Jobs for the Girls: Analytical Chemist

Here at Any Other Woman we don’t shy away from asking difficult questions and our ‘Jobs for the Girls’ series is no different. This is not a wishy-washy Q&A session where we ask you to list your GCSEs and describe what’s in your desk drawer. This is about what makes you tick. We want to get to know you, to delve in to what you do, find out why you do it and discover what you get out of it. We want to understand your inspiration, feel your passion and celebrate your achievements with our readers as well as provide a supportive platform when you’re having a bit of a wobble. After all, everyone has a wobble every now and again, no?

We want to know if you’re fulfilling a life long ambition or if you’re simply working to pay the bills. We want to showcase the different careers that our readers have and hope that some of you may be inspired to follow that path, or encourage you to recommend your path to others.

Team AOW have been busy conducting some fascinating interviews with people from very different employment sectors and we can’t wait to share them with you over the course of the next few months. We’re very excited!

So far we’ve brought you a divorce-lawyer-turned-photographer and a PHD student as part of our ‘Jobs for the Girls’ series. Today we’re talking science, specifically chemistry.

Sandra, or Sange to her friends, is an analytical chemist for a specialty chemicals manufacturer. For those of you who don’t know Sange, she’s a straight talking Geordie, with the gift of the gab, a quick sense of humour and a warm heart. How does that fit with being an ‘analytical chemist’ which, to me at least, conjures up the image of a loner boffin in a white coat with mad hair?

An analytical chemist hard at work.

Ok, so maybe Beaker from the Muppets isn’t the only chemist out there.  Does she fit the stereotype? As you can see from the image, there’s definitely a white coat but I’d call that a cool haircut, not a mad one.

Sange channelling 'laboratory chic'

 

What about the rest of it, Sange, is it true?

“I’m a nerd, totally, unashamedly a nerd! A glamorous nerd, just not the tits-out type of glam, obviously…”. 

So how did this fabulous Geordie lass end up working with the biggest refinery clients in the world in a laboratory on the South Coast? Unsurprisingly she started with a chemistry degree:

I did an ‘Applied Chemistry’ degree or what was known as, in old money, ‘a Chemistry sandwich degree’ – 2 years of study, a year in industry and then a final year of study. The study was straightforward but the year in industry was really useful in terms of running the instruments and learning the methods you need to apply the skills you’ve learned. Mainly my year as a ‘lab monkey’ was effectively spent as a tea and washing up lady! No bad thing, it teaches you about the work place, how to interact with people”.

I wanted to know how she went from a fresh-faced Chemistry grad to the position she holds now:

I fell in to it by accident, really. After my degree, I started working as a laboratory assistant in a school and then I ran a pub down south for 10 years. As you can guess, it was boy related!”

Newcastle’s loss was London’s gain as Sange moved south (she moved for love, readers!) where they ran a pub together for several years. After splitting up, Sange continued to run the pub but found that is was becoming too much.

Running a pub is a lifestyle rather than a job. It takes up all of your time and you only ever meet the people who come into your pub. You don’t have a life of your own. I had to change things, I needed to get out and meet new people. I knew if I didn’t move then, before I knew it I’d be 50 and surrounded by the same people. It was a natural thing for me to move back into Chemistry. I’d done it before, was confident in my ability. It wasn’t a difficult choice or move to make – finding somewhere to live was more of a pain!”

Sange ended up taking a job at a couple of girls’ public schools in Hampshire as a Senior Technician. She was responsible for preparing for the practical chemistry lessons, ordering, safety etc but knew there was only so far she could take the role. After 5 years it was time to move on.

I’d been there for some time and was getting bored. The girls were fine but some of the staff were a nightmare. At times it felt that despite them being grown women, I was working as a nursery nurse. There I was, in my mid 30s, needing a change.

I saw the job advertised in the paper. I wasn’t terribly qualified for it as I had a broad chemistry background rather than an analytical background but is transpired that was what they wanted. I applied and was offered the job”.

I asked Sange to talk me through a typical day for her.

“It varies day to day. Our head office is in the States so we’re largely driven by what happens over there. If I arrived and there’d been a major equipment breakdown as part of what I was doing or simply a priority shift in the States, I’d have to alter my plans for the day. Essentially my role encompassed analysis of samples, prep for analysis of samples, reading for research.”

Samples? What samples?!

On a basic level I am sent samples from refineries all over the world but usually Europe, the Middle East or Asia. The samples could be oil, water, solids, lots of variety. 

They get sent to me because someone, somewhere, is having a problem in their refinery and they need me to help to find out what the cause of that problem is. It might be that there’s salt in the oil, dissolved gases or maybe even metals.  Whatever the issue, its my job to help to find the problem and present you with the solution.”

How does that work in practice?

I’ll be given a sample and it’s my job to analyse it. I have lots of different bits of equipment that I can use, whilst wearing my white coat and glasses, naturally. I can deduce what the issue is and what sort of chemical you’ll need to resolve it.  Essentially there are two parts – sales and research, one pays for the other. Sales (of previous solutions/analysis services) pay for the research into new chemicals.

Someone might come to me with a drawing of a chemical that they think might solve a problem and their question to me is ‘Have I made what I think I’ve made?’. I then have to analyse the sample they’ve made and either confirm that they’ve made what they expected or to tell them what they have actually made.  We try to be one step ahead of our competitors. It can be incredibly fast paced and yet you have to accurately ascertain the order of which way to use the chemicals to make the product you need.”

 

A metallic nest of vipers aka a Mass Spectrometer detector, of course.

What drives you within your role?

Sales support is run of the mill. Method development and research is really interesting and it’s what I’m really good at. Being given a drawing on a piece of paper – ‘I’ve made this thing, can you detect it?’ – is always an exciting challenge!  Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the correct paper [previously written about that particularly compound].  Other times we have to convince someone to pay for the equipment to correctly detect a chemical. I have to decide how best to analyse it.  

Once someone has said to me ‘Can you do/make/find this?’ you can’t always guarantee a yes. However, if after weeks and weeks, I finally crack it and am able to tell someone I’ve found what they’re after (whether that’s the chemical or the method to find it, sometimes both) it’s just great! I’m nosey, I have to know. I question things all the time. I am that child who says ‘Why? Why? Why?’ I just have to know.  It’s all so interesting. What’s more exciting is that there’s always a ‘Why?’; we’ll never know everything. I don’t think we couldn’t ever know everything. There are lots of other nerds out there who know a whole lot more than me, it encourages me to keep asking.” 

And what really floats your boat? Or should that be what makes your atoms collide (sorry, couldn’t resist!)?

Best thing ever is any method [for detection of a particular chemical] I’ve developed from scratch in response to something a researcher has made. It’s like you’ve won; you’ve beaten chemistry!  When it happens there’s a real sense of community spirit and we buy cakes to celebrate!

It’s a similar feeling when the thing you were involved in goes in to production and is sold.”

It can’t be all jolly though, surely?

No, like any job there are downsides. For me it’s the paperwork. You do it because you have to but I would rather be tinkering round in the lab.  I spend around 70% of my time in the lab. It’s great to generate results but at some point you have to write them up. That said, it’s always good when work I’ve contributed to is published, molecules subsequently patented, that sort of thing.”  

It sounds as if you’re very good at what you do. Are you often pushed outside of your comfort zone?

All the time. Every time someone walks in and says ‘I am thinking of making this’ it’s like a new job. I might have experience in that area, fine, great, but if not then you have to start from scratch. I’ll have to research the elements involved, do literature searches, experiments, all sorts. I just don’t know what’s going to come in each week.” 

What makes you a good analytical chemist? Would sort of skills should one have?

Nosiness. Without a doubt!  Needing to know the answer is a great motivator. Otherwise, it might sound a bit weird but I’ve always had the ability to visualize inside my head what’s happening inside the instruments I use. Although they vary in nature, I have pictures in my mind of how certain molecules operate in relation to others. It really makes it easier for me, having these pictures.

It goes without saying that you need to be technically able with good problem solving ability.”

Hard at work.

 

I’ve always imagined scientists, sorry, analytical chemists, to be scarily neat and precise?

Neatness is not a defining quality, usually labs look like a bomb’s hit them. I’m sure the more mad amongst us have a disordered mind. I think I’m pretty unusual in working tidily. Being anally retentive helps!

One thing I’m not so good at is being patient. Sometimes you just can’t hurry things! It’s something I’m trying to improve on.”

I’m fascinated to learn about the social conditions of other people’s jobs. It amazes me to see how different industries treat their staff and what sort of culture is prevalent. How would you describe things for you?

Sixty percent of my working time is spent working alone, rather than as part of a team. Despite what sounds like solitude, I do share a lab and our offices are adjacent too. Even though we tend to work on separate things it’s nice to have some company.

I’m lucky to work for such a ‘grown up’ company. If I want to go in to work at silly o’clock in the morning but leave early afternoon I can do.  Hours are fairly standard however during a research trial my hours would be dictated by the reaction time of the experiment I’m working on. Sometimes we take shifts but again, it’s a very mature outlook. When I am working longer hours, it’s no real hardship, I just drink lots more tea!”

Are you a woman in a man’s world stuck out in them there labs?

There are certainly more men in the industry than women although that is changing. When I did my degree, there were 53 or so people on the course, only 7 or 8 of whom were women. The women who were on the course did very well – some of the men had a far greater tendency to showboat, the women just got on with things. I imagine the ratios are changing now.

It seems that most women turn to biology rather than chemistry or physics. I think it’s because there’s less maths involved with biology compared to the other two. [The lack of maths at a higher level] seems to be a real divider between men and women still.

That said, as a chemist, I’ve never been aware of barriers put in my way because I’m a woman. Where I am, my work very much work speaks for itself. I’m lucky to have a really positive mentor – and she happens to be female. She’s excellent, and not just because she’s 5000 miles away!”

Women like this are always of interest to us at AOW, what is it about her that empowers you?

“She trusts us. She’ll leave me alone and I’m trusted to get on. If ever you manage to cock something up she’ll stand behind you, supporting you. She would say privately that you’d not handled something well but she’ll tell you to leave it with her and she sorts it out. She takes it on the chin as a proper manager ought, rather than letting her staff take the fall. She’s a strong woman and it’s good to see a woman in such a senior position. Despite the distance, I’ve only ever felt supported, never isolated.”

Go on; recommend your job to me!  Why should we consider it over being something else?

Lots of reasons! Men often say women are nosey – definitely true in my case – so this is an ideal occupation if you’re nosey. It’s great to be so hands on too. I could not imagine working in an office being an accountant; it feels so foreign to me, like walking on the moon!

The money? Well, pay isn’t great, starting salaries have taken a dive recently so you’d be looking at a starting figure of £18-20kpa however this could go up a lot depending on what you’d like to specialise in. Some of the more senior people might be on £40/50k pa.

If you can get in to this sort of role, hopefully you will be part of a great team environment. So much of what you do will be dependent on the work of everybody else so it’s important you all pull your weight. What I love about it here is that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Whenever you have the smallest doubt or question, you can go to anyone, regardless of hierarchy. Everyone is equal when it comes to stupid questions. I feel I can go to anyone, never made to feel stupid or inadequate”.

Finally, Sange, where do you want your job to take you?

Honestly? I like my job as it is. In my particular section of the industry, the higher you go up, the further away from lab you get. I’m not keen on that. It might suit others but I’m more of a ‘wet chemist’ rather than someone who focuses on the theoretical side.

I love being in the lab, being a part of science. I’m not sure I have the personality to work in an office where there’s a stereotypical environment. I couldn’t be doing with the bitching and politics. Working in a male dominated environment has given me a robust edge; I call a spade a spade, ‘cause that’s what it is. A bloody spade. It does make you a bit sweary, though. “

Thank you, Sange, not only for your time but for explaining complicated things without making me feel like a dunce, an excellent skill!

 

Categories: Jobs For The Girls, Life, Life Experience, Money and Career
32 interesting thoughts on this

27 Comments

  1. Zan
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Yey – a sciency Jobs for the Girls! Great post. I love seeing write-ups like this. I think sometimes there’s a general perception that science jobs are very samey but there’s such a wide variety of them and they’re all very different. I wouldn’t have a clue what an analytical chemist did day to day before reading this, so thanks! :)

  2. Posted June 20, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Sange I want tot be your friend.

    This has been such an inspiring piece, you should copy and paste this series into a careers manual and distribute it to school age girls. They do not tell us this stuff at school. I never knew that lab work could be like this.

    I also love that in a past life you were a landlady. If the phrase never judge a book by its cover was ever more appropriate…

    • Posted June 20, 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      LIKE button for Lucy’s comment. Sange, careers advice from someone like you would have made the difference to a whole generation of schoolkids. I lvoe your passion for science, and how you changed your career path to do what you love – I think you’re an inspiration to all those people who think they’re too far down one route to change it. Find what you love, whatever that is, and do it.

      Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions – this is simply a brilliant read. Anna x

  3. Alex D
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Really interesting post, thank you Sange! You are one of my cleverest chums – fact. You also make science cool. This is from the person who spent the majority of her science lessons writing notes and burning things on the bunsen burner (the fumes of which would explain a lot).

    I look forward to seeing more “Jobs for the girls” posts! Thank you for sharing x

  4. Posted June 20, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    You’re completely right, Lucy, this sort of thing is inspirational. I’ve shared this with a fabulous teacher I know and there’ll be at least 250 secondary school kids being shown this article as part of their science lessons later today. I’m hoping this figure will increase throughout the week. Thanks so much, Sange, for sharing this with us. You’re a star.

    AOW: keeping it grass roots since 2012

    • Posted June 20, 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      Surely there must be lots of teachers in the AOW community…let’s get this show on the road!

      • Posted June 20, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

        Completely agree! We have some awesome jobs coming up – some you might never even have known existed. There really is something for everyone out there, it’s just a matter of finding it.

        Teachers – make yourselves (and your subjects) known!

  5. Nicole M
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Great piece Sange!

    I had the chance to to take chemistry as an A-Level as I was pretty good at it & amazed at what you could discover, but I chose physics as I wanted to be a civil engineer*. If I had read this piece though 15 years ago I would have followed my instincts and probably chosen a different career path!

    *I’m an accountant now!

  6. Chid
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    What an interesting read. Well done Sange! Science has never appealed to me despite enjoying Maths, but it is great to have an insight into the world of an analytical chemist.

  7. Posted June 20, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Sange, you are awesome! Fact. Thoroughly interesting read. It really sounds like you love your job. It’s making me wish I’d paid a bit more attention in science classes *ahem*

  8. Posted June 20, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    It’s like Science Week on AOW. I might physically pop with excitement!

    Sange, I adore your passion for your work, the way you make science sound like the huge, exciting, brilliant adventure of discovery that it is. I just want to shout this from the rooftops so everyone understands the joy of learning and discovering and understanding, and how science isn’t dull but varied and brilliant and, oh I am running out of adjectives to use….. but I love this. Really, I am struggling to find words to describe how awesome I think this is without coming across like a gushing lunatic (*ahem*, you may have noticed).

    K x

    PS: Completely with you on glamourous science (although I am not sadly *that* glamourous), if one more person assumes scientists have to be socially inept, style-free stereotypes with scary hair I might scream.

    • Posted June 20, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      WHAT? So you don’t look like Beaker either? This science malarkey has been a revelation for me, not least in the hairstyle stakes.

      • Posted June 20, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        Due to the sheer volume of my hair I plait it everyday to avoid trapping it in a big machine or dipping it in the E.coli (what was that about glamour?!). I like to think of myself as Katniss Everdeen in a labcoat.

        K x

        • Posted June 20, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

          You’re not Katie at all? Your’re Katniss!!!

  9. Posted June 20, 2012 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    As a not so clever nerd, I love this!

  10. Esme
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing this. As a nosey woman, I love hearing about the real side of people’s jobs. Makes me wish I had taken that Chemistry A Level as I wanted to. Such a pity that I had a terrible male Chemistry teacher when I was 14 who completely turned me off the subject…

    Looking forward to more of these!

  11. Frances
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    This is absolutely fascinating – like Lucy, we never got told this at school. I have serious job envy.

    Do you ever go into schools and do careers talks? I would have loved hearing about this then.

  12. Kate S
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I’m jealous. Very jealous. Your job has always interested me Sange so this was a great read for me. If only I had even the slightest aptitude for science.

  13. Sam
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    I want to be a scientist in a lab too! It sounds so exciting and rewarding. Can I have a day in the life of Sange, please? x

  14. Sandra C
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    What a lot of kind words-thank you all very much! It is extremely interesting and rewarding work. I’ve spent all morning trying to fix something and now have the arse as its chipped my nail varnish. I genuinely didn’t expect anyone to be interested, let alone inspired my me. Id be happy to give advice if any were required.

    I do think that part of the problem though is with school career departments. I don’t feel that teachers are best placed to advise on industrial careers when they don’t even realize that such careers exist. Not their fault of course, but if you don’t know a job exists, how can you advise someone that it might be for them?

  15. Celestine
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant piece Sange. I have often wondered what these “brain the size of a planet” types do all day and now I know. And that combined with being a lovely person too. Although I also love Beaker….

  16. Posted June 20, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    I quite agree. Also it’s to be hoped that schools careers departments have moved with the time and understand more about online/web jobs etc. A whole world of opportunities has opened up even in the past 5 years or so.

    If I were a careers co-ordinator I’d have loads of inspirational speakers coming in to give talks/run activities with the students. SO important for young people to know what’s out there in order to make an informed choice on which GCSEs to choose, what skills to build up, what work experience to get, and which direction they want their life to head in.

    • Posted June 20, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      whoops – my comment was meant to be a direct reply to Sandra’s comment.

    • Frances
      Posted June 20, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      Yes – we never had speakers and careers lessons were quite useless – focus on A-levels and university but not helping to look beyond to the bigger picture of what to do in life.

      I see another AOW venture on the horizon…

  17. Claire_Lou
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    What a brilliant read! Sange you legend!

  18. Posted June 20, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Come on the chemists! (or former chemists like myself!) The finding out bit of science rocks. I work in chemistry education and organise careers events for schools where people give talks just like this article, about their personal experiences and career path. In my opinion the best ones are the people who have taken a meandering path.

    Quick bit of shameless promo here, if there are any AOW chemists in Scotland who’d like to get involved please get in touch. The more ‘normal’ faces of science that kids see then maybe one day they’ll realise we don’t all look like Beaker!

    • Zan
      Posted June 20, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      Loving the shameless promo! :D

      I’ve done career talks at schools/universities on behalf of a statistical professional body I belong to for a good few years now and it still amazes me to this day how many students are only ever presented with the options of teaching, accountancy and finance for maths-based careers! I’ve been thanked by career advisors for talking about a career they knew nothing about at a few places. The more people who can get out there talking about different scientific careers the better :)

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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