Career Interview: Analytical Chemistry as a Mature Student

Author: Amelia Powell

Dr. Joy Bennett is a Doctor in Chemistry with aPh.D. in Organic/Inorganic Chemistry from Coventry University in the UK. Having previously graduated with a 2:1 BSc in Pharmaceutical Chemistry as a mature student, she now works as a chemist doing analytical chemistry.

Q: What does your job entail?

A: My job entails testing unknown hazardous waste chemicals to ascertain the safest method of disposal. The samples must be tested to ensure that ‘it is what is says on the label’, as often it is not. Customers will sometimes say that their waste chemicals are non-hazardous to get a cheaper disposal rate. Sometimes the customer can have containers of chemicals that need disposing of and they have no idea what is inside. It is my job to find out what the chemical is and what concentration it is. To do this I have a number of analytical instruments to help determine what the chemicals are.

Q: What led you to decide to work in the field of analytical chemistry?

A:I always had an interest in science, and my preferred subject was chemistry – there was too much drawing in biology and too much maths in physics. After finishing university, most of the chemistry jobs seemed to be in analytical chemistry, specifically in the hazardous waste industry as this is a growing area of business.

Q: Could you briefly describe the academic journey you realised in order to become an analytical chemist?

A:My journey into higher education did not begin until I was 35 years old. I got divorced and had three small children to bring up (aged 3, 5 and 7).I saw an advertisement in the local paper with the header somewhere along the line of “Women, would you like a career in science?”. The article was an invitation to an open day aimed at getting women interested in science careers by running a specially designed science course at the local college.It said that the course was designed around school hours and holidays to fit in with busy moms. I became interested and signed up. At enrolment day in the September, I discovered that it was actually part of the “Access to higher education” course. At this time, I had absolutely no intention of going to university (that was something that clever rich people did).I did, however, want to do the college course as it looked interesting.It was a one-year course and it was fun and I made friends.

Towards the end of the course we had careers meetings and my tutor asked me which university I was going to. When I said I wasn’t, he said that it would be a waste of the course if I didn’t. A friend of mine from the course suggested that we go to university together and car share the journey.We both chose Analytical Chemistry at Coventry University, being the closest one to home as having children meant living in halls was not an option. This was still a thirty-five-mile journey to get there. My friend dropped out after six weeks but I continued. After graduating I needed to get a job with school hours/holidays so I started a Post Graduate Certificate in Education at Warwick University.I got half way through when I realised I wasn’t teacher material.I got a job as a lab technician instead.After about six months, I received a call from a lecturer at Coventry university, asking if I would consider doing a Ph.D.I said yes, and three and a half years later I graduated as a Doctor of Chemistry.It was now time to look for a job and earn some money.The big research companies wanted young graduates to train and were not within commuting distance anyway.I wanted to remain in a lab, so I chose analytical chemistry.

Q: You went to university as a mature student –did that come with any advantages or disadvantages in your opinion?

A:The advantage of being a mature student is that you tend to remain focused on your work no matter what.Not being able to participate in the clubs and societies or go out much socially with the younger students due to family commitments was a big disadvantage, although work-wise this was probably an advantage in disguise.One disadvantage was having to manage time for studying after the children were in bed and juggling childcare with coursework whilst living on a student loan.One big advantage was that I had a very generous maintenance grant from the university, which helped pay for my fuel and child care.

Q: Following your Ph.D., you decided to leave behind the field of research and work in industry instead. Why was this?

A:I had had enough of traveling every day and relocation was not an option. There are no research facilities nearby so I had to find a job.When I stared applying for jobs I found that a lot of companies preferred young ambitious graduates that could be trained and then work their way up in the business over a number of years.As a mature student my length of service would not be as long, i.e. I was too old to get a graduate position.Also, potential employers sometimes felt intimidated by my Ph.D. and would not employ me because they thought I would get bored and leave very soon.

Q: What skills gained during your Ph.D. help with your day to day work?

A:A Ph.D. is not necessary to do this job, but life experience as a mature person helps to determine how to deal with the various hazards that could come through the door.

Q: What are your most and least favourite parts of your job?

A:My least favourite part of the job is writing the reports for the sales team.My favourite part of the job is on a Friday all of the samples have to be cleared from the lab.The majority of the samples that are fairly low hazard can be smashed into a large drum ready for disposal through the process plant before going to landfill.There is something satisfying about hearing the glass smash inside the big drum.

Q: What is the most dangerous chemical you’ve come across in the lab, and have you ever had any dangerous incidents with the chemicals?

A: The most dangerous chemical I have seen in a lab was picric acid. It must be kept wet because if it's allowed to dry out it is explosive. Whilst at university doing my Ph.D. the waste chemical bottle exploded covering the lab with flammable liquid. This happened because the temperature in the lab was too high due to sun shining through the window into the Winchester full of waste chemicals. I have also had a condenser explode during an experiment covering the fume cupboard with blue liquid which unfortunately stained. Whilst at work I had to go to a company and empty and remove a metal tool box that had been filled with glacial acetic acid. I had to wear a respiratory mask and evacuate the building during the process. The acid had to be secured in a drum then the tool box washed out before it could be loaded onto the lorry for removal. Nerves of steel and a strong stomach were needed.

Q: Are there other pathways to job positions you have held, such as those taken by colleagues?

A:The Environment Agency specifies that chemists working at a hazardous waste plantare educated to undergraduate degree level, preferably with a chemistry degree.There are colleagues who have forensic degrees.One colleague who joined the company as an operative was then taken on as a chemist apprentice and was attending university part time to obtain his degree.The company were paying his fees but in return he had signed a contract of employment so that he could not leave for a certain number of years after completion of this training.

Q: What qualities do you think someone needs to have in order to be successful in this career pathway?

A:To work in an analytical laboratory a person needs to be very methodical and able to prioritise the order of work.It is also very important to have good housekeeping practice. Material and reagents must be ordered and the laboratory kept well stocked and clean and tidy.A clean laboratory is important to prevent cross contamination between samples.

Q: What advice would you give current undergraduate students who might wish to pursue a career in this field?

A:Get plenty of practical experience working in a laboratory.The knowledge of as many instruments as possible would be useful.Enquire about graduate positions that will allow a person to work in various departments so that they can get a taste for different jobs.