Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Ask CJ: I want to go to graduate school to become an analytical chemist -- how do I do that?

From the inbox, a very interesting question from WD:
I'm [22-28], BS in chemistry, graduated with GPA < 3.0. I've had personal circumstances that prevented me from actually focusing on school during my whole undergrad. I'm at a much better place in life, considering further education. 
As of today, I'm at my first "real" job-- [redacted] chemist at [redacted] -- been here almost one year... I do a lot of [synthesis.]  
...I've had some chances to tinker and work with analytical instruments here. I loved it, even though it was only working with IC and GC/MS.  
My ideal career would involve studying these instruments, coming up with better methods and improvements to the instrument, and generally be around them 24/7. Would I be able to gain this sort of knowledge/experience via M.S or Ph.D? I was around a few organic, inorganic grad students while in undergrad so I know what their work consists of, but I don't really have a clue on what analytical chemistry grad students do, or what sort of angle they tackle this big umbrella term, "analytical chemistry".
Personally, I think WD is eminently eligible for graduate school in analytical chemistry, perhaps a master's program? I would think that WD would need to do some independent study and do well on the chemistry GRE in order to shore up their case. A nice letter from one of WD's analytical colleagues would probably be helpful, or perhaps a letter from an analytical chemistry professor at their old school (one that has reviewed WD's current work experience and has positive comments.)

All of that said, I know next to nothing about graduate school in analytical chemistry. Analytical chemists -- now's your time! What should WD do next? 


  1. If he is fascinated with analytical instruments he could consider employment with an instrument company.

    I could be reading into this, but it looks like he was unhappy while in school, now he's happy, but he wants to go back to school. If his family has the means to support him this could be a wonderful idea. Otherwise he is creating some risk for himself, adding student debt (MS) track or spending 5 or 6 years of his youth (PhD track). When I was his age I thought analytical instrumentation was cool too, but there is a lot more to building a career than playing with the GCMS. He might already be in a pretty good place for himself.

  2. The question I would ask is this: is a degree in analytical chem going to teach me how to think about how to build a better instrument? I would think you might want some kind of engineering degree instead. With engineering, MS seems like the major terminal degree to get a job decent job. I would imagine you are better off getting it from a prestigious program (eg Purdue?)

    I dont think a PhD in Chemistry should not be considered in anyway, shape, or form unless he can get into a top 10 university. Not top 20. Top 10.

  3. Stewie Griffin:
    I agree with Anon 11:56. Work for an instrument company. A gal I went to undergrad with ended up at an instrument company and is basically develops applications for new instruments/new models. These methods become papers that the instrument maker then uses as ways to get folks to buy the instrument or upgrade to a newer model.

  4. Definitely not something you need to go to grad school for. Work your way into an analytical position and sooner or later you'll be elbows deep into a MS wondering why nothing ever goes smoothly! But seriously, you can learn a ton if you find a company to work for that doesn't heavily rely on service contracts. It's a curse and a blessing all at the same time but we do lose staff to instrument companies!

  5. I think there are two themes at play here. 1) The decisions faced by non-traditional graduate students and 2) what there is to be gained by a graduate degree in analytical chemistry. I can't really speak to theme #1, but as an analytical chemistry PhD, I can probably weigh in on #2.

    Depending on the type of research you do in your graduate career, a PhD in analytical chemistry can lead to (among other things) a position with instrumentation companies either in research and development of the instrumentation itself or as an application scientist. I would slightly modify NMH's comment; analytical chemists with the right background and training indeed work on building and designing new instruments, but is certainly correct in that engineers are also involved. Realistically, I think you would need to work for an advisor that builds instrumentation to expect to land that type of job, however.

  6. In job postings it seems to be that in order to get an engineering job you must have a BS in engineering. (I've seen some jobs which have explicitly stated you must have a BS in engineering.) Getting a MS in engineering after a science degree doesn't seem to get you in the door.... Is this a correct reading of the job market?

  7. As a jobbing research chemist and graduate student in analytical chemistry, I feel like I should reply. My peers (analytical chemists with postgraduate qualifications) work across academia, private industry and in the public sector. I think a lot of analytical chemists end up becoming experts in a particular family of instrumental techniques, but the good thing is that this does not confine you because there is a wide array of fields to which you can apply your expertise. A PhD or masters in analytical chemistry certainly would not limit one to a job in an instrumentation company, although I think being an applications chemist with Agilent or similar would be pretty cool.
    Good luck WD
    Disclaimer: I'm in Australia, and my feeling from the chemblogtwitosphere is that the employment and graduate school situation is quite different here.

    1. Would you say the situation is good? Do you know how it is for other specialties besides analytical?

  8. WD, I was in exactly your shoes 5+ years ago for similar reasons. I applied to grad school with excellent work experience, references, and was included in several publications, but my grades were very poor (GPA 2.1). I did not get into the 3 grad schools I applied to, likely due to my grades being far below the school's minimum GPA. Now, I'm glad I wasn't accepted. I've been able to do exactly what I've wanted to do for the last several years working as an analytical chemist for a biotech company, rather than pursuing academic research that I likely would not have been as passionate about. The lack of PhD has not held me back from doing the lab work I enjoy. Rather, a PhD would take me out of the lab to manage others. The income I would have lost the last 5 years, by my calculations, would take 15-25 years to break even. Not worth the sacrifice.

    I strongly recommend you go ahead and apply to graduate school, and see what doors open, or close. This will give you clarity for the future. If you don't get in, move on and don't worry about missed opportunities. The most relevant experience you're going to gain for work in industry will come by working in industry. If you're passionate with a desire to understand why thinks work then the scientific thinking a PhD trains up will develop. If you get accepted, then you'll know more, having gone through the application process, and will have a more eduated decision to make.

    I also suggest learning what it is about instrumentation that you most enjoy. Do you really love troubleshooting instrument problems? Is there specific equipment you like or dislike? Is it modifying, or developing from scratch, a method that excites you? Do you like using many methods as tools to characterize and understand product quality? Once you can focus on what you're really passionate about, then you can begin to know whether working for an instrument company would be a good fit, or working in biotech, or manufacturing, etc. You may need to work a few different places to get the experience with different types of equipment and types of work (routine analysis, method development, etc.) to answer the above questions.

    Do find the work you're passionate in, and the work you excel at. If you can find that fit, I don't think you will find a lack of a graduate degree holding you back.

    1. I loved this comment, btw. Thank you!