How to become a materials scientist: a step-by-step guide

Updated 22 January 2023

Materials science is the study of the structure, properties and composition of a material. This science spans various subjects, including chemistry, physics and industrial manufacturing. A career in materials science is both exciting and innovative, offering opportunities to work in fields ranging from biotechnology to aerospace. In this article, we discover how to become a materials scientist, the type of skills required and the everyday roles and responsibilities involved in this type of work.

What does a materials scientist do?

A materials scientist analyses the chemical properties and construction of both man-made and natural materials. These materials include glass, ceramic, metals, plastics, chemicals, polymers, rubber and textiles. They study the properties of materials to develop or improve new products. With the increasing demand for more sustainable products, the field of materials science is growing in popularity. Materials scientists work on all phases of the development of new materials. They research and select the raw materials and then design, create and test the new material before the final product enters the manufacturing process.

Related: How to become a scientist (plus 9 types of scientists)

How to become a materials scientist

Here's a step-by-step guide on how to become a materials scientist:

1. Obtain a bachelor's degree in a science

Materials scientists often have a degree in the subject and many universities offer undergraduate degrees in materials science or materials engineering. It's also possible to work in this field with a degree from another discipline. Other subjects that can lead to a career in materials science include:

  • applied chemistry

  • physics

  • chemical engineering

  • metallurgy

  • geology

  • mining engineering

  • structural engineering

Another route into this career is studying for a Higher National Diploma (HND) in a similar subject to these degrees, though this may limit the types of jobs you can apply for. It may also be possible to find a job as a technician and then study for a professional qualification with the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3), which can lead to career progression.

2. Consider a postgraduate qualification

After obtaining your bachelor's degree, you may consider taking a master's degree or a PhD in an area that interests you. You may specialise in metallurgy, biomaterials or polymer science, for example. Holding a PhD or a master's degree can help you reach top-level positions, such as a research associate or a senior research lead. Many scientists typically take these qualifications early in their careers to make use of the funding and support available for recent graduates. Others find they can study for a postgraduate qualification while already working for a company or a laboratory.

3. Acquire scientific work experience

Finding work experience in a laboratory helps you to use your academic knowledge in the workplace and proves your commitment to a job in this area. You may be able to arrange an industrial placement as part of your course. Many universities offer sandwich years for science degrees, which give you an excellent opportunity to gain experience within a scientific setting. Companies sometimes recruit students directly from internships and sandwich-year schemes, so this can be a superb way to get a permanent job.

It may be a good idea to obtain a student membership of IOM3. Becoming a member of this organisation can provide you with career information, opportunities to network and the chance to apply for awards and competitions.

Related: What it takes to be a textile technologist (with duties)

4. Consider a graduate scheme or look for a job

Many companies that employ materials scientists and engineers offer graduate schemes. These can be an excellent pathway to your first job following your degree. They typically provide on-the-job training, career progression and professional support.

Alternatively, on completing your bachelor's degree, you can apply directly for jobs. Popular career paths include working as a materials engineer, design engineer, metallurgist or computer-aided design (CAD) technician. Following a postgraduate degree, you can apply for postdoctoral positions, such as a junior research fellow.

Related: 9 of the highest paying science jobs (with salaries)

Who employs materials scientists?

Materials scientists work in many different industries, including manufacturing, engineering and construction. You may find a job within one of the following sectors:

  • scientific research and development

  • aerospace

  • sports equipment manufacturing

  • armed forces and defence

  • pharmaceuticals

  • utilities

  • oil and gas

  • telecommunications

Other specialisms include nanotechnology, biomedical fields, smart textiles and sustainable building materials. For example, construction companies require materials scientists to analyse how to improve energy storage and create more sustainable buildings. Likewise, sportswear companies employ materials scientists to develop smart textiles and wearable technology.

Related: What are the benefits of a graduate scheme?

What are the responsibilities of a materials scientist?

Tasks vary according to the sector you work in and the type of material you research, but these are some of the general responsibilities of the role:

  • testing materials to assess how strong they are, how corrosive they are and how resistant they are to chemical attacks

  • working on prototypes

  • researching and selecting the best materials for a specific use

  • assessing which materials are best for specific qualities, such as electrical conductivity, durability or sustainability

  • examining how to improve products and their use, such as developing a product that reacts to changes in the environment

  • researching the environmental impact of a material and its manufacturing process, including pollution and waste implications

  • supervising quality control

  • ensuring products comply with international and national regulations for legal and quality standards

  • supervising engineering technicians and other employees working in laboratories or offices

  • meeting with colleagues in technical support roles and those in purchasing, manufacturing or marketing departments

  • offering guidance on maintenance and inspection procedures

Senior roles usually involve more time spent on research, management duties and applying for funding and grants for research development.

Related: List of highest paying chemistry jobs (plus specialisations)

What are the key skills for a materials scientist?

Typically, a job as a materials scientist requires a strong academic background and an excellent understanding of chemistry, physics, maths and engineering. The following skills can also help you to succeed in the role:

  • Communication and listening skills: Good communication skills can help you to present research findings, technical data and written presentations to managers and colleagues. Excellent speaking and listening skills are also important for communicating with scientists in your team and for giving instructions to technicians and other laboratory staff.

  • Analytical thinking: It's important to be able to apply scientific knowledge to industrial and manufacturing situations. Using a logical approach to your research helps you find new solutions and create innovative products.

  • Interpersonal skills: You may lead research teams and collaborate on large projects. Therefore, strong interpersonal skills are important.

  • Patience and perseverance: It's important to persevere until you find the right solution. Research and development of new materials can take time and present challenges.

  • Organisational skills: A career in this field often requires the ability to plan work schedules and timelines and prioritise tasks effectively to meet deadlines and achieve project goals.

Related: A guide to chemistry degrees: modules, careers and salaries

The differences between a materials scientist and a materials engineer

Although these two roles are similar, there are some key differences. Both materials engineers and scientists perform similar research tasks, but their work often has a different scope. Materials scientists tend to focus more on research and testing to discover how to improve materials and their associated products. While engineers also work on research, they're mainly responsible for the production process and quality, in addition to the budget involved in the research and manufacturing process.

Materials scientists work on the development of new materials that can help solve everyday problems, such as packaging that's easy to recycle and environmentally friendly. Materials engineers, in contrast, may focus more on how to improve the use of existing materials to reduce the impact on the environment and to lower production costs.

How much do materials scientists earn?

The national average salary for a scientist is £33,646 per year. Materials scientists work in many different roles and a range of sectors. Salaries vary according to responsibilities, position and location. The national average salary for a metallurgist is £36,867 per year, while the national average salary for a materials engineer is £33,460 per year, and the national average salary for a materials technician is £22,210 per year. High-level positions can earn more. For example, a senior design engineer can earn an average salary of £49,898 per year.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing. Salaries‌ ‌may‌ ‌‌vary‌‌ ‌depending‌ ‌on‌ ‌the‌ ‌hiring‌ ‌organisation‌ ‌and‌ ‌a‌ ‌candidate's‌ ‌experience,‌ ‌academic‌ background‌ ‌and‌ ‌location.

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