Materials Scientist and Engineer
A materials scientist or engineer could...
|Develop a way to recycle non-metallic components of old computers to create park benches, fences, and sewer grates.||Create a titanium alloy joint that can be used as a permanent hip bone replacement.|
|Design a ceramic car engine that is lightweight, fuel efficient, and can run at high temperatures without a cooling system.||Research the quality of new adhesives that are based on the glue made by a sea mussel.|
Key Facts & Information
|Overview||What makes it possible to create high-technology objects like computers and sports gear? It's the materials inside those products. Materials scientists and engineers develop materials, like metals, ceramics, polymers, and composites, that other engineers need for their designs. Materials scientists and engineers think atomically (meaning they understand things at the nanoscale level), but they design microscopically (at the level of a microscope), and their materials are used macroscopically (at the level the eye can see). From heat shields in space, prosthetic limbs, semiconductors, and sunscreens to snowboards, race cars, hard drives, and baking dishes, materials scientists and engineers make the materials that make life better.|
|Key Requirements||Curiosity, perseverance, and great focus, with excellent communication skills and a love for hands-on laboratory experiments|
|Minimum Degree||Bachelor's degree|
|Subjects to Study in High School||Biology, chemistry, physics, geometry, algebra II, pre-calculus, calculus, English; if available, computer science and statistics|
|Projected Job Growth (2010-2020)||Average (7% to 13%)|
Training, Other Qualifications
A bachelor's degree in physics, chemistry, materials science, or materials engineering, or a related discipline is the minimum educational requirement; however, many research jobs require a master's degree or, more often, a PhD.
Education and Training
Many colleges and universities offer degree programs in chemistry, physics, and engineering. The number of colleges that offer a degree program in materials science and engineering is small, but is gradually increasing.
Students planning careers as materials scientists or engineers should take courses in science and mathematics on their way toward earning a bachelor's degree, should like working with their hands, building scientific apparatus, and performing laboratory experiments, and should like computer modeling.
In addition to taking required courses in analytical, inorganic, organic, and physical chemistry, undergraduate chemistry majors usually study biological sciences, mathematics, physics, and increasingly, computer science. Computer courses are essential because employers prefer job applicants who are able to apply computer skills to modeling and simulation tasks and operate computerized laboratory equipment. This is increasingly important as combinatorial chemistry and advanced screening techniques are more widely applied. Courses in statistics are useful because materials scientists end engineers need the ability to apply basic statistical techniques.
Because research and development (R&D) materials scientists are increasingly expected to work on interdisciplinary teams, some understanding of other disciplines, including business and marketing, or economics, is desirable, along with leadership ability and good oral and written communication skills.
Experience, either in academic laboratories or through internships, fellowships, or work-study programs in industry, is also useful. Some employers of materials scientists or engineers, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, prefer to hire individuals with several years of postdoctoral experience.
Perseverance, curiosity, and the ability to concentrate on detail and to work independently are essential.
Nature of the Work
Watch this video to see how materials scientists and engineers at NASA are developing new materials that can act as armor for spacecraft and spacesuits, and can even "self-heal" and repair cracks or injuries like a living body can.
Everything in the environment, whether naturally occurring or of human design, is composed of chemicals. Materials scientists apply chemistry, as well as physics, to study all aspects of materials. Chemistry, however, plays an increasingly dominant role in materials science because it provides information about the structure and composition of materials.
Materials scientists study the structures and chemical properties of various materials to develop new products or to enhance existing ones. They also determine ways to strengthen or combine materials, or to develop new materials for use in a variety of products. Materials science encompasses the natural and synthetic materials used in a wide range of products and structures—from airplanes, cars, and bridges to clothing and household goods. Materials scientists often specialize in specific areas, such as ceramics or metals.
Materials engineers are involved in the development, processing, and testing of the materials used to create a range of products, from computer chips and aircraft wings to golf clubs and snow skis. They work with metals, ceramics, plastics, semiconductors, and composites to create new materials that meet certain mechanical, electrical, and chemical requirements. They are also involved in selecting materials for new applications. Materials engineers have developed the ability to create and then study materials at an atomic level, using advanced processes to replicate the characteristics of materials and their components with computers. Most materials engineers specialize in a particular material. For example, metallurgical engineers specialize in metals such as steel, and ceramic engineers develop ceramic materials and the processes for making them into useful products, such as glassware or fiber optic communication lines.
Materials scientists and engineers usually work regular hours in offices and laboratories. Research and development materials scientists spend much time in laboratories, but also work in offices when they do theoretical research or plan, record, and report on their lab research. Although some laboratories are small, others are large enough to incorporate prototype chemical manufacturing facilities, as well as advanced testing equipment. In addition to working in a laboratory, materials scientists also work with engineers and processing specialists in industrial manufacturing facilities.
Materials scientists and engineers typically work regular hours. A 40-hour work week is usual, but longer hours are not uncommon. Researchers may be required to work odd hours in laboratories or other locations, depending on the nature of their research.
On the Job
- Plan laboratory experiments to confirm feasibility of processes and techniques used in the production of materials having special characteristics.
- Analyze product failure data and laboratory test results to determine causes of problems and develop solutions.
- Monitor material performance and evaluate material deterioration.
- Supervise the work of technologists, technicians, and other engineers and scientists.
- Devise testing methods to evaluate the effects of various conditions on particular materials.
- Design and direct the testing or control of processing procedures.
- Evaluate technical specifications and economic factors relating to process or product design objectives.
- Conduct or supervise tests on raw materials or finished products to ensure their quality.
- Determine ways to strengthen or combine materials or develop new materials with new or specific properties for use in a variety of products and applications.
- Perform managerial functions, such as preparing proposals and budgets, analyzing labor costs, and writing reports.
- Confer with customers to determine how to tailor materials to their needs.
- Solve problems in a number of engineering fields, such as mechanical, chemical, electrical, civil, nuclear, and aerospace.
- Conduct research on the structures and properties of materials, such as metals, alloys, polymers, and ceramics, to obtain information that could be used to develop new products or enhance existing ones.
- Plan and evaluate new projects, consulting with other engineers and corporate executives as necessary.
- Review new product plans and make recommendations for material selection based on design objectives, such as strength, weight, heat resistance, electrical conductivity, and cost.
- Recommend materials for reliable performance in various environments.
- Test individual parts and products to ensure that manufacturer and governmental quality and safety standards are met.
- Visit suppliers of materials or users of products to gather specific information.
- Research methods of processing, forming, and firing materials to develop such products as ceramic dental fillings, unbreakable dinner plates, and telescope lenses.
- Design processing plants and equipment.
- Modify properties of metal alloys, using thermal and mechanical treatments.
- Guide technical staff engaged in developing materials for specific uses in projected products or devices.
- Plan and implement laboratory operations for the purpose of developing material and fabrication procedures that meet cost, product specification, and performance standards.
- Determine appropriate methods for fabricating and joining materials.
- Conduct training sessions on new material products, applications, or manufacturing methods for customers and their employees.
- Supervise production and testing processes in industrial settings, such as metal refining facilities, smelting or foundry operations, or nonmetallic materials production operations.
- Write for technical magazines, journals, and trade association publications.
- Prepare reports of materials study findings for the use of other scientists and requestors.
- Replicate the characteristics of materials and their components with computers.
- Teach in colleges and universities.
Companies That Hire Materials Scientist and Engineers
Explore what you might do on the job with one of these projects...
- 'Make Mine Medium-Rare': Heat Conduction in Steak
- Alternative Sources for Paper Fiber
- Are Laminates Stronger?
- Are You Gellin'? ®
- Avoid the Shock of Shocks! Build Your Own Super-sensitive Electric Field Detector
- Biodegradable Plastics
- Bones and Calcium
- Bouncing Balls: Measure the Rebound Rating
- Bouncy Polymer Chemistry
- Build a Gauss Rifle!
- Cabbage Chemistry
- Coke® & Mentos® - Exploring Explosive Chemistry!
- Cookies: Can You Blame the Burnt Ones On the Cookie Sheet?
- Cool Junctions
- Creating a Kidney: How Stem Cells Might Be Used to Bioengineer a Vital Organ
- Does Chemical Lightening Affect the Structure of Human Hair?
- Effect of Different Materials on a Magnetic Field
- Effect of Friction on Objects in Motion
- Effect of Temperature on Elasticity of Rubber Bands
Do you have a specific question about a career in Materials Science that isn't answered on this page? Post your question on Science Buddies Ask an Expert Forum.
- ASM International: asmcommunity.asminternational.org/portal/site/www
- The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society: www.tms.org
- O*Net Online. (2009). National Center for O*Net Development. Retrieved May 1, 2009, from http://online.onetcenter.org/
- ScienceDaily. (2007, December 1). Strange Matter: Materials Scientist Introduces Kids To The Science Of Everyday Stuff. Retrieved September 15, 2009, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/videos/2007/1211-strange_matter.htm
- NASA LaRC Office of Education. (2008, May 20). New Materials Technology Development. Retrieved September 15, 2009, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pi3fB6_H1m4
- WOSU Columbus. (2008, January 29). MyCoolJob: Materials Engineer. Retrieved September 15, 2009, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7yi5KhEZZs
- Howell, C. (2005, March 3). Stephanie Kwolek and Kevlar®, The Wonder Fiber. Retrieved September 15, 2009, from http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/ilives/lecture05.html
- Huey, B. (2007, September 10). Materials Science and Engineering. Retrieved September 16, 2009, from http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=7197503816659050309
We'd like to acknowledge the additional support of:
- Motorola Solutions