Put your passion for science, as well as your excellent communication and problem-solving skills, to the test with a career in materials engineering
Materials engineers are responsible for the research, specification, design and development of materials to advance technologies and products of many kinds.
Their expertise lies in understanding the properties and behaviours of different substances, from raw materials to finished products. The field is also referred to as materials science or materials technology.
They work with many different materials, from ceramics to plastics, and polymers to industrial minerals.
Working in a diverse range of industries, materials engineers combine or modify materials in different ways to improve the performance, durability and cost-effectiveness of processes and products.
Exact tasks vary according to the industry, the specific material you work with and the size of the organisation you work for, but there are a number of activities common to most positions. These include:
- selecting the best combination of materials for specific purposes
- testing materials to assess how resistant they are to heat, corrosion or chemical attack
- analysing data using computer modelling software
- assessing materials for specific qualities (such as electrical conductivity, durability, renewability)
- developing prototypes
- considering the implications for waste and other environmental pollution issues of any product or process
- advising on the adaptability of a plant to new processes and materials
- working to solve problems arising during the manufacturing process or with the finished product, such as those caused by daily wear and tear or a change of environment
- supervising quality control throughout the construction and production process
- monitoring plant conditions and material reactions during use
- helping to ensure that products comply with national and international legal and quality standards
- advising on inspection, maintenance and repair procedures
- liaising with colleagues in manufacturing, technical and scientific support, purchasing and marketing
- supervising the work of materials engineering technicians and other staff
- considering the costs implications of materials used and alternatives, in terms of both time and money
- taking account of energy usage in manufacturing and in-service energy saving, e.g. in transport and construction applications.
At senior level, the work is likely to involve more innovative research or greater management responsibility. The latter will call for a range of additional skills that are not necessarily part of the routine work of a materials engineer.
- Starting salaries for materials engineers range from £20,000 to £26,000.
- With experience, this rises to between £27,000 and £50,000.
- Working as a senior engineer with chartered status can earn you a salary of up to £60,000.
Salary levels will vary according to the exact area in which you work, and are often higher in what are considered to be 'leading edge' technologies such as telecommunications and biomedical engineering.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
You can expect to work 35 to 40 hours a week. Shift work may be involved depending on the industry.
What to expect
- Although materials engineering employs more women than other fields of engineering, women are still under-represented. Organisations such as WISE and Women's Engineering Society (WES) campaign to promote the profession and support female engineers.
- The work is mainly based in offices or laboratories but will involve liaising with and visiting suppliers of raw materials or manufacturing sites.
- Technological advances are fast in this field, which can make career breaks difficult.
- There are two main options for self-employment, both of which are more likely once significant work experience has been gained. You can set up your own business, such as a consultancy or small specialist practice, or work as a freelancer or contractor, moving around different organisations as work becomes available.
- Your work will involve new developments that impact on the competitiveness of your organisation. This indirectly brings high levels of responsibility but you can be rewarded by seeing the direct results of your work.
- There are occasionally opportunities for overseas travel. In global companies where technology is mainly controlled from the UK, frequent overseas visits may be required.
Apart from a degree in materials engineering, technology or science, a number of other engineering and science-based subjects are acceptable for entry to this profession, including:
- applied chemistry
- applied physics
- ceramics and glass
- chemical engineering
- mechanical engineering
- minerals/mining engineering
- polymer science/technology
- structural engineering.
If your degree is in a science or engineering subject other than materials engineering, you may find that a relevant postgraduate qualification will open up more opportunities and will help with competition during the application process.
It's useful if your first degree or Masters is accredited by a relevant professional body, such as the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3), as this can help you to achieve the status of chartered engineer (CEng) at a later date. Details of accredited courses are available at Engineering Council - Accredited Course Search.
Entry with an HND is possible, although professional training will take longer and opportunities for career development will be limited. Relevant HND subjects are similar to those listed at degree level.
If you do not have a degree or HND you may be able to train at technician level. However, this will then make progression to incorporated engineer (IEng) or CEng status difficult, and you may need to take further qualifications while working.
You will need to show evidence of the following:
- good communication skills for presenting technical data, both in writing and orally, to colleagues from your discipline and other professionals
- the ability to work as part of a team and to take individual responsibility and make decisions
- commercial awareness
- an interest in scientific and technical issues and, for some positions, a real interest in a specific type of product
- ability to apply scientific reasoning to industrial situations
- strong analytical skills and problem-solving ability
- excellent knowledge of maths and science and IT skills
- the ability to prioritise and plan effectively.
While there are good opportunities for materials engineers, it can still be a highly competitive field. Employers invest a great deal in research and development, so they seek to develop high-calibre specialists.
It isn't necessary to have previous experience before you start applying for jobs, but industrial placements or other technical or scientific work experience may strengthen your application.
To keep up to date with developments in the industry and to start making contacts, get student membership with a professional body such as IOM3.
Materials engineering is so broad that positions are available across many manufacturing and industrial sectors. Employers range from global corporations to small specialist research laboratories, which work with a variety of materials including:
- carbon fibre
- electronics equipment
- industrial minerals
Some of the main employers of materials engineers are based within:
- the power industry - for example, oil and gas companies
- telecommunications - developing glass fibre optics to enhance technologies such as broadband
- sports equipment - designing and developing materials such as carbon fibre and plastics to produce tougher, lighter equipment or performance textiles
- biomedical engineering - developing materials for components such as heart pace makers or materials for replacement joints, such as knees and hips.
Opportunities can be found throughout the UK and are as likely to occur on a small business or science park as in a major industrial centre.
Look for job vacancies at:
- The Engineer Jobs
- The Engineering Job
- Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3) Jobs
- New Scientist Jobs
- Oil and Gas Job Search
Specialist recruitment agencies may handle some vacancies, but these are more often for experienced chartered or incorporated engineers.
On-the-job training is offered by most companies and is likely to be more structured with larger employers. You may gain experience in several areas or could specialise in a particular material or process.
It is important to keep up to date with changing technologies and new materials and so you should undertake continuing professional development (CPD). This can be made up of a number of activities including attending conferences and seminars, completing short courses and reading professional resources.
Various events for CPD purposes are approved by the IOM3, such as work-based learning activities and local society events. It recommends that members should complete at least 35 hours of CPD a year.
You may wish to work towards gaining professional status at either incorporated engineer (IEng) or chartered engineer (CEng) level. Both qualifications are awarded by the Engineering Council and provide recognition of expertise and a higher earning potential.
To gain professional status, you'll need to be a member of a relevant body such as the IOM3 so that you can apply through them. The process of becoming incorporated is more straightforward if you have a relevant accredited degree, or an accredited HND plus appropriate learning to degree level.
To become chartered, you'll ideally have an accredited undergraduate degree along with a Masters or an accredited integrated MEng degree.
You will also need to demonstrate that you are working at a particular level and have the required professional competences and commitment, as set out in the UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence (UK-SPEC).
Management development programmes will also help to develop your career and improve your promotion prospects.
Career prospects are generally good within this branch of engineering. Due to there being so many different specialist areas and such rapid technological change in the field, there is a consistent demand for materials engineers.
Once you've built up experience, it's possible to move into general management roles (within laboratories or in the wider organisation) or to develop a technical specialist area.
Progression to management will depend on the size and scope of the employing company; for example, a small but highly specialist biomedical laboratory cannot offer the management career potential available within a global oil and gas company.
You are likely to play a significant role in finding more energy-efficient and less polluting and waste-generating, products and processes. This particular aspect of the role may further increase promotion prospects within many organisations.
You can focus your career in a particular direction depending on your interests. For example, you could decide to be based in the laboratory working on research and development, or you may want to concentrate on the production and processing side.
With significant experience you could set up your own consultancy or small specialist practice, or you could find work as a contractor for various different organisations and projects.
There are also opportunities to teach and lecture in further and higher education.