I've long held that materials science is "the wave of the future" and something that younger chemists should consider. I recently conducted an interview with a material scientist we'll call "PQ" who strongly disagrees with my relatively positive assessment of the chances for employment in the field. What follows is our interview by e-mail; it was formatted by CJ and checked for accuracy by PQ.
Chemjobber: Can you tell me a little about your background?
PQ: I received both my bachelor’s and Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from some well-regarded research universities in the Midwest. While an undergrad, I had the misfortune of interning at an automobile parts factory. Spending my summer next to a carburizing furnace while surrounded by UAW-induced apathy convinced me to consider options outside B.S.-level jobs. A second internship with an R&D-focused company was very positive and convinced me that I should go to grad school.
My graduate research involved chemical vapor deposition of electronic materials. (It’s the sort of thing that the microelectronics and photovoltaic industries find interesting.) Nonetheless, I got a lot of interviews but no offers upon graduating. After some contemplation, I decided to take matters into my own hands and to write an NRC RAP proposal, which was ultimately selected. I never wanted to postdoc, but working at a federal lab turned out to be a great experience. I was hired there after my postdoc ended, and that’s where I am today.
CJ: What is "materials science" to you? What misconceptions do typical chemists have?
PQ: Well, with a Ph.D. in the subject, you’d think I’d have a pat answer to your first answer. I don’t.
A functional definition is that materials science deals with the study, improvement, and invention of useful materials and their processing. Materials engineering is sort of the same thing but without the research component. The distinction is pretty vague, and most of us have degrees in “materials science and engineering.” The vast majority of the MSE Ph.D.s I know from grad school would be classified as engineers, so you really can’t base the demarcation on education. Additionally, many people have degrees specifically in metallurgy, ceramics engineering, and polymer science, which are all subfields of materials science/engineering.
Of course, you don’t need to have a degree in materials science to be a materials scientist. Lots of solid state physicists, chemists, and engineers have made their way over. It’s a big tent with lots of room. Civil engineers working on concrete composites. Solid state physicists playing with graphene. Chemists making up nanowhatevers. Chemical engineers working on thin film processes. All one big, interdisciplinary family.
The thing chemists may not understand about materials science is that, while it covers a lot of ground – steel (yawn) to nanoparticles (sexy!) – it’s actually a pretty small field. In 2006, American universities produced a lot of chemistry grads: 11,000 bachelors, 2,100 masters, and 2,400 Ph.D.s. Chemical engineering produced 4,900; 1,400; and 900, respectively. That same year yielded around 1,000 bachelors, 800 masters, and 600 Ph.D.s in materials science/engineering. That’s probably not a great measure, but it gives you some idea.
Let’s look at membership in professional organizations. Chemists, of course, have ACS, which has 160,000 members. AIChE has 40,000. Materials science/engineering has a few organizations. ASM International, which is engineering-focused and mostly metallurgy, has 36,000 members. MRS, which is oriented toward the science end of things, has 16,000 members. TMS, another engineering-oriented group, has 10,000 members. You’re talking about a fraction of ACS in each case, but ASM is a fair match for AIChE.
I really think that pinning the hopes of chemistry on such a relatively small endeavor as materials science isn’t realistic. The unemployment rate among newly-minted B.S. chemists is 15%. Based on the 2006 data above, you could eliminate every B.S. in MSE and replace him with an unemployed chemist, and you’d still have a 6% unemployment rate in your new graduates. (I unfortunately have no idea what the unemployment rate is for MSE graduates.)
CJ: Where do materials scientists get employed? Do they end up in industrial positions like I hope?
PQ: It’s funny. I often read about an attitude in academic chemistry that holds a career in industry is somehow inferior to one in academia. I can honestly say that I’ve never heard that attitude expressed in materials science. There may be a personal preference towards working in one or the other, but I think there’s generally a mutual respect. In a lot of ways, the spirit of materials science is much closer to engineering than to science. That’s one explanation for the industry-friendliness, anyway. (Another is that there aren’t a lot of academic jobs out there since you need a big school with an engineering college to have a stand-alone MSE department.)
Yes, the vast majority of materials scientists and engineers are employed by industry. Aerospace, microelectronics, energy, chemicals…just about every industry imaginable. Most of those jobs are based more in engineering than R&D, and they aren’t necessarily called “materials engineers” or “materials scientists” by the employer.
CJ: What are the trends that you see in materials science employment? Growing, shrinking or going sideways?
PQ: Either directly or indirectly, most materials scientists/engineers are connected to manufacturing, which was declining in the U.S. even before the recession. In general, it’s not a great time to be in materials…or engineering, for that matter. However, the job situation depends mostly on the industry/subarea you work in. If you’re a metallurgist, well, my condolences. If you’re in the semiconductor industry, I hope you’re planning to get out before you turn 40. If you’re a polymer scientist, things are pretty good from what I understand. If you’re working on electrode materials for batteries, then you’ve won the lottery. (If you’re working for the government like I do, then you’re just hoping not to be furloughed.)
CJ: The Bureau of Labor Statistics foresees 12% growth in MatSci positions from 2008-2018 -- are they wrong?
PQ: Well, if they’re right, it’s nothing to crow about. According to their numbers, job growth for accountants is supposed to be 21%. I don’t know about you, but given those numbers, I’d be strongly encouraging my nieces and nephews to become CPAs over Ph.D.s in materials science.
Nonetheless, I still think it’s an unrealistic number given the decline of manufacturing and the profession’s strong connection to it. If the “making stuff into other stuff” business goes away, then what’s the point of being an expert on “stuff?”
CJ: What threats do you see to materials science employment? Does international competition and/or outsourcing play a role?
PQ: Of course they do. The thing is, it’s irrelevant at this point. The battle was lost a long time ago, and we can’t turn back the clock.
About half our materials science Ph.D.s are foreign-born. If we have a comparative advantage in materials-related R&D or manufacturing, it’s not apparent what it is. (Maybe materials education is our niche, but that will eventually end, too.) We’ll continue to lose jobs in manufacturing, and eventually we’ll have just a supplemental role in manufacturing instead of the lead we once had. We’ll certainly have less need for materials experts than we do now. About half of 3M’s R&D personnel are overseas. UTC and GE are also offshoring their R&D like mad. Startups aren’t scaling up anymore…they’re starting production in China.
It’s not a pretty picture, but I think it’s better to acknowledge reality and plan your life accordingly.
CJ here again. Thanks to PQ for a frank and very interesting response; it's good to be confronted with reality as often as you can stand it. Good luck to us all.