Analytical Chemists in Demand

Analytical chemists trekking to New Orleans for this month’s Pittsburgh conference might be forgiven a certain amount of hubris. Their services are in demand, by industry and academia, as never before. “I think it’s the tightest area in chemistry, with the possible exception of polymer chemistry,” declares Ted Logan, Manager of Ph.D. recruiting at Procter & Gamble Co. Actually, the U.S. supply of Ph.D.s in analytical chemistry is rising. The compound growth rate of 6.7

Feb 22, 1988
Peter Gwynne
Analytical chemists trekking to New Orleans for this month’s Pittsburgh conference might be forgiven a certain amount of hubris. Their services are in demand, by industry and academia, as never before. “I think it’s the tightest area in chemistry, with the possible exception of polymer chemistry,” declares Ted Logan, Manager of Ph.D. recruiting at Procter & Gamble Co.

Actually, the U.S. supply of Ph.D.s in analytical chemistry is rising. The compound growth rate of 6.7 percent between 1981 and 1985 was almost double the 3.7 percent that applied to all chemistry Ph.D.s. But that level of growth is still too slow to meet the rapidly rising industrial demand. In fact industry recruiters worry that their offers of high salaries and state-of-the-art equipment will draw too many analytical chemists away from academia, and hence threaten the supply of the next generation of Ph.D.s.

What has created the demand? Experts point to a combination of advances in basic chemistry, new technology, and the broadening nature of present-day research.

With the emergence of large molecule chemistry and biotechnology, explains Henry Blount, program director for analytical and surface chemistry at the National Science Foundation, analytical chemists have to make their measurements in entirely new and tough environments—in fermentation vats, and at extremes of temperature, for example. They must also take several of their readings non-invasively. That type of demand creates the continuing challenge of developing new analytical techniques, among them the use of robotics and artificial intelligence.

Another stimulus for analytical chemists stems from the nature of current research, which requires scientists to characterize completely every new food additive, drug, and compound likely to find its way into the ecosystem. “Modern R&D requires the asking and answering of tough technical questions, most of which have an analytical slant,” explains Logan. “Industry has realized that the analytical chemist is absolutely critical for R&D.”

According to Blount, analytical chemistry has become so challenging that it needs the best and the brightest chemists. That contrasts markedly with the situation three decades ago, when analytical chemistry had low status. Because of that, several major schools discontinued their analytical departments, and ceased producing analytical Ph.D.s. Today, according to Logan, about 12 schools in the United States produce more than half of all Ph.D. analytical chemists.

The raw numbers of newly-minted analytical chemists give a rosier picture of the supply than reality warrants. Of the 257 who received their analytical Ph.D.s in the year ending June 1986, for example, 43 were aliens on temporary visas who were automatically lost to U.S. industry and academia. Perhaps half of the remainder were specialists in instrumentation and other areas outside the fields of separation chemistry and chromatography that industry regards as the analytical mainstream. The overall result: “A good Ph.D. analytical might come in here for a recruiting visit with five offers already in his or her pocket,” laments Procter & Gamble’s Logan.

Companies can often afford to top their rivals’ offers, or provide physical and organic chemists with the training and support necessary to carry out an adequate job in analysis. Colleges and universities rarely have that type of option available. Like industry, academia is chasing a small pool of analytical chemists who specialize in such hot areas as separation science and chromatography; unlike industry, it’s not even coming close to keeping up with demand. Faculty posts in analytical chemistry can stay unfilled as long as three years. According to Blount about 100 faculty spots are currently available, about onethird of them in major Ph.D.granting institutions.

That level of vacancies concerns industrial recruiters who face the need to start their own labs in future years. “It’s a situation that worries me and other people in my position in industry,” admits Logan. Several companies, including P&G, sponsor fellowships, short courses and summer programs in analytical chemistry to keep the flow of Ph.D.s advancing as effectively as possible.

Gwynne is director of editorial operations for THE SCIENTIST