Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

My job explained: Analytical chemist

analytical chemist testtubesAndy Hard explains how an interest in forensics led him to chemistry but his studies inspired him to work on life-saving drugs.

What stage are you up to in your career?

I’ve been with AstraZeneca (a pharmaceutical company) for four years, and in my current role for two. Before this, I did a PhD. I’ve gained a lot of experience in the past four years, particularly as my job is not directly related to the research I did during my PhD. I now get to take responsibility for technical aspects of projects, manage junior members of staff and, evaluate and introduce new technology.

What inspired you to study chemistry?

My GCSE and A-level chemistry teachers were very enthusiastic about their subject, but my main reason for choosing to study chemistry after school was an interest in forensics.

How long did it take to train and what did the training involve?

My undergraduate degree at Bath University took four years, which included a year in industry. I spent this time working at a pharmaceutical company in Switzerland, where I learnt a lot about applying analytical chemistry in an industrial environment. During this year, I also got the chance to pick up German, travel all over Europe at weekends and learn to ski.

After I graduated, I worked in Switzerland before returning to the UK to start my PhD. I did this at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich. My degree gave me a general training in chemistry and my PhD involved specialist research into novel applications of a particular analytical technique (Raman spectroscopy), but also taught me how to solve complex problems using analytical chemistry.

Can you describe a typical working day?

The main focus of my work is on analytical testing of raw materials and intermediates that are produced during the development of a new drug compound. Sometimes these can be small amounts made by chemists in the lab. Sometimes they might be samples from batches larger than 100kg made in the pilot plant.

Usually I am trying to identify impurities or work out the total amount of impurities present in a sample. Drug projects tend to move quite quickly, so the emphasis of my work can change on a daily basis. They also tend to involve quite a lot of meetings about the best ways to make particular compounds and the levels of impurities that should or should not be present in them.

What's the best thing about your job?

I really enjoy getting my teeth into a challenging problem. As an analytical chemist, my job is all about finding exactly what is in a particular sample – I find it much more satisfying to be able to tell someone what is in the white powder (or black sludge) that they have made, than being able to make the same thing myself. In order to do this you often get to use very advanced instruments that are capable of detecting very small amounts of a material or probing very small changes in the chemical structure of a material.

Have there been any challenges in getting to where you are now?

The main challenge facing someone trying to get a job in the pharmaceutical industry is the competition for work. The standard of applicants is always very high. In order to have a chance of getting a job, you have to stand out from the crowd and also perform very well during interviews.

To do well in interviews, the key is preparation. It’s a good idea to research the company and technical areas you are likely to be asked about in interviews. It is also helpful to have examples of things you have done in the past that show skills such as problem solving or team-working. To get selected for interview in the first place, your CV needs to stand out from the many others that will have applied. It particularly helps to have some relevant experience, whether from a year in industry, a summer job or some voluntary work.

What qualities and skills do you think are important for your role?

Flexibility, because things can change quickly. Patience, because sometimes things don’t change quickly enough. Perseverance, because not everything works first time. Good communication skills, because almost all the work is based around working in teams. You need to be able to explain your work quickly and clearly both verbally and in writing to people who may not be experts.

As an analytical chemist it is important to have an inquisitive mindset so that you are always questioning the meaning of your experimental results.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about following in your footsteps?

If you decide to start a PhD, be 100% sure it is the right thing for you to do. When you do start, work hard in the first year – three years seems like a long time, but it isn’t in reality.

When you are studying, take any chance you get to work in an industrial lab, because it will really help you get a job when you qualify.

What difference do chemists make to society?

I love the thought that my time at university, which was a lot of fun, has allowed me to get a job working on potential new drugs which could benefit many thousands of sick people all over the world. Without the skills of chemists at making and testing the quality of those drugs, the treatment of many diseases, such as cancer, would be far less successful than it is today.