field, it may be possible to start on a higher salary. For analytical chemists at a more senior level with years of experience, salaries are in the region of £25,000 to £40,000.
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See here for a 'Day in the life' account of an Analytical Chemist we placed.
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