Materials Scientist

The Job and What's Involved

Materials scientists study and work with a wide range of materials. Those who concentrate on just one material may have a separate title, for example metallurgist (metals), polymer scientist (polymers) or ceramist (ceramics).

They are involved in almost every new development, across many industry sectors, from aerospace to construction and the built environment, and from automotive to medical applications. Their skill and knowledge is in great demand for the development of new and modified materials from alternative and sustainable materials and energy sources.

Materials scientists study:

  • How materials are produced and the basic materials that are used.
  • Why and how materials behave under various conditions, such as temperature, pressure, stress or exposure to climatic conditions.
  • How materials are used in every aspect of our lives today and the requirements for the future.

They carry out research and development in industry, universities and government agencies. They use sophisticated laboratory equipment, much of it controlled by computer, to test and evaluate the properties of materials. Scientists have to keep accurate records and write reports. They tend to operate in small teams directed by specific goals, but can often work in collaboration with other countries or organisations, particularly where multinational companies are involved.

There is a wide range of work, for example:

  • Research and development in micro- and nanotechnology (technology at a very small scale) for biomedical and bioscience applications.
  • Production of high temperature resistant materials for commercial applications such as engine systems.
  • Composite materials (the mixture of two or more materials) using the strengths and properties of each to create a new material, such as glass-reinforced plastic or wood fibre-reinforced plastic.
  • Textiles where scientists deal with more than clothing, curtains and carpets.

Some work in high-tech fields, designing things such as aero plane wing materials. Others create optical fibres - hair-thin glass filaments that can transmit phone calls or TV programmes at the speed of light. Still others are biology experts, studying how enzymes help target body oils on clothes.

Many materials scientists work purely in research to establish improved performance from new and existing materials. Others support industry to develop products and components including those that can be recycled when they are no longer useful, such as tyres being recycled for road and play area surfaces or the recovery of plastic to turn it into new plastic parts.

Working hours depend on the area of employment. In industry, they can be normal office hours or shifts. More senior staff may work longer hours.

The work environment varies according to the job and industry. Scientists may work in clean laboratories or climate-controlled industrial environments. Standard office conditions or testing laboratories are the most common but, occasionally, research or testing work needs to be undertaken in industrial environments. Field operations may also be required.

New entrants earn around £20,000 a year (potentially more with a postgraduate degree). An experienced materials scientist could earn around £35,000.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are nearly 20,000 members of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3), and jobs for materials scientists can be found in a wide variety of industries. These include manufacturing, construction, medical science, metal and mineral extraction and research. They also work for universities and government agencies. Posts are mainly located in larger towns and cities throughout the country.

Scientists can be self-employed as consultants, working on projects on a contract basis.

Jobs are advertised in the local and national press, and in specialist publications such as The Engineer and Science. Vacancies are also advertised on the website's of some of the professional organisations such as the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (www.iom3.org) and the Institute of Engineering Technology (www.theiet.org). Specialist recruitment agencies also advertise vacancies on their website's.

Education and Training

Scientists and technologists are usually graduates, although it is possible to find work at technician level with lower qualifications.

The study of materials falls between engineering, science and design, so various degree subjects are suitable for this work, including:

- Metallurgy and materials science
- Engineering
- A general science subject, such as physics or chemistry

There are only a limited number of courses specifically aimed at materials scientists. These include materials science, materials technology and materials engineering. There are also courses specialising in one group of materials or their applications, for example metallurgy, polymer science, aerospace engineering, biomaterials or sports and materials science.

Entry to a degree course is usually with at least two A levels and five GCSE grades (A*-C), or equivalent qualifications. For most courses, English and maths at GCSE grade (A*-C) are essential.

The Diplomas in engineering, construction and the built environment and manufacturing and product design may be relevant for this type of work.

Many universities offer Access courses for those without the usual entry qualifications. Applicants may have to demonstrate competence in a science and have some relevant practical experience.

For technician-level jobs, applicants usually need at least four GCSE grades (A*-C), including two sciences (or double science), maths and English, or equivalent qualifications such as a BTEC First Diploma/Certificate in science. Alternatively, there are NVQ's, and Apprenticeships may be available in engineering and manufacturing technologies.

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.

For further information visit My World of Work www.myworldofwork.co.uk/modernapprenticeships, Careers Wales www.careerswales.com; and for Northern Ireland contact www.careersserviceni.com.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

On starting work, materials scientists are usually trained on the job by their employers.

The Engineering Council registers suitably qualified applicants at three levels: Engineering Technician, Incorporated Engineer and Chartered Engineer. At each level the engineer must complete a period of initial professional development, including practical training and professional engineering experience, and successfully pass a professional review. The level of registrations reflects the type of degree the engineer holds.

Postgraduate courses include one-year full-time Masters degree courses that provide training for employment in a wide variety of fields. There are also PhD research degrees that are normally required for research jobs in industry or universities. PhD studies usually take at least three years.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Materials scientists need:

  • A logical and enquiring mind.
  • Problem-solving skills.
  • Computer skills.
  • The ability to pay attention to detail.
  • Dexterity for using a wide range of test equipment.
  • The ability to write reports.
  • To be able to give talks or presentations to groups of people.
  • Good eyesight and possibly colour vision (for some jobs).
  • To work well in a team.

Your Long Term Prospects

Materials scientists can move into purchasing raw materials, sales, marketing or management, or become project managers or technical directors, leading teams of people developing new products. There are also posts in teaching and lecturing.

Self-employment is sometimes possible, but there are limited opportunities. There is some scope in non-destructive testing (NDT), and failure analysis.

There are also opportunities abroad, particularly in industrial areas.

Get Further Information

Engineering Council UK (ECUK)
Tel: 020 7240 7891
Website: www.engc.org.uk

Institute of Cast Metals Engineers (ICME)
Tel: 0121 601 6979
Website: www.icme.org.uk

Institute of Engineering Technology (IET)
Tel: 01438 313 311
Website: www.theiet.org

Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3)
Tel: 020 7451 7300
Website: www.iom3.org

SEMTA (the Sector Skills Council for Science,
Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies)
Tel: 01923 238441
Learning helpline 0800 282167
Website: www.semta.org.uk

UK Centre for Materials Education
Tel: 0151 794 5364
Websites: www.materials.ac.uk
and www.whystudymaterials.ac.uk

Women into Science, Engineering
and Construction (WISE)
Tel: 020 3206 0408
Website: www.wisecampaign.org.uk

Women's Engineering Society
Tel: 01438 765506
Website: www.wes.org.uk

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