ATOMIC ABSORPTION SPECTROSCOPY
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 atomic absorption spectroscopy? 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 atomic absorption 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. So how does someone like yourself, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry and has worked for over 25 years as a research chemist in government and a few years as an academic, know anything about being a chemical technician?
A degree and a specific job classification do not necessarily define what one actually does. My job over the last three decades has been a combination of work typically done by both chemists and chemical technicians and has included supervisory duties, maintenance of instrumentation, sample preparation and chemical analysis (and clean up!) as well as the more esoteric design and development of new instrumentation. This has given me a unique perspective on the role of chemical technicians because, job title aside, that is exactly what I have spent much of my career doing. Perhaps the major difference between my chemical technician activities and that of the typical technician is that I am responsible for planning and then performing an entire analytical protocol. The typical technician will have a supervisor who will direct the technician's activities and act as a buffer between the technician and higher management.
3. 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.
4. You noted that atomic absorption spectroscopy is a "mature" technique. Doesn't that mean that working with the method will be "boring"?
Hardly! While atomic absorption methods have been optimized by almost 45 years of development, innovations keep appearing. More important 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, particularly in the area of sample preparation, are still in rapid transition, and knowledge in all these 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.
5. What kind of training do I need to work in atomic absorption spectroscopy 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 atomic absorption spectrometry, 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.
6. What characteristics would you look for in a chemical technician who was to work for you in the area of atomic absorption spectroscopy?
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. I would also expect them to understand the importance of keeping a complete laboratory notebook and have reasonable writing skills. Finally, I would like them to 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 they would be using in my laboratory, since I can train them. But the solid foundation provided by education is critical to their success.