Analytical chemistry is the science of obtaining, processing, and communicating information about the composition and structure of matter. In other words, it is the art and science of determining what matter is and how much of it exists.
Analytical chemists perform qualitative and quantitative analysis; use the science of sampling, defining, isolating, concentrating, and preserving samples; set error limits; validate and verify results through calibration and standardization; perform separations based on differential chemical properties; create new ways to make measurements; interpret data in proper context; and communicate results. They use their knowledge of chemistry, instrumentation, computers, and statistics to solve problems in almost all areas of chemistry. For example, their measurements are used to assure compliance with environmental and other regulations; to assure the safety and quality of food, pharmaceuticals, and water; to support the legal process; to help physicians diagnose disease; and to provide chemical measurements essential to trade and commerce.
Analytical chemists are employed in all aspects of chemical research in industry, academia, and government. They do basic laboratory research, develop processes and products, design instruments used in analytical analysis, teach, and work in marketing and law. Analytical chemistry is a challenging profession that makes significant contributions to many fields of science.
Analytical methods using robots and instrumentation specifically designed to prepare and analyze samples have been automated. In addition, increasingly powerful personal computers and workstations are enabling the development and use of increasingly sophisticated techniques and methods of interpreting instrumental data. So, in some cases, because the instrumentation does more, fewer chemists are required to prepare the sample and measure and interpret the data. On the other hand, the demand for new and increasingly sophisticated analytical techniques, new instrumentation, automation and computerization, and regulatory requirements have opened up new opportunities for analytical chemists in other areas. For example, quality assurance specialists help validate that analytical laboratories and the chemists working there follow documented and approved procedures; new instrumentation and laboratory information management systems have opened up opportunities for chemists with solid technical and computer skills; and corporate downsizings have provided the impetus for entrepreneurial analytical chemists to start their own businesses.
Regardless of the changes in the workplace, the minimum requirements for chemists seeking careers as analytical chemists include a solid background in chemistry, a propensity for detail, good computer skills, and good laboratory and problem-solving skills. Pat Mirando, a senior analytical development chemist at Wyeth Ayerst Lederle, says, "It's very important to have an understanding of basic chemistry because a lot of work is done on trivial things that can be quickly and easily explained by anyone with a good [chemistry] background." Basic skills, however, should be coupled with skills in other areas. Employers tend to recruit analytical chemists with experience operating different and increasingly sophisticated instruments that are used for routine measurements. In addition, they often seek analytical chemists with experience in specific types of analyses for example, the analysis of samples unique to pharmaceuticals, food, environmental samples, polymers, or minerals. Although high-volume routine instrumental analyses using well-defined procedures are automated, knowledge of the organic, inorganic, and physical chemistry of the sample and the measurement is valuable, particularly when troubleshooting.
Good oral and written communication skills are essential, particularly when oral presentations, reports, and memos are required to defend a measurement and its interpretation. In addition, familiarity with the various roles analytical chemists play in different industries and exposure to business and management practices are valuable assets that will allow growth into management, manufacturing, sales, and marketing positions.
As a senior analytical development chemist in the analytical development laboratory at Wyeth Ayerst Lederle, Pat Mirando is responsible for investigating problems with suspected complaint samples. In addition, he helps troubleshoot manufacturing problems involving the presence of suspected foreign matter found in raw materials and finished products.
For the majority of problems, Mirando uses a microscope with video and photographic recording attachments, a Fourier transform infrared spectrophotometer, and spot tests. "You can do a lot with these tests. You can demonstrate visually to people who don't understand the chemistry, what the composition of the sample is. In fact, it's crucial that you understand the chemistry of the sample; if you don't, you can miss the solution to the problem by using inappropriate methods of analysis," says Mirando. "How well I do the job is also personally rewarding [to me]. This is a highly visible position; my results provide information that can prevent costly problems from getting out of hand."
"I know how I can help my customers with my product because I've been in the lab and know what their applications and problems are," says Lisa Fay, an analytical chemist, and now a product specialist who handles the marketing communications efforts for Scientific Software, Inc. "I think customers give me a lot more credibility because I used to do what they do."
Fay's technical and business expertise are a result of working for many years as a bench chemist in agricultural and pharmaceutical analytical laboratories and as an applications chemist and marketing specialist with major instrumentation vendors. "This job is a lot like my earlier jobs with the small pharmaceutical companies. We're a small company growing very fast. I'm doing a little bit of everything and am being exposed to many different things," says Fay. "Though I'm considered a product specialist, I do all of the marketing communications: brochures, demos, sales binders, advertisements, trade shows, and market research."
Fay notes that while pursuing her chemistry degree, she thought she had no need for business courses. Now, she knows better. Exposure to the financial aspects of running a business in general is important. "I ended up returning to school to gain some business experience," explains Fay. "Education in something like accounting is important. If you understand credits and debits, you have a better understanding of the financial impact of your efforts."
Downsizing has provided opportunities to start businesses. "I'm trying to take advantage of the change in the way people do business," explains Cynthia Kradjel, principal of Integrated Technical Solutions, Inc. Her consulting firm provides analytical and calibration services for users, and technical marketing and product management services for vendors of analytical instrumentation. "Companies are downsizing, and as a result, they are losing a lot of in-house expertise. If they don't want to rehire the people with that expertise, they'll outsource it. That's where I come in; I provide that expertise by matching the appropriate person with the job."
Kradjel has a master's degree in chemistry and over 12 years experience as a marketing manager with an analytical instrumentation vendor. She provides her services to companies that have reduced their product management staffs. She says, "To be a successful consultant, experience in sales and marketing is a must. Knowing how a business operates and how to be a link between business and science is also important."
"Downsizing has enabled my business to grow," says Terry L. Ramus, a principal of Diablo Analytical, Inc. "It has reduced the amount of [instrumental analysis] applications expertise in some of these companies. Our company has taken on the analytical development process that was traditionally performed in user's or vendor's laboratories. This allows the user to focus on their products, the vendor to focus on the equipment, and us to focus on the development of analytical technology."
Ramus adds, "Since we are involved in transferring analytical technology (instrumentation-based chemical analyses) from the laboratory to the production area, we are taking the instrument to the problem rather than bringing the problem to the instrument." If he were hiring, Ramus says his ideal job applicant would possess at least five years of industry experience with demonstrable skills, problem-solving capabilities, excellent communication and listening skills, and the ability to work well with customers.
The expanding analytical needs of the biopharmaceutical industry and the increasing utility of instrumentation and techniques based on the integration of electronics and immunoassay-related techniques are creating a demand for analytical chemists with backgrounds in biochemistry and related areas.
Kilian Dill's training and research experience studying biochemical problems from a physical chemistry standpoint prepared him well for his job as a senior research scientist at Molecular Devices. "The research I do involves developing and enhancing immunoassays for the detection of very small quantities of analytes," he says. "We are studying the detection of two picograms (two trillionths of a gram) of DNA, as well as such molecules as cyclic AMP, or pesticides like atrazine. So, it's a whole range of ideas in using immunoassays [with the company's silicon chip-based technology] for environmental or biological testing."
The booming biotechnology industry has also created a need for measurements designed to provide quality and other information about proteins and other biomolecules. Although those with training exclusively in biochemistry and the analyses unique to the discipline perform many analytical functions in the biotechnology industry, analytical chemists who have backgrounds or training in protein chemistry can find satisfying employment in this area. "It's helpful to have a biochemical background from either course work, research projects, or internships," says Karen Miller, a research scientist in the analytical research and development group at Amgen, Inc. "As an analytical chemist, you become familiar with different kinds of instrumentation, but it's important to understand the chemistry of biomolecules, too."
Miller also points out that although it is not possible for an analytical chemist to be adept at all methods of analysis, it is important to know the capabilities of as many methods as possible so as to choose the best one to address a problem.
Environmental analysis traditionally involves analyzing air, water, soil, and other samples using expensive instrumentation in climate-controlled laboratories. This is a costly and time-consuming process, especially when analyzing larger numbers of samples for the most minute quantities of toxic pollutants while maintaining strict accountability and controls to meet regulatory requirements. Thus, the importance of Omowunmi Sadik's research and development efforts at the Environmental Protection Agency's National Exposure Research Laboratory in Las Vegas.
Sadik is developing immunochemical sensors to study and assess the release of pollutants into the environment and to determine the extent of human exposure. These sensors contain antibodies immobilized in electrically conducting polymers, resulting in devices that detect and accurately determine the quantity of specific pollutants. In addition, these rapid-responding and low-cost sensors can be built into portable and highly automated instruments that can be used at hazardous waste sites. "To develop chemical sensors, one needs to consider the principles underlying the operation of the new device, a background in analytical chemistry; an understanding of the fundamental principles of the sensor; knowledge of chemometrics, data processing, and [in my case] the integration of electrochemistry and immunoassay-related techniques; and for environmental analysis, an understanding of quality control and quality assurance concepts and practices," says Sadik.
Brad Tenge enjoys working for the Food and Drug Administration's Seafood Products Research Center because it gives him the opportunity to pursue studies in applied chemometrics, particularly pattern recognition. Chemometrics involves the use of mathematical and statistical methods to evaluate and draw conclusions from large amounts of chemical data.
Though Tenge has an undergraduate background in synthetic organic chemistry, a serious sports injury before graduate school prevented him from working in the laboratory. As a result, he changed his graduate focus from a more laboratory-oriented discipline to a more computer-oriented one, namely, chemometrics. Among the projects Tenge is working on is the identification of different strains of bacteria and the identification of different species of fish using pattern recognition techniques.
"The FDA was interested in hiring a person in this research group who had computer-based experience for doing exactly what I'm doing, [that is] species identification and, at some point, evaluation of food-product quality," says Tenge. He also notes that chemists working in government could find interesting research questions to pursue because of the specialized problems that they are asked to address working at a regulatory agency. He says, "You may get to do some things that you wouldn't get to do if you were in an industrial position developing a product."
Tenge also says, "The exciting thing is assembling our research data as part of an interdisciplinary team and placing it on the Internet. We're involved in putting together the Regulatory Fish Encyclopedia and making it available on the World Wide Web."
Analytical chemists are generally involved with making measurements using sophisticated state-of-the-art computer-controlled instrumentation in government laboratories as well as in laboratories in the chemical, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and food industries. They may also be involved in developing these techniques in these laboratories or in the laboratories of instrumentation vendors. Analytical chemists are also suited for positions as quality assurance specialists to ensure that procedures and protocols are followed.
Workplaces for analytical chemists are as varied as their job responsibilities and the sophistication of the laboratories they work in. The fact that a lab may not be equipped with the state-of-the-art instrumentation does not mean its chemical measurements are any less sophisticated. It may just mean that the measurements and techniques are cost-effective and sufficient for their intended purpose. Depending on the industry and job responsibilities, analytical chemists may also work in manufacturing areas, or as applications or sales and marketing chemists for vendors of instrumentation and apparatuses.
Analytical chemists are employed in every part of the chemical, pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical, food, and waste management industries as well as in government and private consulting labs and with vendors of chemical instrumentation.
Good laboratory and mechanical skills and the patience to perform sometimes tedious procedures is necessary for precise and accurate measurements. Good communication skills and the ability to learn about and keep up with new techniques and instrumentation and technology are essential for troubleshooting and problem solving.
A solid background in chemistry and good laboratory, computer, and communication skills are important for handling a wide variety of chemical measurements. Because analytical chemistry is a service discipline, combining the skills of a chemical analyst with knowledge of the unique problems of other chemical disciplines (such as organic, polymer, inorganic, and environmental chemistries) is a valuable asset. Course work in advanced instrumental methods enhance the chemist's versatility. In addition, customer service, business, and management skills are more important today than ever before.
Even as companies have reduced their analytical laboratory staff, opportunities still remain for analytical chemists with good troubleshooting, problem-solving, and communication skills. In addition, analytical chemists with experience and training in using a range of instruments for a wide variety of analyses are always in demand. In fact, the trend towards hiring employees for temporary short-term assignments may benefit chemists, too. Temporary employment agencies specializing in the placement of chemists can provide steady work for chemists with expertise in particular areas as well as enabling those with little experience to gain experience. Some chemists will also find success building opportunities of their own.
To find out what a person in this type of position earns in your area of the country, please refer to the ACS Salary Comparator. Use of the ACS Salary Comparator is a member-only benefit. General information about salaries in chemical professions can be obtained through published survey results.
Analytical chemists also can find opportunities in nonanalytical laboratories. A solid background in chemistry is essential as are courses in qualitative (what it is), quantitative (how much), and instrumental analyses. Paying or nonpaying internships and co-op work experience are also good ways to gain practical work experience and to explore opportunities in the field.