Materials research, also known as materials science and engineering, is an interdisciplinary field defined by the study of material properties and the laws of thermodynamics. It is constituted by various classes of materials and integrates various areas of engineering and hard-core sciences such as applied chemistry and physics. From the late 19th century through the 1960s, materials research was mainly concerned with metallurgy but as technology has diversified and advanced, the field now includes the study of magnetic materials, polymers and other biological materials. Cataloged materials often utilized in materials research include biomaterials, carbon, polymers, graded materials, semiconductors, glass, composite materials, ceramics and metals.
Today, materials research helps create new types of products, as well as sustaining current industries by researching ways to troubleshoot problems with current products and to create incremental improvements over time.
Education and Training
Materials research is a diverse and interdisciplinary field, which includes materials engineers and glass, metallurgical and polymer scientists. Materials engineers commonly have a Bachelors of Science degree in materials sciences or a related field, while chemists and materials scientists have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or a related field. However, most research-based jobs will require employees to have a master’s degree or a PhD in chemistry or a related field. For any materials research related field, since practical experience is a must, many schools will offer college credit for job internships and part-time jobs. A range of colleges and universities offer undergraduate degrees in materials sciences, including Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University and UCLA.
Income levels for material researchers vary. For those working in the federal government sector, they can earn an annual salary over $100,000 a year, while those working in a university or professional school earn about $50,000. Those who work for architectural and/or engineering firms earn about $75,000.
In 2010, the median annual wage for full-time materials scientists was around $85,000, and the median hourly wage was about $41.00.
Common industries that materials researchers work in are scientific research and development services, research universities and professional schools, corporations and enterprises, pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing and architectural, engineering and related services. Skills that are honed and highly valued in these interdisciplinary fields include critical thinking and analytical skills, the ability to work well in a team, and mathematical and problem-solving skills. As a materials researcher, you may also frequently give presentations to describe your team’s findings, as well as write reports and research papers.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook in the material sciences and engineering, respectively at four percent and nine percent for 2010-2020, is slower than the national average for all occupations. This is mainly because chemical and drug manufacturers are planning to control costs by increasing the amount of manufacturing and research in other countries. Therefore, they will be hiring less domestic researchers. However, those with advanced degrees, such as materials researchers with PhDs, will have more and better job opportunities, as biotechnology firms will continually provide openings at research laboratories.
Here are several links for those who are interested in learning more careers in materials research related fields.
- Advanced Materials: Advanced Materials is one of the top journals in the materials sciences. Its website offers tables of contents for all issues since 1998.
- Center for Micro-Engineered Materials (CMEM): This is an example of one of many university-based, materials research laboratories in the United States. The Center for Micro-Engineering at the University of New Mexico focuses on chemical synthesis and processing of ceramic related materials on a molecular and near molecular level.
- Journal of Materials Science and Technology: The Journal of Materials Science and Technology covers the applications of metals and alloys, as well as nonmetallic materials, in a range of industries.
- Material Connexion: Material Connexion is a comprehensive resource center dedicated to international material innovation.
- New Materials International: New Materials International includes information on materials developments relevant to polymer industries.
- U.S. Department of Energy, Division of Materials Sciences: The U.S. Department of Energy’s Division of Material Sciences provides information on materials research in the field of energy technologies, comprising metallurgy, ceramics, solid-state physics and materials chemistry.