Nanotechnologists push the boundaries of interdisciplinary science to create new materials, methods or procedures based on nano-scale particles and interactions
Nanotechnologists manipulate matter on the nanoscale (one billionth of a metre), developing new materials and equipment as well as drugs and diagnostic tools. Nanotechnology encompasses science, physics, chemistry, biology, engineering and computer science.
Their work involves designing and conducting experiments based around observing nano-scale systems (either organic or inorganic) in their given field, often with the aid of other researchers across several disciplines. The information is then analysed to develop practical applications of the results, such as a new material, device or procedure. Computational research can also be carried out using simulated nano-scale experiments and systems to increase theoretical knowledge and aid in the design and development of practical experiments.
Nanotechnology research is often collaborative between different departments or institutions and crosses the boundary between academia and industry. As a nanotechnologist you'll often have a PhD, and will use the connections and networks developed during your studies to form the foundation of a large knowledge base central to your work.
Work is usually laboratory based, but its exact nature can depend on whether you work in industry or academia. The responsibilities in both lines of work are often the same and you'll need to:
- plan and conduct experiments to investigate and analyse nano-scale systems
- operate, or design and construct, complex instrumentation
- extrapolate data to develop theories to explain experimental results
- write up results in reports and/or scientific papers or books
- arrange the testing of products or materials
- develop new products and ways of applying new methodology
- maintain accurate records of results
- write applications for funding
- collaborate with other scientists, often including those from other disciplines
- develop specialist skills and expertise
- work within health and safety regulations
- teach or lecture students or trainees
- develop innovative methods to improve existing products or procedures
- consider profit/loss margins in any work carried out
- keep up to date with advances in your field of study and wider research through specialist literature and meetings
- disseminate new findings at departmental, institutional or national meetings and conferences, including presenting to a variety of audiences
- manage individual projects and pieces of work
- at higher levels, manage a research team (including technicians and support staff) or a group of research students.
- PhD studentships usually come with a tax-free stipend of around £15,000, although some may be higher than this if industry funded.
- Nanotechnologists working in research often earn between £25,000 and £35,000 once they've completed their PhD.
- At a senior level, nanotechnologists can earn between £30,000 and £40,000. Salaries at this level vary between sectors.
- University professors or similar can earn upwards of £60,000.
Larger companies typically offer higher salaries than smaller firms, but in a small company the opportunity to take on more responsibility may arise at an earlier stage.
There's a nationally agreed single-pay spine in place for higher education roles in most institutions in the UK. See the University and College Union (UCU) for details.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
You'll typically work a 37-hour week, although you might have to put in overtime to meet deadlines. In academia, you might have to occasionally work irregular hours due to teaching responsibilities or limitations on equipment access time. Nanotechnologists in industry may have to work to fit in with shift patterns or commercial deadlines.
Part-time work may be possible.
In academia, contract lengths may be dependent on funding grants.
What to expect
- As a nanotechnologist you'll be mostly based in the lab, but may need to work in other settings depending on the nature of your current project.
- Some research can involve working with dangerous or toxic materials under strict safety protocols.
- Early academic posts are likely to be short-term contracts.
- Jobs are widely available across the UK, but posts related to specialist research may be limited to fewer institutions. There may be opportunities to work abroad in particular specialisms, so a willingness to work abroad, at least for limited periods, may increase your prospects.
- You may need to travel to visit other laboratories in the UK and abroad to set up and carry out experiments and tests. You may also attend national or international conferences and meetings. Funding is often available for such meetings depending on individual grants.
To enter into research in nanotechnology you'll need a good honours degree (2:1 or above) in a related subject, such as:
- biology/molecular biology
- biochemistry or chemical biology
- computer science
- materials science
Most employers will require you to have either a research-based MSc or PhD, or be working towards one, particularly for roles in research or development. You may be able to secure a position as a lab technician without postgraduate study, but progression will be limited.
A list of undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD nanotechnology courses in the UK and abroad is available at Nanowerk - Nanotechnology Degree Programs.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) invests substantial amounts of money each year into funding Masters degrees and PhDs through training grants. Contact universities directly to find out more about studentships and other sources of funding. You may need to make applications for research degrees early on so that departments have time to apply for funding on your behalf, although there are often posts advertised with funding already arranged. The field can be competitive but there's a regular turnover of positions, often with several available across different institutions at any given time.
If you're planning to undertake postdoctoral research or study, you should identify researchers in your field of interest using professional networking sites, scientific journals and your own network of contacts. You can also discuss your research interests with your academic supervisor.
You'll need to have:
- technical and scientific skills
- analytical skills and a logical approach to problem solving
- numerical skills
- communication and presentation skills
- the capacity to deal with complex issues both systematically and creatively
- IT skills and the ability to use computer-controlled equipment
- the ability to write reports and papers for publication
- team working and project management skills
- the ability to manage both time and budgets effectively
- attention to detail
- self-motivation and patience.
Relevant work experience, particularly in a laboratory environment, can be useful. Speculative applications to potential academic supervisors is a good route into work experience or shadowing.
Some degrees will include a work placement or year out in industry. Look for placements related to nanotechnology to help you find out more about the role and start to develop a network of contacts. There may also be some opportunities to undertake a summer internship or a summer research project.
Nanotechnologists are typically employed in:
- universities and research institutions
- government laboratories
- hospitals and clinics
- private research facilities.
Within industry, you can work in a range of sectors for employers such as:
- aviation and aerospace engineering companies
- defence companies
- electronics manufacturers
- health and pharmaceutical companies
- food and drink manufacturers.
For a list of nanotechnology universities and research laboratories worldwide, see Nanowerk.
Research and development is not restricted to major companies - small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can also offer excellent careers to nanotechnologists.
Job opportunities may be available through Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP). A KTP is a joint project between a graduate, an organisation and a 'knowledge base', such as a university or a research organisation, which allows PhD graduates to apply their research to a commercial environment. The online database allows you to search by knowledge area, including the option to select only those partnerships involved in nanotechnology.
Look for job vacancies at:
Vacancies are also advertised via LinkedIn or on specific company or university websites.
If you're studying for a PhD while being employed in a research post, you will be supported by a supervisor. You're likely to get additional training, which could be offered by the institution or by Vitae, which covers skills to succeed in your PhD and other transferable skills.
If you work at a university you'll typically have access to postdoctoral training during the early stages of your career. Vitae provides resources and advice for researchers, including information about career development.
In industry, most employers will offer you training and support to make sure that you stay up to date with research techniques and new technologies in the field.
You may also attend external training courses on technical developments and will be expected to keep up with developments in your field through independent research. Attending conferences is often expected within the job role.
Continuing professional development (CPD) is important throughout your career and support in this area is provided by Vitae - Professional Development for Researchers. Also consider becoming a member of a professional body, which will demonstrate your commitment to your profession as well as indicating a level of competency in your field. Relevant organisations vary depending on your branch of nanotechnology but may include:
A number of professional bodies have been licensed by the Science Council to award Chartered Scientist (CSci) status to scientists who meet the required standard. For details and a list of licensed organisations, see The Science Council.
Career structures vary with each employer, but career paths tend to be well-defined in all sectors and are dependent on achieving research goals.
Initially, scientists in industry work in hands-on functions to increase knowledge and practical skills. As experience grows, you'll take on greater responsibility for projects and may begin to manage the work of other scientists, before eventually becoming a project manager or technical director (job titles vary between employers).
In academic research, a PhD is usually followed by one or more short-term postdoctoral research contracts of up to three years in length. You may take up advertised positions or apply speculatively to an established scientist you'd like to work with. Position may be based in laboratories worldwide, so a willingness to relocate can be helpful for progression. Academic promotion depends on research achievement, which is measured by the quality and quantity of original papers published. Success in attracting funding will be dependent on the time-consuming process of making funding applications.
Progress is then to a lectureship and ultimately to a professor post with management responsibilities. However, this is only possible if you're successful in securing funding for your own research project and group. Permanent research posts without teaching or administrative responsibilities are rare and highly sought after in academia. You can enhance your progression by developing an international network of people working in the same field.