You'll need a strong science-based degree along with good technical skills and an eye for detail to become an analytical chemist
As an analytical chemist, you'll use a range of methods to investigate the chemical composition of substances. Your aim is to identify and understand the substance and how it behaves in different conditions.
The role varies depending on the setting and you can work in areas as diverse as:
- drug formulation and development
- chemical or forensic analysis
- process development
- product validation
- quality control
In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, you would be involved throughout the drug development process. This would include studying the physical or chemical properties of drug substances and formulations, with a view to determining the quality and stability of drug products.
As an analytical chemist your tasks can vary, but you'll typically need to:
- prepare and analyse samples from various sources to provide information on compounds or quantities of compounds present
- use analytical techniques and instrumentation, such as gas chromatography (GC), high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), ion chromatography, electrochromatography, liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) and spectroscopy (infrared and ultraviolet, amongst others), to investigate chemical compositions
- interpret data and meet strict guidelines on documentation when recording data
- review and evaluate experiments and analyses
- present scientific results to relevant teams
- write reports and research papers
- develop new techniques for the analysis of drug products and chemicals
- work collaboratively with cross-functional teams
- liaise with customers, staff and suppliers, as well as stakeholders and partners
- be aware of, and keep up to date with, health and safety issues
- keep up to date with the latest scientific and technical trends
- validate methods and equipment.
At a more senior level, you may be involved in preparing documentations for product licence applications, enabling clinical trials and setting specifications for finished products.
- Analytical chemists in the first few years of their career can earn in the region of £22,000 to £34,000.
- As you again further experience and take on more senior roles, salaries can range from around £30,000 to £45,000.
- Principal analytical chemists with extensive experience and lab managers could earn over £50,000.
Salaries vary depending on the sector you work in, the type and size of your employer, your experience, qualifications and location.
Starting salaries may be higher for PhD holders, but this isn't a requirement for the majority of analysis roles. There are more specialist roles, however, that can require a PhD.
Benefits also vary according to the employer, but may include free or subsidised medical insurance.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
You'll usually be expected to work 9am to 5pm but may have to do some extra hours depending on your workload and sample schedule. Part-time work and career breaks are sometimes possible.
Self-employment is very unlikely due to the significant financial investment in equipment and staffing, plus the need for accreditation. There are opportunities for freelance consultancy work, although large companies tend to have their own experts.
What to expect
- You'll usually work in multidisciplinary teams and communicate with scientists and customers from both within and outside the company.
- The job combines laboratory work with computer-based work in an office.
- Jobs are available throughout the UK and tend to be concentrated in large towns and cities. Research and development (R&D) work can be more commonly found in the south of England.
- You need to be comfortable with working to tight deadlines and solving problems as quickly as possible. Routine analysis can involve doing the same job for long periods of time, although you're less likely to do this in more senior posts.
- Travel within a working day and absence from home overnight aren't that common. If working for a large company, however, you may need to move between sites to help monitor safety conditions. Overseas travel is rare, although secondments abroad may be possible as you reach higher grades.
You'll need a degree, usually a 2:1 or higher, in chemistry or a related subject such as applied/analytical chemistry or biochemistry to become an analytical chemist.
Other relevant degree subjects include:
- forensic science
- materials science
- environmental science.
Search for degree courses accredited by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).
Entry-level jobs, often in analytical technician roles, are available for those with an HND. These types of role are often an entry requirement for a degree apprenticeship, which combines paid work with academic study at degree level.
Some large employers run graduate training schemes. Competition for jobs varies depending on the type of role and industry.
A pre-entry postgraduate qualification isn't required, although having an MSc or PhD in analytical chemistry or a related subject could be helpful for your longer-term career or for jobs in research.
You will need to show:
- self-confidence and motivation to investigate and solve complex problems
- the ability to organise, prioritise and schedule work to meet demands set by the department, company or external customer
- excellent written, oral and presentation skills and the ability to convey technical information to non-technical people
- a good standard of numeracy and skills in data analysis
- strong technical problem-solving skills
- IT and technology skills to work with advanced techniques
- creativity and the ability to use your initiative for independent work
- effective collaborative and teamworking skills
- a patient and methodical approach to work
- research skills
- observation skills and attention to detail
- the ability to perform tasks to quality standards in a safe environment.
You also need to be skilled in good laboratory practice (GLP) and good manufacturing practice (GMP).
Practical research or laboratory experience is beneficial. This can be gained from a year in industry, a summer work placement or an internship with larger companies. Search for placements and internships at Chemistry World Jobs.
There may be opportunities to work with smaller companies on summer projects. It's also possible to gain practical experience as a laboratory technician. For more information see the Royal Society of Chemistry - Work experience.
Getting work experience helps you to develop your practical skills and build a network of contacts for potential jobs when you graduate. However, if you have little or no experience in this area you should still apply for jobs. Full training is often available for entry-level jobs and employers will know you've picked up essential knowledge from your degree.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
Work can be found in a range of scientific industries and typical employers include:
- agrochemical companies
- biotechnology or contract research organisations
- chemical and polymer manufacturers
- energy companies
- environmental agencies
- food and drink companies
- forensic companies
- government agencies
- hospital laboratories
- multidisciplinary consultancy or testing companies
- petrochemical companies
- pharmaceutical companies
- public health laboratories
- research and development organisations
- water companies.
Research and development is carried out in a variety of organisations in the commercial, education and public sector. The work may focus on:
- pure/basic research - primarily done to improve understanding, without necessarily having an intended purpose
- applied research - involves the development of a commercially viable product.
Research is increasingly collaborative across all scientific fields, with many partnerships between business and academia.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Chemistry World Jobs
- Jobs.ac.uk - PhD studentships and roles in higher education.
- Nature Jobs
- New Scientist Jobs
Many of the major companies advertise jobs and graduate training schemes on their own websites, so check these regularly.
Recruitment agencies commonly handle vacancies for lab-based roles and require practical experience. They may, however, provide a first step into an organisation that you're interested in working for. Agencies you may want to investigate include:
Most training is on the job, delivered by senior colleagues, and may be supported by short courses.
You'll typically receive documented training procedures in the techniques you'll use. Suppliers of technical equipment or specialist software may also provide training.
In addition, training may be delivered through a programme of continuing professional development (CPD). The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) provides a list of approved training courses which can help with this. See RSC Continuing Professional Development for details.
Larger companies may provide opportunities for further academic study, for example to undertake a relevant Masters or a PhD.
Membership of the RSC is useful and is available at different levels, depending on your experience and qualifications. Membership provides access to networking opportunities, careers management support and the latest news and developments. The RSC's Analytical Division works to promote analytical science and provides a forum for scientists to exchange information and ideas.
You can gain further professional recognition by achieving chartered status as a Chartered Chemist (CChem) or a Chartered Scientist (CSci). For more information on the requirements needed to achieve chartership, see RSC Professional Recognition.
Career prospects are generally good for analytical chemists with demand growing across several industries such as environmental sampling testing.
As your career progresses, you will develop your technical expertise and will take the lead on the development, optimisation and validation of analytical methods. Increased responsibility will usually include the training and supervision of other analytical staff.
With the right combination of skills, experience and qualifications, there are opportunities to progress into senior analytical chemist positions and then on to a lab management role. There are also opportunities to move into project management, managing all aspects of a project from start to finish.
Getting a higher qualification, such as a PhD, is a common route into a career in research and can be useful for specialist and senior roles.
You could also move into teaching, lecturing or science communication.