Frequently Asked Questions regarding Chemical Technicians
1. Why would I wish to be a chemical technician, particularly one working with a "mature" analysis technique such as gas chromatography (GC)? Isn't that a fast track to job obsolescence?
First and foremost you should understand that a chemical technician is actually more of a generalist than a chemist whose skills have been sharpened (and thus also narrowly focused) by numerous years in graduate school. The technician working in GC has hopefully developed skills, some acquired by training but most obtained on-the-job, that are broadly applicable to many analytical techniques, so there should be little fear of job obsolescence, as long as the technician makes an effort to keep abreast of new developments in analytical technology. Reading the technical literature, attending conferences and taking courses are all critical components of a successful career. Most companies encourage development of technician skills. To be a technician is to be someone who enjoys meeting the challenges of working with instrumentation in the laboratory. And, just as in any job, the key to job security is doing your job well and making yourself indispensable. The American Chemical Society's Division of Chemical Technicians has an excellent discussion of why one would want to pursue a career in Chemical Technology.
2. A technician isn't expected to publish, but I want to give attend conferences and publish papers. Won't being a technician limit those opportunities?
Of course the opportunities to attend conferences, give papers and publish are not as plentiful for technicians as they are for chemists who have obtained an M.S. or Ph.D., and in many industrial technician jobs, publication may be hindered by company regulations related to proprietary research. Nevertheless, opportunities exist for chemical technicians to present talks and publish papers. Many conferences have special sessions dedicated to work done by chemical technicians. The technician is often the interface between the chemist and the instrumentation, and publications generally result from the observation of an anomaly during an analytical procedure. If the technician understands the operation of the instrumentation and can recognize unusual occurrences, opportunities for publication in collaboration with senior chemists will arise.
3. You noted that GC is a "mature" technique. Doesn't that mean that working with the method will be "boring"?
While chromatographic methods can be traced to the middle of the 19th century, when paper chromatography was used to separate dyes, gas chromatography began in the early 1950s with the work of Cremer (gas-solid chromatography) and James and Martin (gas-liquid chromatography). While GC methods have been optimized by almost 50 years of development, innovations keep appearing, particularly in the development of new columns and detection schemes. It is critical for the prospective chemical technician to understand is that using analytical instrumentation is only a small part of the analytical process, and that small part of the process is often automated. The rest of the process includes sampling, storage of samples, sample preparation, data interpretation, interference correction, and statistical analysis. Developments in all these areas are constantly in transition, and knowledge in all areas is transferable to other analytical methodologies. Finally, for the technician who knows the source of the sample and the problem being addressed, whether it be environmental, clinical, or industrial process control, the opportunity exists to make a major contribution to the overall scientific effort.
4. What kind of training is needed to work in GC as a chemical technician?
Many community colleges and technical institutes offer 2-year programs in chemical technology. The Division of Chemical Technicians of the American Chemical Society and the Canadian Society for Chemical Technology provide lists of institutions that offer specialized programs. While these programs offer a good foundation for the development of a chemical technician career in GC, they are by necessity broad in scope and limited by available instrumentation. There is no substitute for on-the-job training in a well-equipped laboratory working with experienced personnel, and programs that offer students that opportunity are of significant value. Programs that emphasize a holistic approach to analytical chemistry (i.e., from sampling to statistical analysis of data) as well as cooperative programs in industrial or government laboratories are obviously to be preferred.
5. What characteristics and skills are required for in a chemical technician working in the area of GC?
First and foremost, a good background in basic chemistry, a general understanding of instrumentation concepts, good laboratory techniques, and a strong knowledge of computer technology, particularly spreadsheet use and statistics. A fundamental understanding of statistical concepts of uncertainty are critical to anyone working in analytical chemistry. They should understand the importance of keeping a complete laboratory notebook and have reasonable writing skills. Finally, they should show enthusiasm for their work and a desire to continue learning and pursue career advancement. They don't need specific knowledge of the particular instrumentation used in the laboratory, since they can be trained on the job. But the solid foundation provided by education is critical to their success.
Chromatographic methods such as GC and HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) are unique among conventional analytical methods because they combine completely different technologies (separation and detection) to perform the measurement task, and these technologies can be broken down into many subcategories incorporating many different disciplines. This requires the chemical technician to have a solid grounding in organic, inorganic, physical and analytical chemistry in order to understand all aspects of the instrumentation. But this broad technological range also means that the opportunities for continued development of both the technique and those using it are limitless.