Materials science is a relatively new and very broad field. It involves applications from a number scientific disciplines that contribute to the creation of new materials. Chemists play a predominant role in materials science because chemistry provides information about the structure and composition of materials, as well as the processes to synthesize and use them.
The central theory behind materials science involves relating the microstructure of a material to its macromolecular physical and chemical properties. By understanding and then changing the microstructure, material scientists tailor the properties to create custom, or even brand new, materials with specific properties for specific uses.
Materials scientists are employed by companies who make products from metals, ceramics, and rubber. They also work in the coatings (developing new varieties of paint) and biomedical industries (designing materials that are compatible with human tissues for prosthetics and implants). Other important areas are polymers (including biological polymers), composites (heterogeneous materials made of two or more substances), superconducting materials, graphite materials, integrated-circuit chips, and fuel cells.
Materials science spans so many different disciplines and applications that people who work in this field tend to specialize in a technique or material type. Students are urged to contact associations for ceramic manufacturers, synthetic rubber makers, paints and coatings manufacturers, and plastics makers to find out more about each of these areas and the opportunities that exist for materials chemists in each of them.
The materials science field is made up of people with various educational backgrounds. Most projects in materials science are team efforts, including technicians, engineers, physicists, and materials scientists with B.S. or M.S. degrees, as well as Ph.D. chemists. Within materials science, a broad background in various sciences such as chemistry, physics, or engineering is preferred.
There are currently about 20 material scientist degree programs in the United States, and the number is increasing. Most materials scientists currently recommend training in a more specific discipline, such as inorganic synthesis and organic chemistry, or a specific materials science such as ceramic engineering. In addition to their scientific training, materials scientists stress the importance of understanding and being able to apply basic statistical concepts, and many material scientists advise against specializing too early.
Some states require licenses for materials engineers, but this is usually not the case for material scientists.
Some materials scientists say one of the most satisfying aspects of their work is being involved in a project from the materials' initial concept through its manufacture and marketing. Much of their work is performed in the lab, but they also work with engineers and processing specialists in pilot plants or manufacturing facilities. After a material is commercialized, materials scientists often help customers tailor the material to suit their need. Most materials scientists are employed in industry where products are made, but some are employed by government and academia. Many work in the electronic and computer industries.
Materials science covers a broad range of sciences; as a result, there is no average day. Materials scientists do everything from fundamental research on the chemical properties of materials to developing new materials and modifying formulations of existing materials to suit new applications. They work with engineers and processing specialists, in pilot plants, and in manufacturing facilities.
Material scientists generally gain more independence and responsibility as they progress in their careers. They also tend to become more specialized in a particular type of material—increasing their expertise and value, but restricting their job movement possibilities.
Materials scientists say the current job outlook continues to be positive because the demand for new materials and modifications of existing materials is ongoing. Some of them caution, however, that materials science may become a victim of its own success. Since much of the technology developed in the past decade was so advanced, the job growth curve for the future could flatten out. Certain areas within materials science, such as electronics, are already seeing flattening in employment growth.
Most materials scientists describe themselves as curiosity driven. They say they have always been interested in knowing what things are made of, such as the plastic in the cup they are drinking from or the components of a composite material. They also express a strong interest in engineering and structures. Most describe themselves as generalists; some say they feel their knowledge base is “a mile wide, but an inch deep.”