Think of a challenging job, with great variety and good career prospects. The chances are that analytical science isn?t the first thing that jumps to mind. But maybe it should be. The importance of analytical science, which is at the heart of making sure our drinking water is clean and our drugs of consistent quality, translates into careers that are as versatile as they are rewarding.

More than trained monkeys

Analytical science is too often thought of as a daily grind of squirting colourless liquids into inanimate machines. Analytical scientists themselves are acutely aware of this image problem. "Analytical scientists are often seen as the Cinderella of the chemistry world," says Alexis Holden, senior lecturer in the department of environmental management at the University of Central Lancashire. Jon Greenacre, who was product development manager for Albert Browne and is now an Analytical Science Network regional representative, agrees: "If you've got to analyse a thousand batches of Aspirin each year, it's not the most glamorous job."

But if some analytical chemistry jobs are "quite trained monkeys," as Helen Armitage, now an account manager for Argonaut Technologies, puts it, there is much more to the field. Between 1996 and 2001, Armitage carried out consultancy work within the University of Hertfordshire. There she solved problems for external clients by collating analytical data from a number of sources and techniques, often relying on specialist technicians to carry out the actual analyses. Far from doing a routine and non-demanding job, she got to work on topics that she describes as "so varied that I can?t give you a typical example."

The same is true in a commercial environment, where being an analytical scientist means much more than just operating machinery. When working for Albert Browne, a company which specialises in providing sterilisation monitoring systems for hospital equipment, Greenacre was helping to develop new technologies, enjoying "trying to do something never done before." As for Mark Powell of Quay Pharmaceuticals, who is responsible for the quality and analysis department of the company, variety is what he likes best in his job. On any one day he can find himself doing "anything from updating quality systems through to developing an analytical method." His career has itself been just as varied, with previous positions as an analytical chemist at Anglian Water and Hyder Consulting and lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University.

There is also a feeling among analytical scientists that the importance of their discipline is often underrated. "It?s partly because it?s seen as a service," explains Powell. But scratch below the surface and you will find that "very few of the other [scientific] disciplines could operate without analytical scientists," points out Holden. And this vital role of analytical science within science as a whole means that job prospects for those with analytical training are very bright.

According to Powell, "there are tremendous job opportunities for analytical chemists," as "competent graduate analysts are in short supply." The chemical and pharmaceutical industries, for example, depend heavily on analytical scientists both to ensure the efficiency of production and the safety of the product. And Greenacre highlights, "people always need quality control analysts."

"Possibly the most accessible of the sciences"

Experience in analytical science is also very attractive to companies wanting to employ technical sales people as both Greenacre and Armitage?s careers show. "People are always screaming out for chemists who want to talk to people," explains Armitage. According to her, a technical sales job is not one that involves pushing products onto potential customers so much as finding solutions to problems that a company may have. This allows Armitage to use her trouble-shooting skills and broad knowledge of analytical chemistry.

There are a variety of routes by which you can get into analytical science, prompting Greenacre to label it as "possibly the most accessible of the sciences". The most standard route, however, is probably via a degree with a strong chemistry bias. This will give you the necessary knowledge base on which to build your analytical skills. Greenacre, for example, has a BSc in chemistry with analytical science from the University of Loughborough, which also incorporated a year in industry. As for Holden, she took a BSc in medical laboratory sciences with analytical chemistry, before focusing on analytical chemistry during her PhD.

Also common, according to Armitage, is for PhDs in organic chemistry to "move over to learn pharmaceutical analytical chemistry in industry." However, although most transferable skills learnt in chemistry PhDs will be helpful, "if [the job is] something that relies very heavily on analysis and validation of results, you?d want someone with a good background in analysis," explains Holden.

Well Supported

Analytical scientists may feel underappreciated, but they have an active network in the form of the UK Analytical Partnership (UKAP) and the Analytical Chemistry Network (ACN), both supported by the Royal Society of Chemistry. UKAP is an association set up to improve the UK analytical sector in terms of its regulation and competitiveness, research funding, and the supply of skilled people (giving information on training and a list of the skills necessary to become a successful analytical scientist). As for the ACN, it provides a reference point for chemists and promotes communication between industry and academia as well as awareness of current news within the field.

So what sort of person makes a good analytical scientist? The overriding theme is, as Armitage puts it, that you will need "an inquiring mind, and [want] to do the problem-solving." This will require a "tenacious streak," adds Holden, as "when things go wrong you?ve got to keep going at it to be able to resolve it." A good understanding of your subject, a wide knowledge of the techniques that could be used to solve a problem, and, as Powell says, "the ability to apply knowledge" are also a must.