What Branch of Chemistry is Analytical Chemistry?

Chemists analyzing samples in a laboratory

Chemistry is the branch of science that studies matter and its organization into substances, as well as the properties of substances and how they interact with each other throughout the universe. Analytical chemistry is focused on identifying what substances and how much of them are present in a sample of matter. If you’ve enjoyed studying chemistry in high school, you might consider pursuing a chemistry degree for a future career in the field. There are many specialties in the field to choose from, such as analytical chemistry.

What is analytical chemistry? Explore this career guide to find the answer and learn what analytical chemists do from one day to the next.

What Is Analytical Chemistry?

Analytical Chemistry is the study of chemical characterization of matter. It provides the methods and tools to deduce the qualitative, spatial, quantitative, and speciation aspects of analytical science.

An analytical chemist is a scientist who studies the composition and structure of matter. Working in a lab, analytical chemists perform experiments to determine the chemical composition of various substances, and how those substances behave under various conditions.

When considering the question, “What is analytical chemistry?” it’s worth looking at the practical applications of the body of knowledge. Analytical chemists may run experiments and analyze the results, but their work has significant implications for the world outside the lab. Their work can extend to the following:

  • In medicine, enable physicians to diagnose diseases more accurately
  • Develop pharmaceutical applications that help patients achieve better quality of life
  • Assess nutritional value and safety of food
  • Assess environmental quality by monitoring the chemical composition of soil, water and air to track for suspected contaminants
  • In industry, test materials to ensure that they have proper composition and structure
  • Provide pathways for greater innovation in trade and commerce

Analytical chemists play an important role in helping companies bring new products to market and ensuring the safety and effectiveness of those products. Their documentation is essential for enabling new products to gain approval from regulatory bodies, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Every day, analytical chemists are hard at work making new possibilities become reality.

A Typical Analytical Chemist Job Description

Analytical chemists are most often found in laboratories. They may work at independent labs, major corporations (e.g. pharmaceutical and food manufacturers), educational institutions and even government agencies. Analytical chemists are hired by a range of industries, from pharmaceuticals to petroleum.

A typical analytical chemist job description might list responsibilities such as the following:

  • Prepare, test and analyze samples of matter to identify its individual components
  • Apply scientific techniques to sample testing
  • Explore potential uses for substances in various industries, including pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and agricultural
  • Maintain detailed laboratory records that explain testing techniques and findings
  • Conduct evidence-based research
  • Develop reports on lab findings and prepare research for publication

An analytical chemist may sometimes need to handle potentially hazardous and otherwise dangerous chemicals. Because of this, it’s of the utmost importance that these professionals strictly adhere to all lab safety procedures and protocols at all times.

How To Become an Analytical Chemist

If you’re still in high school, talk to your guidance counselor about adding as many science and math classes as possible. You may want to explore Advanced Placement (AP) classes as well, which would enable you to earn college credit while still in high school.

As you get closer to your graduation date, you should begin looking at chemistry degree options at various colleges. All aspiring analytical chemists will need at least a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. This will enable you to develop a firm scientific foundation.

For a skilled analytical chemist there are many entry-level jobs in the field with just a bachelor’s degree. However, it’s far more common for aspiring chemists to earn a graduate degree. Some analytical chemists have a master’s degree, while most hold a doctoral degree.

You’ll want to try to get as much lab experience as possible. Often, these opportunities present themselves as valuable ways to enhance your career network, too. Outside of the classroom, you can:

  • Look for internship and part-time job opportunities in the field
  • Pursue a postdoctoral (postdoc) position after completing a doctorate
  • Join a professional organization

Based on your career goals, below are some examples of professional organizations:

  • American Chemical Society (ACS), which has divisions of Analytical Chemistry, Environmental Chemistry, and related areas
  • American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists
  • Association of Consulting Chemists and Chemical Engineers
  • Society of Analytical Chemistry 
  • Society of Cosmetic Chemists
  • American Society of Mass Spectrometry

Earn Your Undergraduate Chemistry Degree

After high school, your first step toward pursuing a career as an analytical chemist is to earn a bachelor’s degree. At this stage in your academic journey, it’s not necessary to choose a degree with a concentration or specialization. You could earn a general chemistry degree instead.

Your chemistry degree will include a blend of classroom instruction and hands-on experimentation in a laboratory setting. You’ll learn the fundamentals of scientific inquiry, evidence-based research, laboratory techniques and lab safety protocols. Although the specific curriculum will vary from one school to the next, a chemistry degree will usually cover topics such as the following:

  • Introduction to general chemistry, exploring topics such as atomic structure, nomenclature, chemical reactions, chemical bonding and thermodynamics
  • Concepts in analytical chemistry and instrumental methods, where students learn about identifying substances using a wide range of methods
  • Organic chemistry, with a look at chemical bonding, chemical structure and chemical reactions
  • Biochemistry principles, including structure-function correlation, kinetics, chemical reactivity, metabolic energy pathways and thermodynamics
  • Physical Chemistry, which dives deep into the “why” behind the concepts taught previously, especially quantum chemistry, thermodynamics, how reactions occur, and how the limits of our ability to measure matter impacts what we can learn

Inorganic Chemistry, which explores a variety of methods and techniques in the synthesis, isolation, characterization, and handling of inorganic and organometallic compounds. While you’re working your way toward earning your chemistry degree, you can look for opportunities to gain additional experience in the lab. Talk to a career services professional on campus about internship and part-time employment opportunities that are relevant for your major.

Consider Whether to Earn a Graduate Degree

Although it’s possible for graduates to pursue an entry-level position in the subfield of analytical chemistry with just a bachelor’s degree, many professionals find that more opportunities are available to them if they earn a graduate degree as well. At the graduate level, you may find degree programs that have been designed specifically for the subfield of analytical chemistry.

It’s possible to proceed directly to a doctoral degree program after earning a bachelor’s degree, although it’s common for aspiring chemists to first earn a master’s degree. A master’s degree in chemistry will usually require two-plus years of full-time study, while a doctorate may require another four to six years of full-time work.

For aspiring chemists, earning a graduate degree offers more than just expanded academic knowledge. It also offers the opportunity to gain more lab experience. The more experience a chemist has in the lab, the more likely the professional is to be a competitive candidate in the job marketplace and to command a higher salary.

Essential Skills and Characteristics of an Analytical Chemist

While you’re working your way through academia, you can actively cultivate the skills and characteristics that are helpful for all chemists. These include the following:

  • Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills
  • Communication skills
  • Commitment to upholding lab safety protocols
  • Creative problem-solving skills 
  • Attention to detail
  • Organizational skills

You can prepare to pursue a rewarding career in analytical chemistry when you apply for enrollment at Grand Canyon University. The College of Science, Engineering and Technology is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Science in Chemistry degree program to students who are passionate about furthering the body of scientific knowledge in order to fuel breakthrough innovations. Click on Request Info above to learn how you can join the GCU learning community in Arizona. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.