Analytical Chemist

The Job and What's Involved

Analytical chemists analyse substances to determine their chemical composition. They work in a range of occupational sectors, including:

Manufacturing - where they monitor the production process of everything from food and drink to cosmetics and pesticides, ensuring that quality products are produced.

Pharmaceuticals - where their work helps to determine the stability and quality of drugs and how they might be improved.

Healthcare - where they analyse body tissues and fluids to help medical staff diagnose disease.

Forensics - where they analyse substances (ranging from traces of explosives to tiny amounts of fibres) found at crime scenes to assist in criminal investigations.

Public protection - where they test air, water, industrial waste, drugs and food to make sure they are safe (analytical chemists working in this area include public analysts who are involved with environmental health and trading standards).

Analytical chemists use high-tech equipment and sophisticated techniques, such as gas chromatography, high performance liquid chromatography, infra-red and ultra-violet spectroscopy, to analyse substances. They record the data obtained according to strict guidelines, interpret it and present their findings in written reports. Computers and specialist software packages are increasingly being used to handle data.

More senior analysts could be involved with preparing the documentation for licence applications for products such as new drugs.

Analytical chemists work in teams with other scientists and technicians. Depending on their field of work they could also work closely with people such as production managers and other staff employed in manufacturing, doctors and pathologists, the police, environmental health practitioners and trading standards officers.

The work can be intense and pressurised. Problems often need to be solved quickly and work completed to strict deadlines. In some junior posts the work could involve doing the same task for long periods of time.

Hours vary from employer to employer, but in general analytical chemists work Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. Additional hours may be required at busy times.

Most work is done in laboratories, although more senior staff spend a large part of their time working in an office. Protective clothing, including a white coat, rubber gloves and a face mask, may be worn.

Starting salaries for analytical chemists may be around £20,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Analytical chemists are employed by manufacturing companies, including those producing food, pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, agrochemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides and other chemical and polymer manufacturers.

They are also employed in hospital and public health laboratories, government and environmental agencies, and independent consultancies and research organisations.

Jobs are available throughout the UK, and the current employment trend indicates that demand for this type of work is increasing. Competition for jobs can be intense, although some sectors, particularly pharmaceuticals, have difficulty in recruiting suitably qualified applicants. Because the pharmaceuticals industry is subject to seasonal demand, there are many short-term contract jobs rather than permanent positions.

Vacancies are advertised in publications such as the New Scientist, The Guardian (on Thursdays), Chemistry World and Nature. Jobs are also advertised on the websites www.newscientistjobs.com and www.jobs.nhs.uk and company websites.

Education and Training

Most analytical chemists have a degree. Relevant subjects include chemistry (or applied/analytical chemistry), environmental science, marine sciences, materials sciences, biochemistry, pharmacy and pharmaceutical science.

Because competition for many posts can be intense, major employers often require candidates to hold at least an upper second class degree. Often they prefer to recruit graduates who have had previous laboratory experience as part of a sandwich course.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

It is possible to enter the profession with an HNC or HND in a relevant subject area such as applied sciences or life sciences. For an HNC/HND course, entry is likely to be with one A level/two H grades, plus four GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), including maths, English and a science.

However, in practice many employers are appointing graduates to positions, such as technician and sales representative, that were formerly filled by non-graduates. As a result, entry with an HNC or HND is increasingly rare.

To study for a first degree, candidates usually need a minimum of two A levels/three H grades, and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3) in relevant subjects. Alternative entry qualifications may include a Foundation degree, a BTEC national award or SQA modules.

For some positions, a postgraduate qualification, either an MSc or PhD, is required. Entry to a postgraduate course is normally with a first or upper second class degree.

Major employers run graduate training schemes where most of the training is provided on the job. They may also provide opportunities for further academic study to upgrade an HND or a degree, or to undertake a relevant PhD. Obtaining a higher qualification, such as a PhD, is a common route into senior grades.

There may be short courses to offer training in the use of specialist equipment and software packages provided by suppliers.

Those working as public analysts are required by law to hold the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) qualification, Mastership in Chemical Analysis (MChemA). Candidates should hold a good honours degree and have several years' experience in an appropriate laboratory before applying to sit the examination. There is no training course to cover the whole examination syllabus. Most training is received on the job, supplemented by intense private study over a number of years. The Association of Public Analysts runs a five-day residential course aimed at candidates for the qualification.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

An analytical chemist should:

  • Have good problem solving skills.
  • Have a logical mind and a methodical approach to work.
  • Be able to keep meticulous records of research.
  • Be able to work in a team and on their own initiative.
  • Have good communication skills to convey technical information to people with little or no scientific knowledge.
  • Have a flexible approach to work and be able to prioritise tasks.
  • Have good maths and IT skills.
  • Acquire good laboratory practice.
  • Be self-critical and able to identify sources of error.

Your Long Term Prospects

Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is essential for analytical chemists to keep up to date with new developments and techniques. The RSC offers a career management programme with a self-help service to support members on careers related issues.

The Analytical Science Network (ASN) is a group of analytical scientists from industry and academia working together to promote analytical science. They organise and/or participate in informal regional meetings and networking opportunities to help scientists working in the industry to broaden their existing knowledge and skills and enhance their professional status.

With experience it may be possible to progress to more senior positions in the profession, for example to senior analyst.

Some analytical chemists move into teaching in higher or further education, or, with a relevant qualification, in schools.

There may be opportunities to work for companies with operations overseas.

Get Further Information

Analytical Science Network (ASN), Royal Society of Chemistry,
Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BA
Tel: 020 7437 8656
Website: www.rsc.org

The Association of Public Analysts,
Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1V 0BN
Website: www.the-apa.co.uk

Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA),
10-2 Market Towers, 1 Nine Elms Lane, London SW8 5NQ
Tel: 020 7084 2000
Website: www.mhra.gov.uk

Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC),
Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BA
Tel: 020 7437 8656
Website: www.rsc.org

SEMTA, 14 Upton Road, Watford WD18 0JT
National helpline: 01923 238441
Website: www.semta.org.uk

Society of Chemical Industry (SCI), 14/15 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PS
Tel: 020 7598 1500
Website: www.soci.org

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