What is a Materials Science Degree?

Materials scientists apply principles of engineering, physics, and chemistry to study existing materials and invent and manufacture new materials.

Their work has broad applications to solving real-world problems. It is essential to our everyday lives. It affects our health, our clothing, our cars, our homes, our appliances, our computers, the roads we drive on, the planes we fly in, and the sports we play.

Degree programs in materials science cover the structure and composition of materials, how they behave under various conditions, and how they can be manipulated and combined for specific uses in specific industries.

Students learn to apply this knowledge and understanding to making all kinds of products: from raincoats and umbrellas, to toys and baseball bats, to artificial limbs and skin.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Materials Science – Four Year Duration
Because the field of materials science is so diverse, degree programs can vary significantly. Some are more general in scope and provide students with an introduction to the broad categories of metals, ceramics, polymers, semiconductors, and composites. Others may focus on one specific segment of the field or allow students to choose an area of concentration.

Regardless of these differences, every materials science bachelor’s curriculum includes core courses like the following:

• Calculus
• Engineering Drawing and Graphics
• Engineering Mechanics
• Fracture and Fatigue of Engineering Materials
• Imperfections in Crystalline Solids
• Mechanics of Composites
• Micromechanics – the microscopic behavior of components of composite materials
• Physics
• Statistics
• Stress Analysis
• Transmission Electron Microscopy – the magnification of specimens to a much higher degree than can be accomplished by an optical microscope
• Waves and Diffraction in Solids

These are some of the possible areas of concentration offered in some bachelor’s programs:

• Biomaterials – materials that can be implanted to repair or replace missing tissue
• Design and Manufacturing – development and analysis of materials for use in industry
• Electronic Materials – development of materials and processes of integrated circuits
• Energy Materials – fuel cell materials, solar energy conversion, energy-efficient building materials
• Metals and Ceramics – high-performance composite combinations of materials like ceramics for electronica and structural applications
• Nanomaterials – design and modeling of materials measuring one to 100 nanometers, with applications in medicine, electronics, and other fields
• Polymeric Materials – strong and lightweight materials that can be very resistant to chemicals and can act as thermal and electrical insulators
• Surface Science – covers the physical and chemical properties of materials and is concerned with surface processes such as wear and corrosion

Master’s Degree in Materials Science – Two Year Duration
At the master’s level, materials science students focus on researching and defending their thesis. Here are some sample research areas:

• Carbon-based materials
• Corrosion science and oxidation technologies
• Computer simulation in nanoscience
• Computer simulation in renewable energy
• Hybrid organic/inorganic materials
• Nucleic-acid based materials
• Reinforced composites

The following are sample core courses for master’s students:

• Graduate Seminar in Science Communication
• Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics of Materials
• Computational Physics
• Computational Chemistry
• Physics of Non-Crystalline Materials
• Electrochemical Methods and Materials

Doctoral Degree in Materials Science – Three to Four Year Duration
The Doctoral Degree in Materials Science is targeted at students who wish to teach and/or conduct advanced research in the field. The typical curriculum at this level is made up of three components:

• Doctoral thesis proposal and candidacy exam
• Doctoral core courses
• Doctoral thesis research and defense

These are examples of core courses for doctoral candidates:

• Physics and Chemistry of Materials
• Advanced Topics in Materials Science
• Experimental Techniques in Materials Characterization
• Advanced Seminar in Science Communication

Degrees Similar to Materials Science

The focus of biochemistry is the chemical processes and reactions that occur in living matter. Biochemists apply principles of both biology and chemistry to issues in many different sectors, including the environment, medicine and health, industry and manufacturing, agriculture, biofuels, and marine science.

Biomedical Engineering
Simply stated, biomedical engineering uses engineering to solve health and medical problems. For example, a biomedical engineer might look for chemical signals in the body that warn of a particular disease or condition.

Majors in this field study engineering and the life sciences to create new products – such as vaccines, medicines, growth hormones for plants, and food additives – for the agricultural, industrial, and environmental industries. Among typical classes are biochemistry, general biology, cell biology, chemistry, and genetics.

Chemical Engineering
This degree field is focused on how the chemical, biochemical, and physical properties of substances can be changed to turn them into something else. Examples of this work are making plastic from oil, developing synthetic fibers for clothing, identifying ways to mass-produce drugs, and finding ways to solve environmental problems.

Chemistry deals with identifying the substances that make up matter. Degree programs in chemistry focus on investigating these substances: their properties; how they interact, combine, and change; and how scientists can use chemical processes to form new substances.

Engineering Technology
Engineering technology programs teach the engineering skills required to assist engineers in their work. Common classes are computers for engineering technology, construction methodologies, structural systems, strength of materials, and technical drawing.

Some of the subfields of engineering technology are civil engineering technology, construction engineering technology, aerospace engineering technology, and automotive engineering technology.

Mechanical Engineering
Students of mechanical engineering learn how to research, design, develop, and test mechanical and thermal devices, including tools, sensors, engines, and machines. These devices serve many industries, including the aerospace, medical, energy, and manufacturing sectors.

In addition to coursework in engineering and design, degree programs in the field include classes in mathematics, materials science, and physical sciences.

Pharmacologists study how drugs and medicines work so they can be used in the right way. The work naturally involves an understanding of chemical and biological interactions.

Physics is a field that keeps changing as discoveries are made. This means that the field asks at least as many questions as it answers. Students of physics degree programs study matter and energy. They learn about the relationships between the measurable quantities in the universe, which include velocity, electric field, and kinetic energy.

Skills You'll Learn

Earning a degree in this field can lay the foundation for work in other sectors as well, because of the range of transferrable skills that results from studying materials science:

• Research and data analysis
• Attention to detail
• Communication and teamwork
• Computer literacy
• Experiment design
• Numerical skills
• Observation, investigative, and problem-solving skills
• Practical lab skills
• Report writing
• Safety consciousness

What Can You Do with a Materials Science Degree?

Industries of all kinds are always looking for improved materials. This means that materials scientists and engineers work in many different sectors:

• Aerospace and aviation
• Architectural and engineering services
• Armed forces
• Automobile manufacturing
• Biomaterials / biomedical engineering (prosthetics and implants)
• Ceramics manufacturing
• Computer and electronic product industry
• Government
• Mining
• Nanotechnology – the building of materials and devices on the scale of atoms and molecules
• Nuclear industry
• Oil and gas
• Paints and coatings manufacturing
• Plastics and synthetic rubber manufacturing
• Sports equipment manufacturing
• Sustainable materials industry
• Teaching and research
• Telecommunications
• Textiles / clothing manufacturing
• Transportation

Here is a summary of the kinds of work that materials scientists do in each of the industries listed above:

• Choose the appropriate material or materials for a particular use
• Test and evaluate materials for suitability, profitability, and sustainability
• Develop new materials / design prototypes
• Collaborate with manufacturing/production and marketing teams
• Troubleshoot
• Quality control
• Assist customers with adapting materials to suit their needs
• Freelance consulting (in areas like patent examination)


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