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Get set for greater success in your career as an analytical chemist, with Incognito’s practical suggestions that will make you stand out from the crowd. These tips for excellence will enlighten employees and employers alike.
In a previous Incognito, I discussed ways in which laboratory managers could improve the working conditions for analytical chemistry staff to improve their theoretical GlassDoor ratings and, most importantly, to produce an efficient and successful analytical service to the business or whomever the laboratory serves (1).
We spend a large amount of our lives at work, and now more than ever before, we demand a lot of our employers and have high expectations around working environment, company culture, connectedness to the business, health and welfare, and job satisfaction.
However, as analytical laboratory staff, we must realise that this is not a one-way street. We must give back at least as much as we receive. I’ve never seen an employee charter which didn’t include both employer and employee commitments. Beyond the “body‑shop” laboratories, where numbers of feet on the laboratory floor are the only thing that matters (and yes – these do exist), there are many organisations where one can have a truly meaningful and fulfilling career, but to find your ideal job, you need to give at least as much as you take and in most cases this involves going the extra mile in a number of key areas.
As an analytical chemist you have to realise that the number of really “sweet” job roles are few and far between, and to have the best career possible, you need to show that you have what it takes to excel in what is still a fairly crowded jobs market. Whilst your modern education and fully flexible attitude to whom you work for (or actually ‘work with’ in the modern world), will get you so far, in order to get the best jobs, you simply have to put in more effort and show a better attitude than those with whom you are competing.
The following commentary gives a bunch of suggestions of the attitudes and behaviours that I believe sets an analytical chemist apart from the crowd and is based on traits I’ve observed in a host of folks for whom I have worked for and with.
Know Your Business
You should have a good understanding of your business, critically the aspects which are served by the analytical data that you produce. What products or services are served by your laboratory and what difference will your data make? Are you providing information for product development, if so which products and why are they better, or what new application will they support? If you are providing project support, what are the aims and objectives of the project both, of your immediate stakeholders but for the wider business? Do you provide manufacturing support, once more, what are the products and what are the critical factors in controlling the product quality and/or characteristics? Get to know the stakeholders who will use your data, and importantly how it will be used. What are their aims and objectives, what are they expecting to use your data for, what critical decisions will your data underpin? All of this information will be useful in the context of your analysis, helping you to make decisions on vital aspects of your work such as which analytes are more critical to measure to what level of sensitivity, the performance characteristics of a method you may be developing or the requirements for fast turnaround of data. Importantly, understanding the context of your client will help you to guide them on what your data might be used for, what decisions may be taken using your data and critically what decisions are not supported by the data and what are the limitations of the information you are providing. If you can get yourself an invite to Project Meetings this is a great start to help contextualise the data, but just asking to speak with your laboratory managers or the clients who use your data can be quicker and equally as informative.
Understand Your Analyte(s)
Take time to understand your analyte(s) and the sample matrix, without this information it’s impossible to carry out your work with the required level of insight to produce excellent analytical data. Matrix complexity, chemistry and stability are all important when considering sample preparation, the finesses to which you will need to apply chromatographic methods, and the correct choice and optimization of instrumental parameters. What variations in matrix chemistry might you find between different products, formulations, or samples that you are testing and how will this affect the analysis? Of course the same may be said regarding your analytes, unless of course you are screening for complete unknowns. I talk to hundreds of analytical chemists who perform routine analyses on analytes whose chemical structure they do not know. How on earth can one effectively troubleshoot, let alone optimise, a method if the structure, functional group chemistry, and physico‑chemical parameters (molecular weight, solubility, stability, pKa, LogP(D), and so on) are unknown? You need to show initiative because this information may not be readily available, but find out as much as you can regarding your analyte(s) and matrix, and link these facts to your analysis.
Undertand Your Instrument and Software
Take great interest in the working principles of your instrument and data acquisition/analysis software. Most of us can use the basic functions, enough to get by and produce a result, but you need to do more than that. You need to understand the subtle parameters which can affect data acquisition, but which remain unchanged in most method specifications. If you “load methods” into a system and/or are locked out of changing any of the method parameters, ask your line manager for a printout of the method and try to understand each of the instrument variables, what they influence, and why the particular values for each have been selected. You need to understand what the equipment is capable of and what it is not, as this will directly affect your assessment of data quality. You need to get to the point where you can spot an instrument that is underperforming or where equipment can perform better than it is currently configured to do – and can make suggestions for possible improvements. My oft quoted example is, if you use a mass spectrometric detector, have you ever manually tuned that instrument to see if you can do better than the “autotune” function using either the embedded tune compound for GC–MS or by infusing a test compound in LC–MS, and then adjusting parameters to see what affect they have on detector performance? If not – ask someone to show you how this might be done, if indeed there is anyone who knows. If there isn’t anyone with this level of knowledge, ask for some vendor training.
The same is true of software, and you should be aiming to understand not just those variables that you typically input, but the subtle software settings that can often make a big difference to the quality or speed of data analysis. Become familiar with integration algorithm settings, take an interest in the calibration settings, the system suitability specifications, and quality control checks. Get yourself into a position where you can reproduce the result generated by the data system by working through the calculation of the result from the raw peak areas generated by the data system. This is a salutary exercise that is often much more difficult than it might sound.
Learn what constitutes good and bad data. Not just whether the results pass or fail, but what you should look for in terms of the quality of your chromatographic output. Peak shapes, baselines stability and appearance, peak resolution, and peak efficiency are all important indicators of the quality of your instrumental output and you should learn, over time, to spot even the most subtle signs that all is not as it should be. This will then lead you onto understanding some of the fundamentals of chromatographic science, the underpinning theory behind the separations and detection you are tasked to carry out. Having a deeper understanding of the basic theory will, I promise you, improve your work and the enjoyment you derive from your producing that work. If you don’t know what plate count is, how it can affect the appearance of your chromatogram, and what plate numbers can be expected from the separation you are undertaking, then this paragraph applies directly to you, and this is one example from a myriad that I can quote here.
Run Towards Problems
Run towards problems and not away from them. Immerse yourself in troubleshooting if you are able. If your metrology department or external service provider does all of the equipment preventative and reactive maintenance, spend time with those engineers and learn as much as you can from them. Becoming involved with troubleshooting discussions on chromatograms, methods and data, is invaluable for you to gain a deeper understanding of chromatographic science, what goes wrong and why it goes wrong. You will spend a lifetime learning these things, but the more you know, the more links you can make between symptoms and causes and the more efficiently you will be able to diagnose problems and fix them. It is hugely rewarding to able to fix problems which help to overcome potential crises with the speed or quality of information provision from your laboratory.
Read Voraciously/Ask Questions
Academic journals, industry publications and vendor publications are all rich sources of information and as such you should be selecting articles or applications which are pertinent to your work and really striving to understand the information and its application to your own particular analysis. You can then progress to topics which are outside your current applications or instrument techniques, to the latest thinking on application developments and the broader literature. Your reading will directly affect the effectiveness of your work, again I personally guarantee this to be true. The fact that you are reading this Incognito instalment bodes well in this respect, and I see a bright future for you dear reader! If someone uses a term or presents information which you do not understand, then ask for an explanation. One cannot know everything about everything, and you should expect to learn new facts, concepts, and ideas throughout your career and embrace that this is a fundamental truth. Crucially you need to then digest this new information and think about how it might apply to your work or how you might use this knowledge to improve your daily practice. To a relatively new practitioner, the language of analytical science can be foreign and almost intractable, but persevere, for like any new language, skill will come with practice. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask when you don’t understand, only laziness NOT to ask, and your thirst for broader and deeper understanding should be voracious. Reading widely will also help to improve your scientific writing skills, a topic that many of us find difficult. There is a certain style to scientific writing and even more subtleties to writing about analytical science. Children studying their native language and literature are told to read widely to improve their writing style, the same is just as true for the language of science.
Attend every relevant training event, external meeting, conference and exhibition that you can. Critically, make sure that you make the effort to come away with new skills or knowledge and make a point of summarising and sharing these (either formally or informally) with your colleagues. Again, a broader and deeper understanding of all aspects of chromatographic science and your application of that science will improve your effectiveness and enjoyment of the work you do. From every event, make a bullet point list of everything that you wish to bring into your practice or new ideas or approaches that may bring improvements, and tick these off your lists as you address them. Not all will be successful, but your aim should be to pay back the business for the extra learning and development that have been afforded to you.
Get Out Your Comfort Zone
Push yourself out of your comfort zone when it comes to writing and presenting. Project review reports, new instrument evaluations, protocols, SOP’s, analytical reports, troubleshooting reports, and laboratory investigations are but a few examples of where you can practice your writing skills. This will probably involve some discretionary effort on your part, but this is the price of becoming an exceptional analytical scientist, just as it is with any career. Producing and delivering presentations is something that strikes fear into the heart of many a good scientist, but writing a presentation and building a slide deck is often linked with better understanding of the scientific topics contained within and the presentation itself will help you to distil the critical aspects of this science even further, which, in turn, will hone your analytical understanding and scientific communication skills.
Be The Best You Can Be
Honestly, if you turn up to work to push buttons and produce numbers, that isn’t a problem, so long as someone else is making sure the numbers are meaningful. However, if this is the case, please do not complain when others, who show more interest in the topics outlined above, get promoted ahead of you or get all of the interesting jobs. If you do find satisfaction in operating laboratory equipment and this is what you would like to do for your career, this is genuinely praiseworthy, but again, please make sure that you are the best equipment operator you can be, and to do that, you will need to pay attention to at least some of what I’ve written above.
Of course, for employers reading this article and realising that few, if any, opportunities described above are afforded to your employees – I refer you to my previous article “How would your Company do on Glassdoor?” (1).
The writer Elbert Hubbard once remarked, “Initiative is doing the right things without being told”, ask yourself which right things you will be doing in the laboratory today?
Contact author: Incognito
E-mail the Editor: kjones@ mjhlifesciences.com