Analytical Chemist

As an analytical chemist, you specialize in analyzing substances. You would use complex equipment and procedures such as chromatography, electrophoresis, mass spectrometry, and optical spectroscopy to test samples and identify and quantify their components. In addition to the environment, you work in industries such as oil and gas, pharmaceutical research, and forensics.

At a glance

Imagine you are standing in your bright white lab coat and safety glasses carefully monitoring the output of the complex and highly sensitive instrument in front of you. You are an analytical chemist and today you are testing used oil for trace metals. The oil was collected from several large diesel engines at a nearby industrial plant during their last routine oil change. These diesel engines are critical to the plant because they power its fire response system. Without them, the system would lose the pumps that send water to the fire hydrants. If there were a fire at the plant and these engines failed, firefighters would not be able to put the fire out. An uncontrolled fire on the plant site could cause huge explosions, noxious gas releases, and chemical spills. As a precaution, the plant has hired you to test the used oil from its diesel engines to look for signs of potential failure. As an analytical chemist, you test the used oil for trace metals, which would be indicators of potential problems with the diesel engines. When the plant's mechanics change the oil in these engines, they bring samples of the old oil to you. After prepping the samples, you run them through an instrument called an ICPS, an Inductively Coupled Plasma Spectrophotometer. The ICPS will tell you if there are any metals present in the oil and, if there are, what metals they are and in what quantities. You can then compare these results to established limits and control values. Once you have the results, you can look for indicators. Silver is used to make the bearings in these engines, so if silver is present, it means the bearings are wearing and must be replaced. Iron is also an indicator of metal wear, so if there are traces of iron in the oil, you know that another piece of the engine is wearing and needs replacement. Your oil analysis will tell the mechanics which engine parts are going to break before they actually do. Being able to anticipate failures and replace worn parts greatly reduces the risk of an engine breaking down in the middle of a fire or other emergency situation and possibly averts catastrophe.

Job duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as an analytical chemist:
  • Perform routine maintenance of equipment and daily quality control testing of analytical methods.
  • Calibrate laboratory equipment according to maintenance schedules.
  • Design sampling protocols.
  • Prepare standards, reagents, and solvents for experiments.
  • Prepare reports identifying samples, explaining testing methods, documenting findings, and outlining conclusions of analyses.
  • Design and execute experimental procedures, including qualitative and quantitative testing of complex samples.
  • Validate and troubleshoot analytical methods.
  • Plan, coordinate, and oversee laboratory analyses for compliance actions, emergency response, site studies, health and safety studies, investigations, and remediation.
  • Select methods and laboratory procedures and schedule, conduct, and supervise analytical tests.
  • Supervise technical staff.

Work environment

Analytical chemists work in a variety of locations including, but not limited to: In the lab:
  • Preparing test solutions and processing samples
  • Testing samples and conducting experiments
  • Designing experimental and sampling protocols
  • Calibrating instruments
In the office:
  • Doing paperwork and analyzing data for reporting
  • Researching literature and preparing reports and scientific papers
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, government departments, colleagues, and other scientists
  • Researching new technology and advancements in chemistry, and consulting with other chemistry professionals

Where to work

There are a number of places analytical chemists can find employment. They include:
  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Biotechnology firms
  • Waste management firms
  • Environmental consulting firms
  • Agrochemical companies
  • Forensic labs
  • Firms in other industries, for example oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, and manufacturing

Education & requirements

In most cases the minimum education requirement to work as an analytical chemist is a university undergraduate degree, though the majority of positions are in research and require graduate studies. If you are considering a career as an analytical chemist, the following post secondary programs are most applicable:
  • Chemistry
  • Environmental science
  • Chemical engineering
Certification is not mandatory for analytical chemists, but many practitioners choose to belong to professional associations, such as their provincial association for professional chemists. If you are a high school student and considering a career as an analytical chemist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
  • Chemistry
  • Mathematics
  • Biology
  • Physics

Role Model

Amandeep Nagra

Throughout high school, Amandeep Nagra’s strongest marks were in chemistry. "I wanted to pursue a career in this science, but I wasn’t quite sure how.” After a conversation with his brother, a recent university graduate, he decided to go to college instead of university. "I was more interested in the work side, rather than spending a lot of time in school.” Two years after finishing high school, Aman had completed a diploma in chemical science from the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Today, Aman is a technical services representative with Cantest Ltd., a commercial analytical laboratory in Burnaby, BC. Before that, he was an analytical chemist with Cantest for three years. As an analytical chemist, Aman spent much of his time in the lab. There he tested effluent (waste) samples for oil and grease levels, anions, ammonia, and cyanide, to name a few. These samples came from a variety of businesses, including chicken slaughterhouses, car washes, and sawmills. Aman ensured that these levels were below the allowed limits according to the environmental regulations of the Greater Vancouver Regional District. Aman was also responsible for other duties in the lab, including titrating chemicals, preparing solutions, and operating different instruments. "There are so many different analyses you can do in the lab—there was nothing dull about that job.” Another positive aspect of Aman’s job was that he regularly got to use his problem-solving skills. "We were always trying to design different ways to improve our testing and sampling methods. By doing so, we were making our job easier and more efficient.” One of Aman’s clients’ biggest misconceptions about his work was that sample testing could be completed in an hour. But effluent testing involves a number of stages and steps that can take several hours. Despite this, Aman was pleased to provide the service not only for his clients but also for the sake of the environment. "Just by notifying our clients that their commercial effluent is a problem, we are changing the quantity of pollution being dumped into our environment.”