Materials engineers specialise in understanding the structure, properties and processing of a wide range of materials. Materials science looks at why each material behaves the way it does, and materials engineers aim to exploit the properties of a material to make it better, cheaper or more useful. These materials include metals and alloys, ceramics, glass, plastics, rubber, semiconductors, biomedical materials and combinations of materials called composites. Materials specialists need to know what properties each material has and how they might be changed.
Engineers and scientists work on combining or modifying materials in different ways for use in products ranging from cars and aircraft to buildings, bridges, silicon chips, sports equipment and even replacement body parts for humans. They may study alternative and sustainable sources of materials and energy to make processes more environmentally friendly, and look at ways of maximising the use of existing materials through recycling.
Work activities vary from job to job, but may include:
They usually work as part of a team of scientists, engineers and technicians from different disciplines. They may also liaise with colleagues from departments such as purchasing and marketing.
Most materials engineers work between 35 and 40 hours a week, from Monday to Friday. Additional hours and overtime, including weekend work, may be required.
They are usually based in laboratories, offices or manufacturing environments and may wear appropriate protective clothing. Traveling to visit sites is often required and some jobs may involve staying away from home in the UK or overseas, for short or long periods of time.
New materials engineers may start on around £20,000 a year.
Experienced engineers may earn around £35,000.
Materials engineers are employed in many different industrial and manufacturing sectors. These include construction, construction engineering, building services, electronics, shipbuilding, aerospace, motor sport, power generation, railways, biomedical engineering, vehicle and consumer goods manufacture, and also newer industries such as nanotechnology and biomimetics (copying, and taking ideas from nature). Career prospects are good as there is currently a shortage of skilled workers.
Employers range from huge multinational companies to universities, government agencies and small research laboratories, and may be based anywhere in the UK. There may be opportunities to work overseas.
Job vacancies may be advertised on recruitment website's and in magazines such as Materials World and The Engineer.
Employers often invest large amounts of money into research and development and normally require highly qualified individuals. A number of UK universities offer three-and four-year BEng and MEng degrees in materials engineering, materials science or materials science and engineering.
A number of other engineering and science-based subjects are acceptable for entry to this profession. Relevant subjects include applied physics, ceramics and glass, chemical engineering, metallurgy, minerals/mining engineering, geology, physics, polymer science and structural engineering.
Graduates whose first degree is not in materials engineering, but who do have a science or engineering degree, may find that relevant postgraduate qualifications open up more opportunities.
The minimum requirements for a degree course are usually at least two or three A levels, normally including maths and a science subject, and five GCSE's (A*-C), or equivalent qualifications. It is a good idea to check entry requirements with individual institutions. Candidates who do not have the required qualifications in science and maths may be able to enter after taking an Access or foundation course.
Alternative routes include studying for HNC/HND courses. The normal requirements for this are one A level or equivalent qualifications such as a BTEC national certificate or diploma in a relevant subject.
The Diplomas in engineering and science may be relevant for this area of work.
Applicants with GCSE's (A*-C) including English, maths and science, may be able to enter this field by training with an employer as an apprentice.
Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.
Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.
There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Combining alternative routes such as an Apprenticeship or BTEC national course with suitable experience and training may provide access to incorporated and chartered engineer status via the Engineering Technician (EngTech) qualification.
Materials engineers usually work towards professional status by becoming either an Incorporated Engineer or a Chartered Engineer. Individuals who do not have a degree or an HNC/HND may begin by gaining EngTech status.
The requirements for registration as a professional engineer have been established by the Engineering Council to ensure that professional competence and commitment is recognised at all levels, from engineering technician and incorporated engineer to chartered engineer.
To qualify as incorporated engineer (IEng), individuals should:
The Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) offers a number of awards to help women who are studying for incorporated engineer qualifications.
To qualify as a chartered engineer (CEng), individuals must:
Ideas and technologies change rapidly in this field, and engineers must commit to continuing professional development (CPD).
Laboratory technicians carry out routine laboratory tests and perform a variety of technical support functions to help scientists, technologists and others with their work. They can work in research and development, scientific analysis and testing, education and manufacturing.
They are employed in a wide range of scientific fields which affect almost every aspect of our lives.
A materials engineer should:
A key career choice faced by many materials engineers is whether to specialise in the laboratory, on research and development, or to work on the production and processing side.
With experience, promotion to senior materials engineer or project management roles may be possible. There may also be opportunities to progress into senior general management. There is good potential for overseas travel and experience.
There may also be opportunities to teach and lecture in further and higher education.
Engineering Council UK (ECUK)
Tel: 020 3206 0500
Enginuity careers website
Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)
Tel: 01438 313311
SEMTA (Sector Skills Council for Science
Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies)
Learning helpline 0800 282167
Women into Science, Engineering
and Construction (WISE)
Tel: 020 3206 0408
Women's Engineering Society
Tel: 01438 765506
Additional resources for job seekers and those already in a job.