What Does an Analytical Chemist Do?

E. Starr

An analytical chemist is someone who investigates the ingredients and organization of matter. He or she is trained to use both qualitative and quantitative analyses to reveal the individual components and internal structure of both organic and inorganic matter. He or she is focused on determining what is in matter and how that can be measured and quantified.

Analytical chemists analyze chemical components and make sure laboratory work is consistent.
Analytical chemists analyze chemical components and make sure laboratory work is consistent.

Classic analytical chemistry can be thought of as laboratory bench detective work. The chemist’s job is to determine which chemical components make up an unknown sample. Typical analytical methods fall into two main groups: wet bench chemistry and instrumental analysis.

An analytical chemist may examine clothing from a crime scene for DNA evidence.
An analytical chemist may examine clothing from a crime scene for DNA evidence.

Wet bench chemistry might include qualitative observations of color, smells, boiling points and melting points. Basic quantitative measurements of volume, weight and potenz hydrogen (pH) level are often employed. More complex bench analysis might include titrations, precipitations, recrystallizations, flame tests and basic chromatography. A trained analytical chemist is able to manipulate an unknown sample with a great number of analyses, eventually revealing the chemical components.

Many companies hire analytical chemists in their research and development departments.
Many companies hire analytical chemists in their research and development departments.

Instrumental analyses provide a large array of other investigative options for approaching an unknown sample. Common techniques include spectroscopy, spectrometry, chromatography and electro-analytical methods. The instruments available have constantly improved and increased in number as the technology has grown and improved.

Analytical chemists often perform wet bench chemistry.
Analytical chemists often perform wet bench chemistry.

In addition to identifying the components of matter, an analytical chemist is also concerned with standardizing the components of a given substance. For example, one who works for a pharmaceutical company will not only be able to identify the components of a given medicine, he or she also will monitor the production of the medicine and ensure that it is produced with the same quality and quantity of each ingredient each time. In general, analytical chemists develop and maintain calibrations and standards to enable consistency in the laboratory.

Checking the pH is one of the most basic tasks of an analytical chemist.
Checking the pH is one of the most basic tasks of an analytical chemist.

The methods and approaches of analytical chemistry are applicable to all other areas of chemistry. Indeed, this field usually is considered a fundamental part of any chemist’s training. The science of analytical chemistry is also critical to a large number of other fields, including food regulation, water quality, medicine, forensics and manufacturing.

Analytical chemists can be found working within research environments, such as academia, as well as private or government research institutes. Many of these primary researchers focus on developing and improving analytical techniques. Others are employed by government agencies or private companies, often working in the areas of chemical monitoring and quality assurance.

Analytical chemists often perform instrumental analyses.
Analytical chemists often perform instrumental analyses.

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Discussion Comments


@GiraffeEars- If you are planning on taking time off before graduate school, you may want to consider looking for a career in materials science. GlassAxe is right that a bachelor's degree is likely inadequate for most analytic chemist positions. Materials Science covers a broader background than just chemistry, so focus on taking courses in all disciplines of math and science. In the end, Materials scientists are more versatile than chemists are and often earn more.

You can also consider working as a research assistant or a quality control chemist with just a bachelor's degree. You will get some really good hands on experience, but you will not be tasked into a leadership role. If you work for a government agency, you may be able to take advantage of a fellowship opportunity if you commit to work for the agency upon graduation. Government agencies often have programs in place to promote education in the sciences. They have a number of entry-level jobs for current students and recent graduates.


@GiraffeEars- Analytical chemistry is actually a specialized field of chemistry, and most analytical chemists study this field in depth in graduate school. In general, chemistry professions are competitive. The best and most abundant jobs will be available for those that hold Masters and Doctorate's degrees.

If you are planning to take a break between college and graduate school, I would recommend you try to become proficient in computer modeling and science. Computer skills are very important real world skills for chemists, and those entry-level chemists with good computer skills have the best chance at a position.

As for the average analytical chemist salary, I would assume it is somewhere around the average salary for all chemists. The average salary is likely somewhere between 50,000 to 90,000 depending on experience. For those chemists entering the workforce with just a bachelor's degree, the average salary is closer to $40,000 (BLS), and is low amongst the science field due to the decline in chemical manufacturing and demand for chemists.


Is it possible to become an analytical chemist with just a bachelor's degree? What kind of salary can an analytical chemist expect? What kind of duties are included in the typical job description for an analytical chemist?

I am interested in becoming an analytical chemist so I can gain some real world experience before I apply for graduate school. Would it be possible for a chemistry major to do research without a Master’s degree? What other chemistry jobs are available for chemists that only hold a bachelor’s degree?


@cougars- Chemistry is not that bad. It is hard, but like any other math and science subject, it takes lots of practice to learn the material. Repetition is key.

I have a friend who is a forensic chemist, and she loves the job. She analyzes evidence from crime scenes, ultimately helping victims and putting away criminals. It may not be a glory job, but it definitely pays well, and the work is consistent.

I am also sure that some analytical chemist jobs can be quite interesting, especially when new discoveries are made. For example, the chemical kinetics that you detest is actually a vital part of a pharmaceutical chemists’ knowledge base. Kinetics determines the absorption and reaction of drugs that are ingested. When a new drug is developed, an analytical chemist may have to determine the reaction rates of the drugs in trial.


Goodness, what an awful sounding job! I do not think I could ever be an analytical or biochemist. I am taking my second semester of chemistry, and I am having the worst time understanding some of the concepts. Right now I am stuck on chemical kinetics and rate laws, and they are making me want to question my degree.

I give credit to anyone who ever sat through the years of schooling to become an analytical chemist. Learning chemistry is a grueling task, and I would not wish it upon anyone.

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