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 diverse range of methods to investigate the chemical nature of substances. Your aim will be to identify and understand the substance and how it behaves in different conditions.
The exact role can vary depending on the setting. 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.
Types of analytical chemist
You can work in areas as diverse as:
- drug formulation and development
- chemical or forensic analysis
- process development
- product validation
- quality control
As an analytical chemist your tasks can vary, but you'll typically need to:
- analyse samples from various sources to provide information on compounds or quantities of compounds present
- use analytical techniques and instrumentation, such as gas and high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), ion chromatography, electrochromatography and spectroscopy (infrared and ultraviolet, amongst others)
- interpret data and meet strict guidelines on documentation when recording data
- report scientific results
- develop techniques for the analysis of drug products and chemicals
- work collaboratively in cross-functional teams
- liaise with customers, staff and suppliers
- be aware of, and keep up to date with, health and safety issues
- validate methods and equipment.
At a more senior level, it's likely you'll be involved in preparing documentations for product licence applications and setting specifications for finished products.
- Typical graduate starting salaries for analytical chemist jobs are in the region of £18,000 to £25,000. It may be possible to start on a higher salary if you have a PhD.
- With experience, or at a more senior level, salaries range from £25,000 to £40,000.
- Senior analytical chemists with management responsibilities could earn over £50,000 with extensive experience.
Salaries vary depending on the employer and location. Benefits also differ according to the employer, but free or subsidised medical insurance is common.
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
- Working in multidisciplinary teams is common, as is communicating with scientists and customers from both within and outside the company.
- At the start of your career, it's likely you'll be predominantly lab-based but as you reach more senior levels you'll work more in an office.
- Jobs are widely available throughout the country and tend to be in large, localised centres. Research and development (R&D) work can be more commonly found in south England.
- You may find the work occasionally stressful due to tight deadlines and pressure to solve problems as quickly as possible. Routine analysis can involve doing the same job for long periods of time, although this is less likely at more senior levels.
- Typically, travel within a working day and absence from home overnight aren't that common. 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 to become an analytical chemist.
Relevant degree subjects include:
- analytical chemistry
- applied chemistry
- environmental science (physical)
- forensic science
- marine sciences, marine biology or oceanography
- materials sciences or technology.
Competition for jobs with many of the major companies is high. While entry with an HND or foundation degree could be a possibility if you have substantial previous experience, it's likely to be at a lower level with restrictions on the laboratory functions you can carry out. Employers may offer training schemes.
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 promotion and professional development or for jobs in research. PhD holders are also sometimes sought for more senior posts.
You will need to show:
- self-confidence and motivation to investigate and solve complex problems
- the ability to prioritise and schedule work to meet demands set by the department, company or external customer
- presentation skills and the ability to convey technical information to non-technical people
- a good standard of numeracy and skills in data analysis
- IT and technology skills to work with advanced techniques
- creativity and the ability to use initiative for independent work
- effective teamworking skills
- a flexible and methodical approach to work.
You also need to be skilled in good laboratory practice (GLP) and be able to perform tasks to quality standards in a safe environment.
Practical experience of working in a laboratory environment is desirable and it can be particularly helpful if your course includes a year in industry. As well as providing you with practical skills, carrying out work experience can also allow you to build good contacts for potential jobs once you graduate.
If you have little or no experience in this area you should still apply for jobs, as full training is often available and employers will know you've picked up essential knowledge from your degree.
Work can be found in a diverse range of scientific industries and typical employers include:
- agrochemical companies
- biotechnology or contract research organisations
- chemical and polymer manufacturers
- environmental agencies
- food companies
- government agencies
- hospital laboratories
- multidisciplinary consultancy or testing companies
- petrochemical companies
- pharmaceutical companies
- public health laboratories.
Research and development is carried out in a variety of organisations in both the commercial and the public sector. The work may focus on:
- pure research, which tends to be conducted within universities and is primarily done to improve understanding, without necessarily having an intended purpose
- applied research, which involves the development of a commercially viable product and tends to take place within private industry and commercial organisations.
Research is, however, increasingly collaborative across all scientific fields, with many partnerships between business and academia.
Look for job vacancies at:
Many of the major companies will advertise jobs and graduate training schemes on their own corporate websites, so check these regularly.
In addition, recruitment agencies commonly handle vacancies. These tend to be almost solely lab-based and require practical experience, but may 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 and 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.
The RSC's Analytical Division works to promote analytical science and provides a forum for scientists to exchange information and ideas. You may consider joining its Analytical Science Network, which offers support for young researchers (under 35) in their early careers.
Larger companies may provide opportunities for further academic study, for example to undertake a relevant Masters or a PhD.
Progression to more senior grades depends on your ability and experience and involves taking on increasing responsibility. Getting a higher qualification, such as a PhD, is a common route into senior roles.
It can be beneficial to become a member of the RSC as its careers service offers support throughout your career, providing information, advice and guidance on all aspects of career planning and the job-seeking process. This includes developing or changing careers.
You can also develop skills and gain professional recognition by achieving chartered status as a Chartered Chemist (CChem) or a Chartered Scientist (CSci). Certain requirements have to be met to gain chartered status. For more information see RSC Professional Recognition.